'Why We Write' provides showcase for crafting military tales

Jon Niccum, KU News Service

LAWRENCE — During the 1940s, the U.S. government commissioned a series of documentary films called “Why We Fight” to spur public support for World War II.

Now two Army veterans have launched their own creative project titled “Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War” (Middle West Press, 2019).

The new anthology features dozens of contributors who share their military tales and offer advice to others who they hope will do the same.

The book is co-written and edited by Steve Leonard, a retired senior U.S. Army strategist and program director in organizational leadership at the University of Kansas, and Randy Brown, an Army veteran and former journalist.

“This is a call to action for people to tell their stories,” Leonard said.

“I encourage others to get over their fear of writing and just try it. Get your stories out there, because if you don’t, then your story ends with you. If Hemingway hadn’t told his stories, we wouldn’t know about Hemingway.”

Leonard also contributes the book’s first chapter (“Get Your Legacy in Writing”), recounting how a professor convinced him to pursue English in addition to his engineering major. While this prolonged his graduation, it also set the template for Leonard’s later pursuits, which include writing a handful of books.

Aspiring essayists have far more advantages now than in previous generations, Leonard said.

“The advent of social media gives you an array of tools and opportunities to tell your stories in ways earlier generations couldn’t. Now you don’t have an excuse to say, ‘I don’t want to write anything because it’ll never get published.’ Anybody can publish something,” he said.

“Why We Write” assembles an impressive and diverse group of contributors. These include noted authors Max Brooks (“World War Z”), Phil Klay (National Book Award winner for “Redeployment”) and Kate Germano (“Fight Like a Girl”).

“We wanted to pick out some really good exemplars,” Leonard said. “We have great stories by great storytellers, so we built around that core of writers. Then we had people who maybe weren’t as experienced or didn’t have the same level of exposure and gave them an opportunity to tell what motivates them within their particular genres.”

And which essay is his favorite?

“I keep coming back to Carmen Gentile’s piece (‘Some True Lies about Conflict Reporting’) just because his personal story is so absolutely fantastic. I cannot imagine having an eye shot out by an RPG in Afghanistan and being able to laugh about it. He has continued to push his craft and be a true inspiration.”

Co-editor Brown came up with the concept for “Why We Write” — although he pilfered the title from Leonard, whose essay originally bore that heading. Leonard said Brown did the heavy lifting in terms of editing and formatting, while he primarily concentrated on recruiting the writers.

Many of the contributors are members of the Military Writers Guild, a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping those who want to write about the subject.

Prior to his academic career, Leonard served as an Army officer from 1987-2015, much of which was spent as a strategist.

“A lot of times you just keep a strategist around because you need a big thinker. You need somebody in the room who can listen to everything that’s said, distill it down to two or three key points and say, ‘This is what’s important,’” said the retired colonel.

The Idaho native has spent the last five years at KU, where he specializes in leadership, strategy and the science of decision-making.

Leonard has provided chapters to the books “Strategy Strikes Back: How ‘Star Wars’ Explains Modern Military Conflict” and “Winning Westeros: How ‘Game of Thrones’ Explains Modern Military Conflict.” He’s the creative force behind the subversive web comic “Doctrine Man!!” and its four collected volumes. He’s also a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point and co-founder of the podcast “The Smell of Victory.”

“My hope is that ‘Why We Write’ inspires an entire new generation to get their stories out. We’ve all got interesting stories to tell, and it drives me crazy when I talk to somebody and they say, ‘I would like to write about this but I’m afraid to do it because I’m not a good writer,’” Leonard said.

“But it’s like spinning a basketball on the end of your finger: You’re not going to get any better until you start.”