My commuter train to London feels, at times, like a locker room on rails. Men in suits and undone ties in a plume of cologne. Made up faces are finished, inboxes are emptied, and, in the corner, someone catches a few minutes more of sleep. Set to the smell of train station pastry, everyone readies themselves for their day. As part of my own preparation, I warm myself up with some fiction. The national security community needs fiction. I don’t mean the yellowcake from Niger kind of fiction. Rather, national security policy would be for the better if we all started off our day with a good book, a short story, or something poetic.
Fiction is an extended exercise in empathy. Empathy brings understanding of another’s behavior, enabling the space for trust to flourish. And trust is required for necessary cooperation on complex issues like nuclear arms control, cybersecurity, and countering online disinformation. Books about strange people and their strange decisions provide insight into the internal lives of others different from ourselves. Red-teaming and war-gaming attempt to gain similar insight in order to anticipate the behavior of adversaries, but often these exercises are shaped by our preconceptions. Implicit biases around race, national identity, economics, and personal power relations cloud our interpretation of others’ behavior. Studies have found that reading even short fiction passages positively affects our social abilities, including our ability to empathize. Reading widely, about lives different from our own, can provide the opportunity for us to unclog some of these preconceptions and begin to imagine what really drives the behavior of others. This understanding is useful whether we are working with rogue states to roll back their nuclear programs, or merely with another agency to create sensible foreign direct investment policies.
Red-teaming and war-gaming attempt to gain similar insight in order to anticipate the behavior of adversaries, but often these exercises are shaped by our preconceptions.
At the same time, fiction can provide a safe venue to embarrass and question conventional wisdom. Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Doctor Strangelove’ took mutually assured destruction out of is technostrategic box and performed it in a cinematic theatre of the absurd. Meanwhile, literature like Catch-22 highlights the frequent ridiculousness of war; its titular ‘catch-22’ demonstrates a central theme of the novel: how bureaucracy can accentuate war’s common futility. We approach fiction with a more open mind than we do the literature of our professional lives, where part of the reason we are employed is our pre-existing knowledge of a topic. Through irony, non-linear narratives, humor, and other literary techniques, fiction encourages us to abandon what we think to be true and envisage how things might or can be.
Finally, speculative fiction can remind us of the seriousness of the challenges we deal with in national security. The classic American television film “The Day After” considered the horrific aftermath of a nuclear attack. More recently, Jeffrey Lewis’s 2020 Commission considered the ramifications of US war with North Korea. Speculative fiction where things go wrong underscores the importance of national security work. Carol Kohn classically explored how technostrategic language often struggles to convey the human cost of nuclear failures. Fiction writing doesn’t suffer this insufficiency – it is one of the richest tools we have to capture the full human experience, including the experiences of people affected by bad policy. Exploring the possible effects of our failures through fiction is one of the best ways to underscore the importance of smart and just national security decision-making.
As my train pulls into Paddington, I cram myself into a tin can tube carriage, confronted by London rush hour. I attempt to recall the lessons of originality, empathy, and solemnity my previous hour of fiction reading taught me. Bearing these in mind, as we arrive to my station, I apologetically untuck my head from my neighbor’s armpit, disembark, and vow to take the bus next time instead.
Niamh Healy is a Researcher at Ridgeway Information focusing on non-proliferation in East Asia. Her DMs are always open to book recs.