Monday, July 13, 2015

Civil discussion of strategy and fiction

A very civilized discussion going on in military reading circles. First, Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Bazin writes a post, What Successful Strategists Read. Just over forty military strategists, in talking about books, end up sharing with one another the books they thought most important to them as strategists and as readers. The full list is here. There is no argumentative claim about the value of these books other than that 43 strategists found them meaningful to them as readers and as strategists.

Nearly half of the identified books were fiction.

This elicited a closely reasoned critique, Fiction and the Strategist by T. Greer.
The implication of all this is that one should choose carefully what one reads. This is especially true with works of fiction, whose events and characters are decided by the demands of narrative art, not the connections between cause and effect operative in the real world. The strategist must act in the world of the living, and there is no guarantee that interpretive frames built upon fictions will do him or her any good in it. In many contexts fiction is wonderful--but in the realm of strategy, fiction is far less wonderful than it is dangerous.
Storylines are created by the author to manipulate the emotions and perceptions of the audience.


The problem with using Ender's Battle Room scenes to teach or inspire the "think outside of the box" attitude real strategists might need is that Ender's Game does not provide a realistic model for how maverick solutions are actually created or implemented. Card's model is designed to convince readers that Ender is a strategic prodigy, not demonstrate how prodigious strategy is actually created and used. The events and characters of the novel are literary devices and expedients whose purpose is compelling narrative. It is dangerous to try and pull out of such obvious artifice patterns or lessons that explain the workings of the real world.


Strategic theory is in essence a theory of decision making. What Boyd understood is that decisions are made in reference to the knowledge we have about the world and the narratives we use to make this knowledge cohere. A strategic actor oriented around incorrect narratives or ideas (or a strategic actor which cannot update these ideas to match changing conditions) faces a severe disadvantage in competitive environments like international relations or war. My concern is that too many of the models and ideas we use to orient ourselves are complete fictions.

Some genres are worse in this regard than others. Fantasy and science fiction ("speculative fiction") seem to be the worse offenders here, for they are the genres least tethered to reality. In these genres the presentation of politics and historical change have no restraints outside of the whims of the authors and tastes of the audience. In such novels the flow of politics and war are slaves to narrative art, and their role in the story is to manipulate the perceptions and emotions of the audience so that the author can make his or her selected themes resonate as powerfully as possible. These books are usually entertaining, often thought provoking, and occasionally are even edifying, but they are suspect sources for understanding how and why strategic actors interact as they do.
It is a worthwhile essay to read with many good points.

But Greer's discussion in turn elicited Fiction for the Strategist by Diane Maye who argues that there is a place for Fiction at the strategic table. Refreshingly, she does not make her case on the unfounded claim that reading fiction makes you more aware of other people and how they think.

Instead, she argues:
Great fiction can do many things. For strategists, I think there are three very important areas where fiction plays a role. First, great fiction can give you a feeling. It is not likely any of us will ever be in the position that many of our great war heroes were in. However, we can learn from understanding how they felt. Second, great fiction can be looked as a social experiment. Its difficult (if not impossible) to conduct social experiments on humans, its unethical and unrealistic. But fiction gives us an alternative to this predicament — and the best fiction has elements that ring so true it seems as though the experiment was actually carried out. Finally, the very best fiction can illustrate the complexities of decision-making in a chaotic and uncertain world. Fiction gives readers a chance to understand decision-making from many points of view.
I think all three points have some merit though do not outweigh Greer's argument.

This strikes me as a permutation of the great contest between Bacon and Descartes with Greer arguing that theory is fine but we need to know the facts and the context for decision-making. Maye is instead arguing something slightly different which is that fiction theoretically can provide insights. I think that Greer's argument trumps Maye's. Part of what Greer is focusing on is that decision-making in time and resource constrained circumstances with uncertain knowledge is challenging and that we can learn more from looking at models where people have actually made such decisions under such constraints than we can learn from fiction where the authors are working their narrative to a different purpose. I think Maye has an non-explicit argument which is that fiction can serve as a speculative prompt which has an important role. Decision-making isn't just about plugging data into a formula. It entails speculation about chains of causation as well as scenario planning.

Ultimately, I think Greer and Maye both have sound points, just towards different ends.

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