Strategy and Mental Health

To do good work on national strategy almost demands a rotund intellect, a well-rounded personality. He whose vocation it is to work on these issues of war and peace cannot suffer from intellectual poverty. His soul must be in harmony with this world of ours. He must not only appreciate different cultures and good art, but also find nourishment in things that are beautiful and be endowed with a sense of humor. He might have, perhaps, an eye for architecture or painting, an ear for the best music; he must have a broad understanding of philosophy, literature, and, of course, history. And – why not? – let me have men about me that are sophisticated epicures.

— Fred Charles Iklé

One of the worst things that could happen to anyone is to become so captured by their profession, so obsessed with their trade, so focused on their work, that they lose sight of everything else, and thus also, lose their understanding of context; how their work relates to the rest of the world. This can lead to “burnout,” which everyone has suffered at one time or another. But in the realm of strategy, national security policy, and war, it can be dangerous. When someone loses an understanding of context – be it due to an overzealous commitment to their work, lack of time to pursue other interests, or simple intellectual laziness – they also lose their imagination and conceptual power…they become mired in ways that are familiar to them…they lose their ability to cope with complex problems. In matters of war and peace, this is unacceptable, for this sphere above all others demands creative thinking. Failure can mean more than just burnout; it can mean defeat and misery for all. 

Personally, I’ve noticed that if I read no fiction whatsoever, my own imagination begins to fail and my writing skills begin to atrophy. Thus, though I’m usually reading 3 or 4 different books during any one period of time, one is usually fiction of some sort and another is on a topic I’m interested in but unrelated to whatever I’m working on at the moment. I’ve found that “realistic” fiction (such as political thrillers, techno-thrillers, Tom Clancy, historical fiction, etc.) is far less effective in stimulating the mind than literature that involves well-developed alternate universes, usually in the fantasy and science fiction genres. In particular, I’m a big fan of JRR Tolkien’s work (who isn’t?) and to a lesser extent the Dune series (which has the unfortunate tendency to lapse into psychobabble and shamanistic nonsense). By completely removing the reader from the confines of the real world, science fiction and fantasy can break down mental barriers and – though I hate this cliche – help people think outside the box. 

But that’s just what I’ve found effective for myself; others will have different opinions. What is important is that those who are charged with the issues of war and peace – be they politicians, bureaucrats, military officers, academics – owe it to themselves and to the country that they keep their mind healthy so that they can perform their duties effectively. Admittedly, it’s tough (nigh impossible) for an infantry captain in Iraq to find the spare time to explore the folds of his own intellect. That is why I believe a liberal arts education is so important for military officers, especially those commissioned through an academy. Even a few minutes per day on a hobby unrelated to their profession (as long as it isn’t pop-culture, which corrodes intelligence faster than a meth addiction) can sharpen the mind and improve the efficiency of abstract thought.

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