civ mil rels

Teaching Civil-Military Relations: Top Fiction Readings/Films?

Dear Readers, although I am the quintessential bureaucrat (Balzac is my middle name, after all), I also dabble in teaching from time to time.  I am looking to refresh a course on civil-military relations and, as part of that process, to spruce up the fictional offerings with which I pepper my syllabus.  So, given that crowdsourcing is the new analogue for wisdom, I am seeking your suggestions.

Of course, there are the usual canonical choices. For books, there are Starship Troopers and 1984.  For films there is Dr. Strangelove.   I am not looking at ‘war’ more generally (Christopher Coker’s wonderful new book Men at War from Hurst ploughs this fertile ground with effortless aplomb); I very much want to focus on allowing students to examine civil-military relations in an applied setting, albeit a fictional one.  The works can highlight the relationship between the political executive and the military and/or between the military and society.  While I am sure there will be a number of pieces set in America, other milieux would be more than welcome.  Past, present, future; literal, allegorical…bring them on!


24 thoughts on “Teaching Civil-Military Relations: Top Fiction Readings/Films?

  1. Two movies that might be of interest are Taps and An Officer and a Gentleman. In addition to incredible casts and performances, both provide compelling portrayals of the relationship between military institutions — and their martial ethics — and the surrounding civilian communities in post-Vietnam War America.

  2. Cyrus says:

    Elite Squad 1 & 2 — Technically it’s a civil-police relationship but they’re both excellent in different ways. The first is more about society and the drug war (it even has classroom scenes), the second about political corruption.

    The Battle of Algiers, simply for the scene with the journalists.

    Aftermath, a novel by Hans Habe, about Americans and Germans trying to deal with the fallout of Nazism in Occupied Germany. It’s not perfect but it throws up lots of interesting questions.

    Bhowani Junction, Thunder at Sunset, and pretty much all of John Master’s other novels about decolonisation. They’re all about the tensions between what the military is allowed to do by its political masters and what the (ex) colonial population wants/needs.

    Three’s Company, by Alfred Duggan, about Lepidus and the Triumverate. It sounds a strange pick but it’s actually all about how war changes society, in this case the way in which the Republic becomes the Empire. It’s also quite funny.

  3. Jill Sargent Russell says:

    Short and sharp is Charles Dunlap’s article in Parameters, The Origins of the Military Coup of 2012. Nothing like when it all goes terribly wrong. The movie Southern Comfort might offer something interesting on the dynamic of the relationship between soldiers and locals.

  4. Fankoosh says:

    A Few Good Men
    Pentagon Wars
    The Seige
    Seven Days in May
    GI Jane
    Thirteen Days (mostly non-fiction, but dramatized)
    Duck Soup

    Red Storm Rising
    Seven Days in May

  5. davidbfpo says:

    I would commend a 1968 novel, it is quirky as the title suggests: ‘The Man Who Held the Queen to Ransom and Sent Parliament Packing’ by Peter Van Greenaway.

    It is apparently available still:

    From the author’s Wiki entry: ‘a British army captain stages a coup d’état in the United Kingdom; the government he attempts to establish is seen as more democratic and far more benign than the establishment he (temporarily) overthrows’.

    How about the 2005 film ‘V for Vendetta’, which remains iconic for some due to use of the masks? From IMDB: ‘In a future British tyranny, a shadowy freedom fighter plots to overthrow it with the help of a young woman’. It is entertaining, if slightly odd and has marvelous fireworks at the end.

  6. David Betz says:

    Top reads:

    The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek.

    Royal Flash by George Macdonald Fraser.

    More seriously:

    War Diaries, 1939-1945 by Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke.

  7. Cincinnatus jr. says:

    While not fictional (more’s the pity), the disgraceful way that politicians (led by the reptilian Cheney) excluded the several judge advocates general of each of the US military services regarding the “justification” for torturing prisoners at Guantanamo and other environs is worthy of close study. See for example, the courageous article by USAF BG (select) Lisa Turner’s article “The Detainee Interrogation Debate and the Legal-Policy Process.”‎

  8. Chris Mullin’s ‘A Very British Coup’ might be a useful addition. It isn’t concerned with the military so much as the civil service, but it nicely shows the ways in which a supposedly subordinate bureaucracy can undermine an elected leader they distrust.

  9. Habeas Corpus says:

    Following on from DB’s suggestion of FM Sir Alan Brooke’s diaries, I’ll offer up the excellent “The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955” by John Coleville.

    As private secretary to Winston Churchill his diaries provide a unique insight into the relationships and workings of the governmental/military relations at this time.

  10. Paul T. Mitchell says:

    The first couple of seasons of the new Battlestar Galactica is an awesome meditation on civil military relations under conditions of extreme stress. They are great tools for teaching as they can be digested far more quickly than a typical movie.

  11. Rachael says:

    I would recommend the Rolling Stone article “The Runaway General”. Ulrich then wrote “The General Stanley McChrystal Affair” in Parameters. Very good way to structure a lesson.

  12. Seven Days in May (Movie)-

    The US President signs a treaty with the Soviet Union agreeing to decomission all nuclear stockpiles. The CJCS plans a military coup, having decided such an action is a breach of the President’s constitutional duty to defend the constitution. It is a fantastic, dialogue/argument/suspense heavy film that also gives a great context to discuss the balance of arms OUTSIDE nuclear weapons during the cold war.

    It also has, hands down, the greatest fictional debate I’ve ever seen in a movie.

  13. james l says:

    The Ugly American, ficitonalized account of America stumbling into the vietnam conflict. Great interaction between diplomatic staff and military advisors.

  14. Cincinnatus jr. says:

    A few additional films to consider:

    Breaker Morant–IMO a timeless Australian film in many respects–unlawful command (civilian and military) influence on a capital court-martial, the efficacy of the then-existing and subsequent “law of armed conflict” and the like. In teaching it to joint military classes on the subject I have found a real divide in reaction between British officers and those from other allied nations.(

    The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik–exploring the “back story” of the court martial and execution of American soldier in WWII ( )

    The Green Berets–starring the venerable John Wayne. A film that was heavily supported (almost to the point of being underwritten) by the US DoD as a ready propaganda vehicle to garner support for an increasingly unpopular war and that stands in stark contrast to subsequent mea culpa books by McNamara and his ilk as to what was actually going on in the several US administrations during the ill-fated war. (

  15. Madeleine Goddard says:

    I strongly recommend an outstanding British novel about the period 1914-16, ‘Covenant with Death’ by John Harris. Published in the early 1960s it is the story of a Pals’ battalion from a northern industrial city and ends on the morning of the first day of the Somme in July 1916. My late grandfather, who served in the trenches and was at the Somme, was very impressed by its realism.

  16. Also, it’s an intermittent theme in the West Wing. The final 2 episodes of Series 3 (‘We Killed Yamamoto’ and ‘Posse Comitatus’) are useful for illustrating the ways in which civil-military relations depend on personal relationships, and the messy ways in which a mutual desire to impress can translate into policy. There’s also some diverting basic discussion of terrorism and assassinations.

  17. Cincinnatus jr. says:

    As a minor aside, I could not pass over the reference to “assassinations” in the post that also mentioned Yamamoto. Since I am not an aficionado of the “West Wing” I do not know the context of the use of these terms but the killing of Admiral Yamamoto, as is the lawful killing of any combatant by another combatant cannot by definition or context be “assassination” that is murder for political purposes.

  18. Paul Harper says:

    I suggest ‘A Bright Shining Lie’. Via Wikipedia: an 1998 American television film based on Neil Sheehan’s book of the same name and true story of John Paul Vann’s experience in the Vietnam War.

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