Fiction Belongs on
Military Reading Lists

Joe Byerly

Joe Byerly is an armor officer in the U.S. Army, co-founder of the
Military Writers Guild, and Social Media Director for the Defense Entrepreneurs
Forum. He frequently writes about leadership and leader development on his
blog, From the
Green Notebook
. Follow him on Twitter @JByerly81. This
article represents his own opinions, which are not necessarily those of the
Army, the Department of Defense, or the federal government.


since my developmental switch “flipped” a few years ago and the pursuit of
knowledge became a critical aspect of my professional identity as a U.S. Army
officer, I’ve devoured the books on the various reading lists I’ve come across.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize I was doing myself a disservice. My reading was
akin to an unbalanced diet too rich in protein. I was consuming a lot of
nonfiction, while fiction was absent from my plate – a very valuable source of
professional growth.


believe that my unbalanced approach to self-development is reflective of a
larger institutional bias toward non-fiction, which typically includes
biographies, military history or leadership books. With the exception of the
Marine Corps, you will find only two books in the fiction column on the
remaining Service Chiefs’ reading lists: A Message to Garcia and Once an Eagle. The
absence of this genre could be the result of an organizational barrier that
views fiction as entertainment. If folks are taking the time to read, a common
sentiment is that it should be spent on the standard nonfiction canon that
exists on almost every reading list.


a decade of service, I had only read two fiction books for development: Gates of Fireand Once
an Eagle
. Things changed late last year, when Colonel (ret) Jim Greer, a mentor,
recommended that I start reading fiction for professional growth. He wrote,
“You’ll find as you go forward that the problems you confront and the things
you are asked to do require an education and understanding that is more broad
than deep.”


not the only one who has adopted this outlook on fiction’s importance in
professional development. As General Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, writes in his forward to War
Stories from the Future
, a science-fiction anthology published by
the Atlantic Council’s Art of
Future Warfare project


provoking us to free our minds of constraint and convention, worthy science
fiction allows us to create a mental laboratory of sorts. In this place, we can
consider new problems we might soon face or contemplate novel ways to address
old problems. It sparks the imagination, engenders flexible thinking, and
invites us to explore challenges and opportunities we might otherwise overlook.


(ret) Jim Stavridis, another senior leader worth emulating, said that reading fiction helped him throughout
his career to better understand the human condition. In fact, his literary
intake is 80% fiction and 20% nonfiction. His June 2015 article in Foreign Policy argues that we can learn
more about Putin’s mindset from Russian fiction more so than intel reports or
other non-fiction sources. It was his presentation at the Naval War College
that introduced me to Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the
Next World War
 and The
, two of the best books I’ve read this year.


up a piece of classic literature, historical fiction, or science fiction is an
exciting way to introduce ourselves to new and abstract concepts. My friend Diane Maye even suggests that reading fiction can help us better
understand decision-making from multiple perspectives in chaotic situations.
Reading George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones may
help generate a different perspective on geopolitics in
Europe or the Middle East. Robert Heinlein’s Starship
 might shape our thoughts on national service. James
Webb’s Fields of Fire can
teach us about small-unit leadership. And John Hershey’s A Bell for Adano gives us insight into the
problems of soldiers taking on governance in post-

conflict operations.


fiction helps us better retain what we learn. A good story causes our brains to
produce imagery and emotion that aide in the “stickiness” of the lessons. In
their book, Made to Stick, the Heath
Brothers, argue that stories are like flight simulators for the brain. When we
read stories, are minds simulate the events that unfold on the pages of the
book. We empathize with the characters; we feel anger, sadness, and
joy-emotions, which attach themselves to the lessons we glean, helping us to
recall them later. I can still vividly remember one of the key battles in
Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, and
the speech Leonidas gave to his Spartans when the dust settled. It was an
emotional scene and the lessons I pulled from it remain with me a decade later.
His words shaped how I make the transition from husband and father to Soldier
and back again during deployments and homecomings.


if our officially published professional military reading lists continue to
exclude fiction, I encourage leaders to expand their professional libraries to
encompass not just books on Pericles, George Patton, or Hal Moore, but also
Achilles (Illiad), Robert
Jordan (For Whom the Bell Tolls),
and Ivy Xiao (Seveneves).


the end, war is a human problem and there is no better reflection of the human
condition than the stories we tell.


is a list of fiction that should be considered for professional reading:



The Classics:

  1. The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  3. 1984 by George Orwell
  4. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  5. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
  6. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  7. All Quiet on the Western
     by Erich Maria
  8. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Modern Fiction:

  1. A Bell for Adano by John Hersey
  2. Fields of Fire by James Webb
  3. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (with What it is Like to Go to
    War, non-fiction
  4. Song of Ice and Fire (series) by George R.R. Martin
  5. The Circle by Dave Eggers
  6. I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them by Jesse Goolsby
  7. Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman

Science Fiction:

  1. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  2. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
  3. The Peripheral by William Gibson
  4. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
  5. Ghost Fleet: A Novel of
    the Next World War
     by Singer and Cole
  6. War Stories from the
     by the Atlantic
    Council Art of Future Warfare Project
  7. The Profession by Steven Pressfield
  8. Three-body Problem by Liu Cixin
  9. The Player of Games by Ian M. Banks
  10. Dune by Frank Herbert

Historic Fiction:

  1. Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
  2. Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield
  3. The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield
  4. The Story of the Malakand
    Field Force
     by Winston Churchill