“Breadth of Thought and Loftiness of Spirit”: Mahan, Literature, and Military Reading Lists


Our military officers tend to be technically minded. This is especially the case in the Navy, but also true of the other services. From early debates over whether it was appropriate for a midshipman to be educated on shore at an academy instead of at sea where “practical” lessons could be learned, to the decade-long struggle over the founding of the Naval War College in Newport, to the modern-day dominance of STEM education in the preparation of naval officers, study of the humanities has been frequently treated as a “nice to have” rather than a professional necessity. This is particularly true when it comes to reading and thinking about fiction and literature.

Joe Byerly’s recent article at the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare Project calling for the addition of more fiction into professional reading lists poses an intellectual challenge to the more technically inclined officers and enlisted in our profession of arms. But it is a call that should be heeded. The Art of Future Warfare’s embrace of science fiction, and “wargame” or “scenario” style novels like Ghost Fleet, is a helpful way to bridge the divide by attracting professionals with tech-themed books and stories. However, there are greater reasons to increase our consumption of literature. Warfighting is as much about the human as it is about the technical and the machine.

National security depends on leadership. And leadership is about the interaction between humans and their ability to communicate with one another. A key factor rarely discussed in leadership training, whether military or civilian, is the role of empathy and sympathy in that process. A leader’s ability to place themselves in their subordinate’s shoes, and to understand how they view things and what challenges them, is central to successfully motivating and leading. It is the same when considering a potential adversary. Recent studies by social psychologists have shown that reading fiction, specifically literary fiction, increases a person’s empathy. It increases the ability to determine someone else’s motivations and goals. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. A great strength of fiction, and what draws most readers to it, is the opportunity to get into the minds and experiences of the characters. This is applicable to leaders from across the spectrum of professions.

In 1879, the great naval strategist and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote about this very subject in an essay he composed for the U.S. Naval Institute’s General Prize Essay Contest (a contest that continues today). At the time, however, Mahan was not yet a “great man” of history. Instead, he was a mid-grade officer teaching in the Gunnery Department at Annapolis. His essay “Naval Education” was the first piece of writing that he ever published. In it, he laid out a new view for the education he thought should be offered at Annapolis, moving away from the curriculum dominated by the technical and engineering courses then in place. He explicitly championed the value of increased study in history and the humanities.

Mahan is well known for his use of history. However, in 1879 he wrote about much more than the importance of studying the past, and also focused a section of his essay on literature and fiction. He wrote:

If I be asked in my own words, how the English studies or aquirements [sic] of foreign languages help a man handle and fight his ship, I will reply that a taste for these two pursuits tends to give breadth of thought and loftiness of spirit. … The ennobling effect of such pursuits upon the sentiment and intellect of the seaman helps, I think, to develop a generous pride, a devotion to lofty ideals, which cannot fail to have a beneficial effect upon a profession.

Commander Mahan felt being a combat officer was about much more than simply mastering the technology involved. In fact, knowing the technology, or how his “ship is equipped” and “knowledge of her powers” as he put it, was the very bare minimum and the foundation upon which the responsibility of leadership stood. The responsibility and ability built upward from the foundation was based in “moral character,” and a young officer’s character was built through a broad study that included reading literature and history.

Yet it wasn’t only officers who benefited from engaging with fiction or literature, and by consuming their share of books. Mahan also wrote that forming a reading list for enlisted sailors was vital to improving their own performance and service. He recommended historical and professional reading, but he also recognized sailors liked to read novels, something with a story that could draw them in. He suggested officers help them develop their interests and tastes in the literary form. This idea was seconded years later by Adm. William Sims when he wrote that in working with their subordinates, officers should “help them in anything they want to study.”

Fiction and literature have earned a place on our professional reading lists not only because they help us envision the technology of tomorrow, but also because they help us understand people today. By learning to see the world through someone else’s eyes, we not only become better leaders of today’s women and men in uniform, but we also have the potential to better understand our enemy. Whether those eyes are Joshua Chamberlain’s in The Killer Angels, Conner Stark’s in Syren’s Song, or Ender Wiggin’s in Ender’s Game, they can offer a new view of the past, present, or future. This is a lesson many of the leaders of the past recognized and more leaders of the future should embrace.


BJ Armstrong is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an active duty U.S. Navy officer who is reading for his PhD in War Studies with King’s College, London. He has served as a search and rescue and naval special warfare helicopter pilot, the Officer-in-Charge of an amphibious helicopter gunship detachment, and in the Pentagon as a strategic analyst and staff officer. His book “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era,” on the writing and thinking of Alfred Thayer Mahan, was published in 2013. This article represents his own opinions, which are not necessarily those of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.


Photo credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class John Suits, U.S. Navy