To Prepare for a Crisis, Read Fiction

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Fiction and policy too rarely mix. The learned policymaker reads reports and journal articles, books and research papers, all aimed at injecting the highest-quality thinking into key judgments. These inputs — even the inevitable classics — are almost relentlessly nonfiction. In my own field of national security, one turns often to Thucydides and Hobbes, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, Waltz and Kissinger. It’s far less common to see those soaked in foreign policy or economics or health spend time with Tolstoy or Dickens, Mishima or Achebe, Marilynne Robinson or Michael Chabon.

Today’s global crisis demonstrates why they should. As policymakers make hurried judgments with vast, life-altering consequences, they draw on a stock of intellectual capital assembled over decades. Every discipline — psychology, economics, biology, history — examines the world through a particular prism. Yet only fiction invites us inside the minds of others, transports us across time and place, and produces in us a kind of experience we could otherwise never attain. By enmeshing us in its characters and stories, reading fiction helps policymakers better understand the human condition, and more ably fashion responses to it.



The military has long understood this. The Marine Corps commandant each year issues a reading list for personnel at every rank. This year’s list includes not only novels one might expect, like All Quiet on the Western Front and The Killer Angels, but also Ender’s Game and Ready Player One. James Stavridis, a retired admiral and former supreme allied commander, describes fiction not only as a sanctuary in a violent world but also the opposite, “a kind of simulator where you imagine what you would do in a stressful, dangerous situation.” Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote that fiction creates “a mental laboratory” that “invites us to explore challenges and opportunities we might otherwise overlook.”

It does this and more. Novels hone powers of observation and insight. They increase mental flexibility and help policymakers anticipate situations. They illuminate other mindsets, cultures, places, and times. The best ones induce a sense of empathy in their readers, and they help render policy approaches more effective and more humane.

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As the coronavirus pandemic began, Eliot Cohen, the dean of Johns Hopkins’ school of international affairs, wrote about the literature of plague. Noting the clamor for rational, technocratic responses to a biological scourge, Cohen drew on Poe and Camus to illuminate other dimensions. A reliance on evidence, reason, and hard science is, of course, necessary and right. But the policymaker in crisis needs to go beyond statistics and models to understand, in Cohen’s words, “the logic of fear and dread that is also part of an epidemic.” That logic, he added, “is ignored at our peril.”

The logic would be clear to readers of The Plague. In Albert Camus’ telling, pandemic produces not just panic but also a yearning for the quotidian — an echo, perhaps, of today’s resistance to social distancing. Father Paneloux sermonizes against the sins of humanity, portraying the plague as brimstone sent from heaven to punish. Cottard turns to smuggling, hoping the crisis will endure indefinitely. Citizens put on their Sunday best to attend the theater and carry on their old rounds. And Dr. Rieux daily risks infection by treating the afflicted, not because he’s heroic but because he’s a doctor, and that’s what doctors do. Like today’s nurses, grocery store workers, and delivery personnel, he rose to the job that needed doing.

Fiction expands one’s mental horizons, and poor policy too often stems from narrow ones.

Take science fiction, which, unusually, is a popular genre among visionary defense policy thinkers. Neuromancer showed readers the possibilities of artificial intelligence and simulated reality as long ago as 1984. Asimov’s Foundation series, with Hari Seldon’s theory of “psychohistory,” anticipated big data analysis two decades before that. More recently, Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy has made the rounds. These and other tales invite us to imagine the as yet unimaginable.

An entire field of intelligence analysis is devoted to scenario planning — an obvious focus of those who ask how the coronavirus pandemic caught so many policymakers flat-footed. The goal is to enhance policymakers’ mental flexibility by having them consider detailed, alternate possibilities and the potential responses to them. Novels do just that, often in a more detailed and compelling way than most analytical exercises ever could.

They also admit us directly into the thoughts of another. Via fiction we see into the minds of healers, like Dr. Rieux; those of the dying, as with Ivan Ilyich; or even the deceased, like Addie in As I Lay Dying. Billy, in Slaughterhouse-Five, conveys a sense of post-traumatic stress disorder. Claudius, in Robert Graves’ work, oscillates between ultimate power and everyday minutiae. Salman Rushdie, in Midnight’s Children, allows us to witness the ruminations of those living through political upheaval, while Haruki Murakami invites readers into a hallucinogenic world of utter weirdness.

In taking such literary journeys, policymakers can better appreciate — and thus diagnose — the human condition. Novels will never supply all the solutions, any more than nonfiction does, and may not provide any of them. But they can prompt leaders to ask better questions about the contours of existence, and derive more finely tuned responses to them.

Soren Kierkegaard famously wrote that when all innovations in his time — railways, steamboats, the telegraph — aimed at making life easier, he chose to make it more difficult. The best novels similarly render life more complicated rather than simpler. The policymaker makes decisions with imperfect information, in situations of uncertainty, with unpredictable and potentially grave consequences. They must bring to this challenge an openness to the world in all of its difficult complexity.

Key to it all is the sense of empathy that fiction can help breed. Policy often abstracts away from the individual lives touched by it, and policymakers are in constant danger of rendering judgments from a cloistered existence. And yet policy affects humans, directly and profoundly. It must be humane, and the mental habits formed by reading fiction can prepare policymakers to respond empathetically. Never is this more important than during a society-upending calamity like today’s pandemic.

What should policymakers do in a viral crisis? Much of fiction suggests they do as all other citizens should, which is to say: what they can. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf showed meaning is carried not just by grand pronouncements and sweeping changes, but also by “little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.” Today a million daily miracles matter.

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The responsibility to respond amid crisis goes beyond policymakers, of course, to every healthy citizen. And here too fiction is instructive.

In the Icelandic masterpiece Independent People, the oft-broken farmer Bjartur walks scores of miles through the countryside with his adult daughter Asta Sollija. Herself broken, humiliated, tired, and ill, she stops, unable to go any farther. She is quite literally at her end. Bjartur turns to Asta, picks her up, and carries her on his back as they together hobble to a new home. He does what he can.

Therein lay a match struck in the dark. At a time of closed cities, spreading fear, and social distancing, everyone — policymakers and everyone else — has someone to help carry.



Richard Fontaine is chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.

Image: Pixabay