- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By “Angry Staff Officer”
Best Defense guest columnist
Sitting in a bar in Alexandria, Virginia, a few months ago, Adin Dobkin — my co-host on the audio show War Stories — and I got into a discussion over how we approach talking about war. When we think about conflicts — both those in our distant past and off in the horizon — we tend to look through one of two lenses. Either we think about an individual (or small unit) who fought particularly valiantly in the conflict, who represents those values which we find most patriotic. In doing so, we often overlook the broader arc of the conflict for the sake of a particular story’s narrative. As a cost, we fail to glean patterns and lessons that might be found in the larger conflict.
In other instances, we focus on the conflict itself, most frequently in terms of numbers or statistics. For the sake of quantitative measures and objectivity, we disregard individual stories existing inside and outside the broader narrative so that we might better measure force strength, technology, and the like. We try to put everything on equal, as much as possible.
No one has mandated this dichotomy must exist in our analysis, however, it is clear that both models grant us unique benefits in developing a more comprehensive understanding of conflicts. While individual stories might give us a heroic story to tell or a better comprehension of the human constant in warfare, an understanding of the overarching statistics can give us a more objective look at what is often a messy, political creation on the ground. In failing to see the opportunities for blending these models, students of the near and distant future can only hope to parse together disjointed information from the massively complex and intricately human creation that is war.
Over drinks, Adin and I tossed these ideas around and wondered about the most effective ways to bridge this gap. It was not until I returned home that Adin approached me with the idea of a podcast that could engage the human interest angle while also tracing broader trends in warfare, through balancing narrative and dialogue. It was fortuitous timing, as I had been mulling the idea over as well. We agreed to give it a shot, and chose the topic of tanks and armor warfare for our first season. Right out of the gate we encountered some perfect “war stories” that captured our interest. They also happened to fit right into some revolutionary moments in warfare, as tanks emerged on the World War I battlefield.
After a lot of research, some dry runs, and considerable amounts of technical wizardry by Adin, we presented the world with our first two episodes. As it turns out, we were on to something: People love a good war story. I don’t know if it was the British cavalry charge in the Somme that forms the foundation of episode one, or Patton running after his tanks in the St. Mihiel Campaign in episode two, but something captured people’s interest in a way that surprised us.
Two episodes in, we’re still learning. It is not so much what we can find to talk about, but more that we have to choose just a few brief moments out of literally hundreds of thousands in history. Do we take on great stories that do not further the evolution of armor tactics? Or do we skip over seminal events in favor of grand spectacles, such as the Battle of Kursk? Through interaction with our listeners, conversations with each other, and more background reading than we’d care to admit, we’re learning how to find that balance and — hopefully — present an entertaining and educational product to our audience.
‘Angry Staff Officer‘ is an officer in the Army National Guard and a member of the Military Writers Guild. He commissioned as an engineer officer after spending time as an enlisted infantryman. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. For more from Angry Staff Officer, visit his WordPress blog site.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons