As soldiers we know that we ought to read often. Like many military professionals, I rarely read as much as I’d like to between balancing work and family demands.
As a result, about a decade ago I began listening to podcasts daily whilst exercising, commuting, or doing work around the house. This is not for everyone – some people take solace in silence. For me, however, a good podcast transforms a mundane chore into an absorbing opportunity to learn, think, and reflect. After a decade of podcasting I no longer regard listening to podcasts as a substitute for reading books, but instead as an essential supplement.
There are a few reasons for this. Most importantly, I subscribe to the advice of Sir Michael Howard that military professionals ought to study in width, depth, and context.
Width, Depth, and Context
By listening to podcasts that cover a wide span of history and the globe I am able to improve my understanding of humanity and conflict, and the way in which war has unfolded and been resolved in the past. There are an amazing amount of podcasts discussing conflicts that I’d otherwise be clueless about. I try and read widely as well, but podcasts give me a good, easy opportunity to dip into otherwise uncharted historical waters – but almost always with known and trusted authors or podcast sources. I like to listen to a variety of voices, but I have to be confident that those voices are credible. I often find myself drawn into reading more about topics that I otherwise might never have encountered.
I also tend to listen to a lot of material about issues I’ve previously studied. This adds depth to my understanding, by offering different voices to something with which I’m already familiar, whether these be interviews with participants, authors presenting a summary of their books, or discussions by panels of experts. It’s also often necessary revision on topics on which I’m starting to fade and adds updated contemporary views.
This leads to context – I like to understand conflict in context. I graze. Whilst professional mastery requires detailed and specific understanding of soldiering, adapting in a complex environment requires an understanding of a particular situation in broader context. It’s been a real thrill for me to recently listen to Scales, Mattis, McMaster, Dubik, and Echevarria. I fear, however, that in just listening to military podcasts I risk getting stuck in a narrowly cast echo chamber that unconsciously confirms existing military biases about what conflict is, how it arises, and what we should do about it.
This is why the many excellent podcasts produced by and for military professionals are not my sole or even primary source of information. Instead, I pick and choose episodes of interest from a wide variety of sources, rather than listening to every episode from just a few sources. I’ll listen to historians, lectures, speeches, think tank discussions, and radio documentaries to get a good understanding for the historical, political, and social context in which a conflict occurred. I also try and listen to as much general history as possible to better appreciate that war is not the only driving dynamic in human affairs, and that conflict arises as a military solution to a political problem in a particular social context.
Reading & Listening Widely
So how is any of this different from reading widely? Listening has a different impact to reading.
I quite often listen to authors discussing their books. Max Hastings, Thomas Keneally, Antony Beevor, David Kilcullen, Sebastian Junger, Joan Beaumont, Romeo Dallaire, – I’ve read their books, but it is different hearing them summarise, discuss, and defend their works in spoken word. Sometimes, despite having read the book, it is the audio snippets that stay with me. The impression formed is different and often reinforces key parts of more detailed books or articles. Other times I’ll be curious about a subject but not yet willing to invest in the book. Podcasts allow me to “try before I buy” – listening to an author or expert and then weighing up whether it’s a book or article I want to read (sometimes yes, other times the podcast is enough). As such I find that podcasts not only supplement what I’ve read in the past and flesh out my understanding of unknown subjects, but they’re also an easy way to choose what to read next. I also often get drawn into listening to detailed discussions about subjects I might not otherwise read about, such as AI, autonomy and counter-autonomy, or undersea drone opportunities. And lastly, just listening to some things has them stay with me forever in a way that a written transcript or article just wouldn’t.
Beyondpod – a Recommended Android Podcast Host – So if you don’t podcast much already I recommend finding a good podcast aggregating app (I use Beyondpod for Android but there are plenty to choose from) and building a library of episodes for future listening. I regularly have a bank of several dozen pre-downloaded on my phone and in my pocket wherever I go. That way the next run, dull drive, or mindless chore is easily transformed into something intellectually satisfying. I’d also suggest that – just like books – the newest editions are not always the best. If you find a new podcast series you like, go right back through its past episodes and see what gems you can find there.
My Recommended Podcasts
There are some good and bad ones out there. After a decade of trying a variety of sources, the ones I go to most regularly are:
5-25 minutes – for short tasks (doing the dishes, cleaning the car, fixing stuff, hanging out the washing)
World news. Choose your source. I have found NPR world news to be the most useful international coverage for me with 5 minute individual stories. I was sold on NPR following their coverage of USMC operations into Marjah, Helmand in Jan/Feb 2010.
The History of the World in 100 Objects – very highly regarded series of 100 episodes of 15 minutes, each focussing on an object from the British Museum and following the sweep of human history. Essential listening.
