Fiction and the Strategist

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

When the moment of decision arrives the time for study and reflection has ended, T. Greer reminds us:

Decisions made under pressure often rely on heuristics, assumptions, and interpretive frames formed long before crisis arrives. Some of these are created through personal experience; others are gifts of genetic inheritance. But a large part of our inner model of the world and its workings comes from what we have read. This is why the strategist should read. Books allow strategists to learn the painful lessons of defeat without the sort of destruction that usually attends it, provide the conceptual tools needed to make sense of a complex world, and helps strategists spot patterns and trends that they might be able to leverage to their own benefit. But — and this is an important but — this is only true if the lessons, ideas, and narratives incorporated into their model of the world are themselves accurate depictions of reality. The fruits of false assumptions about human motivation, war, or politics incorporated in the worldview of the strategist are disaster.

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.

T. Greer is particularly concerned about Ender’s Game and its high place on a recent strategy reading list:

Ender’s Game is not a realistic depiction of politics and war. It was never designed to be. This is because its subject is not strategy, but ethics. Orson Scott Card believes that morality is not found in consequences of our actions, but in the intentions that lead us to act in the first place.


That is my case against Ender’s Game in a nut-shell, though I can understand why some of its other themes might make it popular with professional strategists. This is particularly true for the folks who first read the book shortly after it was first published. In a culture enamored with “disruptive innovation” and obsessed with “thinking outside of the box” it is easy to forget that these concepts are relatively new ideas. Ender’s “the enemy gate is down” preceded both by two decades. A strategist should have something of a maverick mentality, and Ender’s Game seems like a perfect case study in the art.

The problem is that it is nothing of the sort.


It is important to remember here the reason Card needs Ender to be a tactical genius is not because he wants to teach us enduring lessons about zero gravity combat tactics, but because the premise of his novel calls for an innocent but unparalleled genius to be its protagonist. The Battle School does not exist to teach readers universal principles of strategy, politics, or leadership, but to demonstrate the in-universe brilliance of Ender Wiggin. This point can be generalized to all of the ideas, events, and characters of the novel — indeed, to all novels. Storylines are created by the author to manipulate the emotions and perceptions of the audience. This is true for even simple plot points like Ender’s maverick tag-line, “the enemy’s gate is down”.

Read the whole thing.


  1. Mike in Boston says:

    Decisions made under pressure often rely on heuristics, assumptions, and interpretive frames formed long before crisis arrives.

    This is so true that you can’t even call them “decisions” in some cases. One night I was speeding past my place of employment, doing at least twice the limit, when I saw the blue lights a few hundred yards back down the empty road. I made a tire-squealing turn and within about fifteen seconds had the car parked in an underground garage and myself in the building behind an employee-badge reader, scot-free. Then I sized up what I had just done.

    Although things went perfectly, I’d never have consciously chosen that course of action.

Leave a Reply