Why Storytelling Matters in the Military
It all started with a horde of wild pigs attacking an Israeli military post on the border of Lebanon. Or so it seemed.
Shortly after completing my military service with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), I hosted a Friday night dinner at my apartment in Tel Aviv. As it sometimes goes with Israelis, we began sharing our funniest, most ridiculous army stories. That’s when our friend, Yehuda, took the cake with the story of the attack from Lebanon. It was a story full of humor, but it started with a tragedy.
During his mandatory service, Yehuda had been stationed at an IDF post guarding the northern border of Israel against infiltration from Lebanon. During a routine patrol, his unit was ambushed by Hezbollah fighters and an Israeli soldier was killed. It was a traumatic experience for Yehuda and the remaining soldiers. For the rest of the week, tensions ran high at the post.
One night, about a week after the ambush, there was the dreaded rustling in the bushes, and then movement. Per protocol, the soldiers shouted for the intruders to halt. The movement continued toward their post. The soldiers shot in the air. The intruders began to scream, charging all at once. The soldiers, on high alert, blasted the intruders to kingdom come.
The next morning, instead of finding dead Hezbollah fighters, the soldiers found dozens of large warthogs scattered across the underbrush. At first, the soldiers were shocked; then they were hysterical, laughing at the bizarreness of it all.
“It was exactly what we needed that week,” Yehuda finished. “We had just lost a fellow soldier and we desperately needed some kind of release, something to shock us back into reality.”
Umm… I think I’d be pretty scared too if these guys were coming for me
We slapped him on the back and passed him the wine, laughing and sympathizing. Then we continued the night going around the table sharing our that-time-I-almost-peed-my-pants-in-the-IDF stories. In a country with a mandatory draft, the military was like a second language for us, embedded in the fabric of our society. We had all got the fava beans kicked out of us in basic training, we almost all knew the experience of falling asleep on a late-night guard duty in the desert only to wake up to a wild animal curled up on our chests. In between the jokes and the long stretches of boredom (the guard duty, the exercises, standing in formation—you get the idea), some of us also knew what it was like to suddenly be terrified, to have your life flash before your eyes in a rocket attack or combat mission.
Or, in the case of Yehuda, in the harrowing chaos of charging wild pigs. Which got me thinking that night about the stories we tell each other about the army, and why they’re so essential.
Even though I served in the Israeli military, I was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area until I immigrated to Israel as a teenager. In 2009, I returned to the U.S. to do my master's degree in security intelligence at the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. (I returned to Israel after my studies in Pittsburgh and only then served in the IDF.) Several of the students in the program in Pittsburgh were serving in the U.S. Military at the time, many of them having recently returned from fighting the Global War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of these soldiers were struggling with PTSD; others were experiencing culture shock returning to the civilian world.
But I saw that there was one thing that could cut through those challenges and bring immediate relief to them: storytelling.
I witnessed firsthand through these American soldiers how storytelling provides a vital human need to relate our cultural and personal experiences to a group. For starters, the moment someone started telling a good story, we all gathered around—both the students from the military and the rest of us civilians. The soldiers turned combat horror stories into humor. They shared moments of pride and moments of screwing up in ways that we could all sympathize. They also described in explicit detail the snot that came out of their faces when they were teargassed during basic training.
Stories provide education and connection
Telling stories gave these soldiers a way to share their identity. It also made them instantly relatable to the outside world, bridging the gap between the military-civilian cultures. In Israel, there isn’t much of a gap to bridge, as I mentioned, thanks to the national mandatory service; we’re almost all fluent in “military” over in the holy land. In the United States, by contrast, veterans make up less than 10% of the population. So although most Americans wake up these days to read about war in the newspaper, very few of them will actually have direct experience with war.
Ever since that night in Tel Aviv with the story about the wild pigs, I’ve been trying to figure out why military service members—both in Israel and the U.S.—are so good at dishing out compelling (and humorous) stories. I recently stumbled on an article that I think hit the nail on the head, titled “The Three Things That Make Service Members Great Storytellers” by Angry Staff Officer (a great pen name if I ever saw one). Angry Staff Officer went on to explain where the magic comes from: “At the heart of it, all military members are storytellers. This comes from three factors that being in the military pretty much guarantees you’ll acquire: a mission, a story, and time.”
“We all have a mission,” he (or she) continued. “Whether it is the reason we joined, why we stay in, who we’re serving for—it doesn’t matter. Every service member carries with them a mission; otherwise, they wouldn’t be serving.”
As for story, the military is full of rich source material: basic training, exercises, deployments, guard duty, the weapons we almost broke, the wild animals we found in our sleeping bags, that friend who did something incredibly stupid but is still alive.
As for time, people in the military spend a lot of time waiting in formation or waiting for an exercise to start or sitting on buses going somewhere. What better way to pass the time than to entertain each other with stories?
I would add to these three factors the extreme-ness of the battlefield: as U.S. Marine veteran Elliot Ackerman put it in his memoir about his service in Iraq and Afghanistan, we all walk through life with a certain aperture of what we experience; war flings open that aperture, exposing soldiers to the extremes of human depravity along with the most noble, heroic acts that man is capable of.
It was probably therapeutic for the soldiers back in the security program in Pittsburgh to tell their stories (just like it was for Yehuda at the dinner table in Tel Aviv), but it did something else for the rest of us, the civilian students: it made us appreciate our mission to protect even more, as well as the sacrifices involved for those serving on the frontlines. Their stories also added a human dimension to the very concept of war that was generally overwhelming in complexity, bringing the lofty concepts of national security down to eye level.
As the recent events of Afghanistan and Ukraine indicate, war unfortunately is a fixture in our lives today, demanding that service members continue to evolve and find internal resilience. As former Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin put it in Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win, “Combat is reflective of life, only amplified and intensified.” Perhaps due to the extreme environments mixed with connection to a mission, there is a treasure trove of stories in the military that will continue to entertain and educate the rest of us for years to come.
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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.
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