Senator Tommy Tuberville has been busy this year, but he has made time to comment on what he perceives to be the over-prevalence of poetry in the Navy. In his view, this is an indicator that the military is indeed “woke.” What percentage of time sailors should spend on poetry is certainly debatable, but the connection between literary works and war isn’t really debatable at all.
War and literature go well together. The Iliad is an epic poem. It is a Tennyson poem that has kept the fate of the light brigade in the forefront of historical memory. War & Peace is perhaps Tolstoy’s best work. World War I was described by Paul Fussell (himself a WWII veteran) as a “literary war.” From World War I, we got “In Flander’s Fields,” among other great poems. We also got Hemingway. We understand wars in part because of the poems and books written by soldiers. We would be in a worse place without E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
War and literature weren’t only paired in the past, they co-exist in the present and may even be presently collaborating for the future. I just recently learned about The Fourth Age: The Future of Special Operations. It’s “A Short Story Anthology for The Joint Special Operations Community.” While Tuberville and others worry about the military getting too much literature, the working parts of the military industrial complex are actually working with literature. The Fourth Age was published by the Joint Special Operations University and SOCOM and you can download it for free.
Believe it or not, while Congress complains about reading material, Special Ops people put a little faith in fiction. Jack Murphy describes The Fourth Age as “a series of fictional vignettes that are intended to offer challenging new ideas, as well as offer forward the future aspirations that SOCOM has about their future.” The Fourth Age is edited by August Cole and P.W. Singer, the founders of Useful Fiction.
What is Useful Fiction? According to their website, “Useful Fiction™ is a network of creators, thinkers, and artists, who cross the realms of forecasting and communication.” Their product is “the deliberate blending of narrative and nonfiction in packages that range from books and short stories to bespoke illustrations, videos, and graphic novellas.” The big idea is to harness the power of narrative as a tool. They are all about “ideas inspiring action.” Useful Fiction seems to primarily serve the military and military adjacent world, including leadership circles.
According to their own narrative, Useful Fiction began with the co-founders’ co-written novel, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, which sold well and got them invited to speak to many different people. The team was asked to brief its lessons at locations that included the White House Situation Room, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Fortune 500 C-suites and investment leader retreats, and multiple testimonies to Congress, as well as engagements in support of over 75 different Department of Defense and Intelligence Community offices and units like the 82nd Airborne, the Naval Submarine Forces, and Joint Special Operations Command. The book’s insights were subsequently woven into everything from the Marine Corps “Ghost Fleet” wargames and the establishment of the “Marine Information Group” concept to the Navy’s $3.6 billion “Ghost Fleet” autonomous warship program.” Cole and Singer have bottled the power of speculative fiction. They have tapped into its economic potential.
Whatever you think of the concept and practices of Useful Fiction, the founders aren’t wrong that people draw much more from narratives than many other forms of sharing information. Some people love charts and graphs, but no one pays movie ticket prices to see a two-hour long slideshow of charts and graphs. It’s also true that fiction about the future or near-future can play a role in real life. It’s been proven. You can spend thousands of words on what Jules Verne predicted that came true. There’s quite a bit in human history that went from science fiction to reality. Early science fiction didn’t just “predict” possibilities, it also inspired people to experiment and invent.
Even if all literature did was help soldiers process their experiences, it would still be worthwhile. The military should have access to the most powerful weapons available. In terms of ammunition, that won’t mean books and poetry. But it might mean books and poetry when it comes to inspiration and understanding. Soldiers should not be shamed for, or deprived of, what both the literary and leadership worlds see as valuable enough to foster and fund. Rhyming couplets won’t replace other qualifications, but they can be an added strength.
COMING SOON: What does The Fourth Age have to say about things?