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Fiction and the Airman’s Mind – Travis Hallen

Air Force needs to embrace the potential of fiction in the development of the minds of its airmen. Not only will it make Professional Military Education and Training slightly more enjoyable, it may also give rise to a career-long engagement with professional development that will serve Air Force far beyond the immediate needs of individual promotion courses.

Let’s face it, Air Force Professional Military Education and Training (PMET) is boring. This is an unfortunate reality, but a reality nonetheless. Part of the reason for the tedium of professional development is an understandable organisational belief in the importance of doctrine, policy, and history in shaping the mind of the professional airman and future leader. Though these are undoubtedly important, excessive focus on them in the development of an airman’s mind has the negative consequence of associating PMET with a form of purgatory; a necessary period of suffering that must be endured before one can attain the pleasures of promotion. Although it is impossible, at least to my mind, to make the majority of airmen delight in the prospect of PMET, it is possible to make it a little more interesting, engaging, and therefore ultimately more bearable. One way this can be done is through the increased use of fiction in the curriculum.

HG Wells's 'The War in the Air' demonstrates the utility of fiction in exploring novel concepts. [Author's tagged copy]

HG Wells’s ‘The War in the Air’ demonstrates the utility of fiction in exploring novel concepts. [Author’s tagged copy]

The use of fiction in education is by no means a novel idea (no pun intended). I’d be surprised if any of the readers of this post didn’t have fond (or perhaps not so fond) memories of the fiction they were required to read throughout their schooling. In my case, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, and The Shiralee seem to have left an indelible imprint on me. But in terms of professional military education, the role of fiction is more contested. Recently The Strategy Bridge reposted an article it had originally published in mid-2015 that looked at the role of Fiction for the Strategist. In that article Diane Maye highlighted three roles for fiction in a strategist’s development: enabling a sense of feeling of others’ experience, providing a tool for social experimentation, and improving the understanding of the complexities of decision making. Maye’s post was itself a response to another blogger’s assertion that ‘in the realm of strategy, fiction is far less wonderful than it is dangerous.’ The recent reinvigoration of this debate led me to contemplate the role fiction plays in the development of the professional airman, something that I have not seen nor heard discussed in any of the forums in which I am engaged. I have come to the conclusion that there currently does not appear to be a place for fiction in Air Force PMET. This must change.

In looking at the role of fiction in air power education I am not limiting myself to the novel format, nor even to the written word. Fiction takes many forms, from short stories, such as those found on The Art of Future Warfare, to multi-episode film series, the ever expanding Star Wars franchise being the exemplar here, and many things in between. Each style of fiction has its own utility in expanding the mind of the consumer, and each consumer has a preference for different formats. It is therefore important when exploring the role of fiction not to default to a position that classic literature is the only useful fiction in educating the mind; requiring junior airmen to read War and Peace would be unlikely to achieve the desired effect of PMET engagement. The selection of the works to be used must therefore balance appeal, accessibility, and educational utility; not an easy balance to find given the scarcity of fiction relating to air power. But this process will be made easier by bearing in mind the effect that fiction is intended to have on an airman’s intellectual development.

Ghost Fleet has become the exemplar of modern military educational fiction [Image Credit:]

Ghost Fleet has become the exemplar of modern military educational fiction [Image Credit:]

I see there being two distinct but related effects that should be explored. The first is educational and aligns with the traditional view of PMET. The best way to explore this effect is through the lens of the PMET themes, the five areas that PMET aims to address at each rank level: communications, military management, air power, leadership, and values and ethics. Although there are some areas that are not conducive to the use of fiction (Defence Financial Management being an excellent example) many are. Well written novels or short stories are excellent tools for improving a person’s communication skills, particularly the quality of their writing; sure we don’t want briefs turned into literature, but this does not mean that Defence writing cannot be improved by some exposure to quality narrative writing. Understanding air power is one area where Air Force has actively embraced fiction. Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War has become the exemplar of military educational fiction due to its examination of the changing character of modern/near-future warfare and its implications for military force development. One of the co-authors, August Cole, was even invited to present at the 2016 Royal Australian Air Force Air Power Conference, where he used his novel as the basis for examining 5th Generation air power concepts.  Similarly, fiction offers a wide array of options to explore concepts of leadership, values, and ethics. Examples here include Ender’s Game (both novel and movie) to explore the many dimensions of leadership and Catch 22 as an interesting medium to explore military values and ethics. These are but a few examples that spring to mind when considering the current PMET construct. A deeper more considered examination of what is available will undoubtedly uncover a wealth of previously underappreciated fiction that could play a role in reshaping the way Air Force develops the minds of its airmen.

This leads me into the second, longer term effect and the one that is more difficult to achieve and quantify; changing the attitude of airmen towards continuous professional development. By getting airmen to engage with interesting material and products that require them to think laterally, PMET may actually encourage a career-long engagement in learning. By this I do not mean creating a generation of bookworms (though that is not necessarily a bad goal to have), but rather by making airmen look deeper into the subtlety of fiction and identify leadership, ethical, military or strategic lessons they develop a skill whereby they may well continue to look for these lessons (consciously or subconsciously) whenever they engage with fiction. This form of continual learning holds benefits for Air Force far beyond the immediate understanding of ever-changing policy and doctrine publications.

In closing, I’d like to open this topic up and draw on the wealth of experience and diversity of perspective among the readership. I invite readers to provide comment on some of the questions raised in the post above, namely:

  1. Does fiction have a role in professional military education?

  2. What are the works of fiction that have contributed to their professional development?

  3. What works could/should be included at the various rank levels within Air Force?

  4. Would fiction indeed make professional military education a more ‘enjoyable’ endeavour?

It is my hope that this post and the discussion it generates will lead Air Force to re-examine its approach to PMET. For PMET to be truly effective it must do more than focus on ensuring airmen read policy and doctrine, it must inspire an engagement with career-long professional development. Increasing the use of fiction in the continuum can go a long way to achieving this. The suggestion here is not that policy and doctrine should be excised from PMET, nor that fiction must play a part in every aspect, both would be unwise, but rather to look beyond the dry texts and embrace the potential that the richer and more entertaining world of fiction offers. If nothing else, fiction holds the potential for airmen engage with their own professional development in a way that policy and doctrine cannot hope to compete. That alone justifies the effort involved in exploring a role for fiction in PMET.

Squadron Leader Travis Hallen is an Air Combat Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. He is also a Sir Richard Williams Foundation Scholar and editor at The Central Blue. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


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