We Were Nonstorytellers Once, and Young

Military correspondents are a strange breed of storyteller. Their craft is the unholy offspring of journalism and propaganda known as public affairs. They are trained at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, Md. The school’s name carries a certain connotation, hinting at the types of stories military correspondents can tell. The school’s curricula actually stress the ideal of “objective” reporting while simultaneously exalting the doctrine of “SAPP” as the supreme guiding principle in approaching stories. SAPP: security, accuracy, propriety, policy—the four words consistently used by risk-averse public affairs officers as a means of creative castration when one of their enlisted reporters seeks to tell a real story, the kind someone might actually want to read.

While the field of public affairs contains many progressively minded individuals who seek to promote compelling narratives over vapid nonstories, many commanders and public affairs officers prefer to swaddle their careers with safe rhetoric about the units or operations they oversee. In the decade I spent as a Marine correspondent, I challenged myself to never surrender to the pervasive culture of non-storytelling, and I was constantly disillusioned as I watched so many young correspondents led astray and seduced by the dark side—the military’s preferred literary form of the nonstory.

I’ve been agonizing for hours over how to tie those opening paragraphs into a thesis arguing for the ideal impressed upon me in the military’s Basic Journalist Course. “Stories are everywhere,” they said. “You just have to find them and tell them,” they said. But while writing this essay, I’ve come to realize I don’t necessarily believe that. Some things should not be stories. After reading over several examples of nonstories provided by some fellow military correspondents, how could I not draw that conclusion? Here's a random sampling:

“The child development center would celebrate the 150th day of every school year with a balloon release party. Like, ‘Yea, we’re halfway through another soul-sucking year. Public affairs should come cover our perfunctory celebration of this non-milestone.’”

“I covered a story about a 2nd Lieutenant’s Volkswagen – it was covered in felt, not paint.”

“The State of Georgia replaced the old highway sign in front of the base with a new one that now sported the base logo so passing motorists would know they were passing by a bona fide jarhead logistics center and not just another beige, government installation where dreams went to die. The base commander attended a goddamn ribbon-cutting for the sign, which meant that I got to write a full feature story about the ‘event.’”

“The story about the enlisted cooks on our base was particularly uninteresting as we did not have a chow hall.”

My most memorable nonstory assignment came at my first duty station, Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. It was around noon when my lieutenant burst into our press section like Kramer from Seinfeld, excitedly ordering me to grab my camera and note pad and follow him. I jumped into action, thinking I was headed toward some extraordinary breaking news event for which I would be the first reporter on the scene. “What’s going on, sir?” I asked as I gathered my gear. “The commanding general is hosting the Rotary Club luncheon at the Depot’s Bay View Restaurant right now!” That’s right; I had to jump into action to report a story that, if the world were just, would run with the headline, “Depot Commander Schmoozes Rich People, Further Assuages Napoleon Complex.”     

If stories are everywhere, nonstories are just as ubiquitous. It is true that great storytellers can often take a seemingly mundane subject and make it interesting, but even more important than skill is our ability as storytellers to find a meaningful connection with our subjects and freely exercise our creative voice to communicate that connection to others. After all, the military has mastered the art of the nonstory by teaching the soul-sapping objective of manipulating perception within stifling formal boundaries. So maybe the secret to great storytelling lies in creative freedom and a genuine desire to enlighten and entertain rather than wield influence and shape perception.