After more than a decade of wars triggered by the attacks of September 11th, 2001, it is time for a new conversation—one that asks serious questions and welcomes a wide array of serious opinions—on how the United States formulates and executes its national security strategy. To address the implications of these and countless other issues, the Armed Forces Committee at the Harvard Kennedy School has established the Values and National Security Project. This is the second article in an ongoing series seeking to promote dialogue on the early 21st century security paradigm. Read the first here.


News reached the Church in Rome. Christovao Ferreira, sent to Japan by the Society of Jesus in Portugal, after undergoing the torture of ‘the pit’ at Nagasaki had apostatized. An experienced missionary held in the highest respect, he had spent thirty three years in Japan, had occupied the highest position of provincial and had been the source of inspiration to priests and faithful alike. -Silence, Shusaku Endo

Most worthwhile literature discusses power in some way: the struggle for it, the desperation to maintain it, its inevitable abuses, the way it profoundly affects individuals and their choices. Armed conflict is also obviously and fundamentally “about” power—not merely in the geopolitical sense (for an understanding of which, one is well-served to turn to Clausewitz and Morgenthau)—but also in the personal and social ones. It is in these latter senses, in the places where wars and insurgencies are fought; where government officials enforce policies upon those who resist; where combatants, bureaucrats, victims, opportunists, and criminals interact, that literature’s exposition of power can be especially enlightening.

In the age of asymmetrical warfare, foreign internal defense, and homeland security, the full continuum of conflict and security is worth examination, and literature offers no small amount of insight. Shusaku Endo’s Silence, for instance, revolves around the plight of Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan, where government authorities sought to purge their island nation of any vestige of Christianity. In this way, it is quite comparable to Graham Greene’s seminal work The Power and the Glory, in which Marxist paramilitary officials doggedly hunt down a nameless priest in the Mexican countryside of the 1930’s. Both novels present government figures of strikingly similar mind: in each case, they show no ability to separate their contempt for the religions they seek to eliminate from the threat to government control posed by those religions. Pride, hate, and faith—not coherent policies—are the driving forces on the ground, with devastating and unforgettable consequences. Silence describes the Japanese authorities’ torture of villagers in front of priests as a favored method to make the clerics renounce their beliefs, while Greene’s Mexican officials forgo the pursuit of a dangerous murderer in order to track down the novel’s religious protagonist.

Just as there are literary examples of personal enmities driving those in power, so too are there examples of such motivations inspiring those who fight against the establishment. A striking example of this can be found in Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, a fictionalized account of (among other things) the 1961 assassination of Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo. The cast of characters responsible for the killing are each contextualized by their own backstories—backstories that are not primarily characterized by political motivations or high-minded desires to ensure a better future for the Dominican Republic; rather, each assassin has a story of some deep and personal slight, insult, or betrayal perpetrated by Trujillo. Each killer, that is, is shown in the novel to be complex and emotional in a manner that a non-fiction history would be unable to convey.

In a similar way, John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down explores the personal aspects of military occupation—of the inevitably strained, difficult, and violent relationship between conquerors and conquered. Centering on the Nazi occupation of a fictional Scandinavian town (the army and the town are never actually named, but they are quite obvious to identify given the historical context), the novel is carried forward by intertwining stories of psychological distress, anger, pride, and fear. A townsman murders a soldier in a rage and is subsequently executed; his wife later seduces an officer into her home and kills him; the occupiers slowly deteriorate into nervous and angry shells of humanity, while the townspeople harden in their hatred: “the men of the battalion came to detest the place they had conquered…and gradually a little fear began to grow in the conquerors, a fear that it would never be over...for the conquered never relaxed their hatred”. Heinrich Boll’s Billiards at Half Past Nine likewise delves into a war’s profound psychological impacts, as a German officer in World War II demolishes an abbey that had been built by his own father years before. The demolition is not a tactical measure, but rather the act of a man struggling with the manner in which so many authorities—not least of which his government—had let him down.

Perhaps no other author’s works, though, deal so deeply with the confusion of the personal and emotional with the political and tactical as those of Graham Greene. From the pity shown to a smuggler by a customs-enforcing colonial West African policeman (The Heart of the Matter), to the self-interested machinations of an amateur spy in Cuba (Our Man in Havana), to the fearful and confused actions of people trying to get by in Papa Doc’s Haiti (The Comedians), Greene’s stories consistently concentrate on the internal struggles that individuals experience during external conflicts. To read Greene is to occupy the place of those haunted by betrayal, confused by violence, corrupted by power—all against the backdrop of the seemingly inexorable progress of politics and conflict.

But politics and conflict are not unalterable; they are driven, sometimes overwhelmingly so, by the decisions of those in positions of great power and responsibility. This is why literature can and should occupy a prominent place in the study of war and security: a story wrought by a master like Endo, Steinbeck, or Greene can, in a wholly unique way, occupy a place in one’s memory, one’s heart, and one’s intellect—can indeed make a national security decision-maker more attuned to the nuances and complexities of power, force, and resistance.

Kevin Duffy is a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Coast Guard, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group, a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the Chairman of the Kennedy School’s Values and National Security Project.

Photo: Chris (cc).

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.