Strategists Have Forgotten the Power of Stories

The arts are invaluable to national security policymakers facing an ever-changing future.

A statue of the ancient Greek goddess Athena is illuminated under a full moon in central Athens on July 27, 2018.
A statue of the ancient Greek goddess Athena is illuminated under a full moon in central Athens on July 27, 2018. Aris Messins/AFP via Getty Images

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Two armies faced each other for 10 years without victory in sight. The Trojans, who favored Ares—the god of war, tactics, and brutality—sat behind their walls and endured the siege. But the Greeks, claiming as their patron Athena—the deity for strategy, art, and war—decided that conventional warfighting approaches would not turn the tide in their favor. Through a combination of creativity and disinformation, the Greeks not only built a giant horse filled with soldiers; they managed to convince the Trojans to bring the massive statue through Troy’s gates. As a result, the Greeks bested the Trojans, Athena humiliated Ares, and the whole episode underscored that militarism without strategy and creativity is a losing proposition. The long shadow of the Trojan War reminds us that creative methodologies are essential components of the national security and foreign-policy toolkit. And we will need to use all the tools we can get in order to figure out our way forward while COVID-19 ravages an already complicated world.

In just the past five years—the blink of an eye in strategic terms—China built islands in the South China Sea, put its Uighur population into detention camps, and promulgated its version of 5G technology globally. Russia waged globally disruptive disinformation campaigns as well as proxy wars in Syria and Ukraine. North Korea and the United States grew eerily close to an all-out confrontation over Pyongyang’s burgeoning intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities. The Islamic State rose and in the process helped displace millions of Syrians and Iraqis before it collapsed—for the moment. Iran still wages its hybrid war in the Middle East against the United States and its partners in the Gulf. The challenge of climate change looms. We do not know how these issues will play out, much less how they might intersect and interact with each other, nor how the ramifications of COVID-19 might shake everything to the ground.

Given the vast challenge before us, it is curious that many in Washington seem to be apprehensive about using creative tools to think through contemporary challenges. Unfortunately, Athena appears to be absent; we instead often turn to quantitative analyses to dissect the inherently unquantifiable. With the rise of the behavioral sciences in the 1950s, we learned to prioritize the quantitative toolkit; we calculated battle damage assessments and streamlined defense programs and applauded the efficiencies we created by treating national security problems to rational choice economic analysis. But those same tools proved wholly inappropriate to waging the Vietnam War. Today, we still seem to want to reduce the world to rational, quantifiable problems, but to do that, one needs fixed data. Statecraft is inherently a wicked problem; it is made by living, breathing, unpredictable people, not a Rand spreadsheet. Key information gaps, fogs, and frictions will always exist, and solving one of its effects creates another problem down the road. Rinse, repeat. While quantitative analytic tools can prove useful, as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara painfully discerned, it is dangerous to apply these quantitative tools to problems that cannot be understood or solved through metrics.

Policymaking and statecraft have always been about making choices with imperfect information. One key trick to getting over that perennial conundrum is in the coup d’oeil—the moment of strategic intuition and insight based on imagination, experience, learning, and observation that allows the decision-maker to comprehend his or her situation and determine the best path forward. The coup d’oeil’s absence was arguably what the 9/11 Commission was lamenting when it attributed the U.S. government’s failure to thwart those attacks to a “failure of imagination.” Finely tuned intuitive and creative senses are essential to cultivating the coup d’oeil. This is why we call it the art of war.

Yet strangely, most scholars and practitioners exclusively study histories and think tank reports and technical pieces to guide our decisions. Fiction is a frivolity—unless it’s the scene-setter for a war game. We ask “what is?” instead of “what if?” But humans are arguably hard-wired to need creative tools and stories to access the parts of ourselves that cultivate the coup d’oeil. As Karen Armstrong points out in A Short History of Myth, the ancient Greeks had two primary forms of knowledge: mythos and logos. Logos (“reason, science”) was the pragmatic way of viewing the world. It was forward-looking, problem-solving, always on the lookout to improve understanding of the physical world and how they could better position themselves within that world.

Logos is inherently limited, however. It cannot help us understand how to give our lives meaning or assuage our grief. For that, the Greeks turned to mythos, the sphere of knowledge that allowed them to creatively contemplate their circumstances. The myths, the stories, the tragedies, and the arts informed their understanding of how to be better humans, and how to live a well-lived life, within the world they inhabited. Armstrong writes that both mythos and logos were essential and “neither was considered superior to the other.” They each had their own sphere of competence. This is perhaps why, to the ancient Greeks, the goddess Athena was responsible for translating war into victory; she reminds us that victory is a product of holistic thinking, that it is essential to infuse creativity into decisions of state, and that war itself is an art.

Knowledge without imagination can tell you where you are but not where to go. Harnessing mythos and combining it with logos is therefore critically important. What are we losing—what have we lost?—by prioritizing logos at the expense of mythos? Tackling wicked problems requires unique, multifaceted, and creative approaches—in other words, Athena’s stomping ground. Might we get better policy outcomes if we resurrect Athena and the analytic approach that she represents?

Of course, it’s one thing to say we ought to be more creative and holistic in our thinking. It’s another thing entirely to actually build and explore such methodologically unbound spaces. Luckily, Charles Hill, in Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order, has an answer. He points out that Paul Nitze, one of the leading architects of post-World War II foreign policy, would study Shakespeare in his spare time. The bard’s characters and their circumstances give us space to empathize with their situations, to understand and appreciate their steps and missteps, and to think about how those insights might apply to our own lives and our own strategic circumstances.

All this is why efforts in recent years to use science fiction as a tool for understanding strategy and national security choices are so exciting. Australian Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan is using sci-fi as a tool for designing military education electives. Natasha Bajema is applying her deep subject matter expertise in weapons of mass destruction to her novel writing. Max Brooks’s World War Z is a compelling tool for discussing about pandemics, as is Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers. August Cole and P.W. Singer’s forthcoming book Burn-In explores the implications of artificial intelligence and robotics for national security and society in our not-too-distant future. Alex Finley uses satire to explore bureaucratic craziness in the intelligence community. Steve Leonard and the gang at West Point’s Modern War Institute have been organizing multi-author projects exploring the intersection of sci-fi and defense issues, including the brilliant Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict. (Full disclosure: I wrote one of its chapters.)

These are great starts, but there’s still a lot more to do if we’re going to more meaningfully embrace our creative sides. Sci-fi is proving its utility, but the creative arts more broadly provide useful metaphors for contemplating our strategic circumstances. We need to remember that fiction is not frivolous, as well as the power of creative readings. Hamlet, for example, teaches us the dangers of internal political dithering when existential challenges loom. Hill reminds us that Jane Austen’s Emma provides us a useful metaphor for poor intelligence that is applied poorly. The wicked problems we face are endlessly complicated, but the possibilities for using the arts to better understand these challenges are also limitless. Strategists need to actively cultivate holistic and creative approaches to national security policy if we want to be more like Athena and less like Ares.

Kathleen J. McInnis is the author of The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. All views expressed are solely those of the author

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