The Documentary – BBC podcast with occasional gems e.g. My Lai tapes, Somalia’s insurgency, Pakistan’s tribal areas.
History Hit – A very accessible series by British historian Dan Snow which includes a lot of military history. Good historian guests and entertaining conversations e.g. Pax Romana with Adrian Goldsworthy, Haig with Gary Sheffield.
Great Lives – BBC podcast discussing great lives from history in 20-25 minute episodes. Dag Hammerskjold, Field Marshal Slim, Richard the Lionheart, Rommel, Kipling, Monty, and many others.
Longer form – in rough order of those I’ve learned the most from
In Our Time – The best podcast I have found for credible and serious history covering an incredible range of subjects. Each 50 minute episode sees very credible experts discuss a particular subject moderated by Melvyn Bragg. Very highly recommended e.g. The Sino-Japanese war, Lepanto, Tours, Frederick the Great, Alexander the Great, Thucydides, War of 1812, Mexican revolution.
Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs – This has been one of my favourites for years. It has a good mix of war, international relations, and technology podcasts. Past episodes I’ve enjoyed are simply too numerous to mention. Trawl the archives and you’ll be well rewarded.
Pritzker Military Museum and Library – Frequent events discussing military history, old and new. Includes oral histories, interviews with Medal of Honour recipients, and frequent author panels. The Pritzker Library attracts some excellent experts in military history, such as Max Boot, Max Hastings, Rick Atkinson, Antony Beevor, Allan Millett, Karl Marlantes, Tom Ricks, Peter W. Singer, Alistair Horne, Hew Strachan, and many others. Time spend in its back catalogue is highly worthwhile.
Brookings Institute – Brookings has also been a staple in my morning runs for years. Topics range from ongoing conflicts, to international relations, and emerging technology. Excellent topics for military professionals with and exceptionally high quality panel discussions and guest speakers e.g. Air/Sea battle, Mosul prospects, South Sudan, Reykjavik and US/Soviet arms control, India’s foreign policy.
Lowy Institute – Australia’s own Lowy Institute provides a local view of international affairs, including not only an Australian perspective of what does and should matter in our region, but also outstanding international guests to provide a necessary external counterbalance e.g. The future of war, the Defence White Paper, Fromelles, learning from history.
Late Night Live – Philip Adams has had some tremendous conversations with guests over wide ranging topics over many years. These have included war and conflict, as well as more general history that any military professional should find rewarding listening e.g. Charles Bean, US policy in the Middle East, The Battle of Algiers.
Council on Foreign Relations – CFR is the 96 year old think tank responsible for publishing Foreign Affairs magazine and is home to many of the finest international relations thinkers in the US. Its podcast audio events are well worth listening to in order to learn about historical and contemporary international affairs and conflicts. They include Q&As on key issues with CFR experts, and book releases by CFR authors e.g. Drones and US foreign policy, Henry Kissinger on the Cold War, military perspective on humanitarian intervention.
Sydney Institute – The Sydney institute has had several extremely good Australian perspectives on military and political history e.g. John Monash, Vietnam and Korea, Australia at War with the Ottoman Empire (Jeffrey Grey), Nixon and Whitlam at War.
ABC Big Ideas – Big Ideas episodes include discussions between host Paul Barclay and guests but also excellent audio events the ABC selects from other providers. They cover wide territory by and are well worth listening to for lectures and discussions on Australian and global history, war, and current affairs e.g. Conscription in WWI, on leadership, ethics of war, Islamic State and global terrorism.
Arms Control Wonk – I’ve only just begun listening to these, but I’m excited to hear more. These podcasts focus primarily on long range missile and nuclear weapon proliferation and control. Some great historical and contemporary analysis to be found e.g. Turkey and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Podcasts by the Military for the Military
And then, last of all there has been a recent wellspring of military podcasts by military professionals.
Dead Prussian – This Australian series does a good job of ranging over a wide variety of topics related to war without being too narrowly focussed on current military issues. Someone in this team is doing a great job selecting a broad variety of subjects and excellent calibre military and non-military guest contributors.
Modern War Institute – Based out of West Point, this series presents high quality US focussed discussions about modern war. It focuses on the intellectual preparation of future leaders through discussions with the best guests that West Point can attract (i.e. pretty good).
War on the Rocks – This podcast is the audio companion to the highly successful War on the Rocks website. While it is primarily US focussed, there are some excellent guests (such as former and future Defence Secretaries) on topics relevant to an Australian military audience.
War Stories – These podcasts revisit particular military historical events in a conversational style similar to Ira Glass of This American Life. If you like your military history low key, slow paced, entertaining, and conversational, this may be for you.
There are many, many more out there that I’m aware of or have listened to more occasionally. Old or new podcast listeners, share your suggested feeds and favourite episodes below. I’m always excited to find new material.