Cole Greenfield

Blueprint for Armageddon Analysis

Dan Carlin’s six-part podcast epic, Blueprint for Armageddon, is one man telling the history of the First World War, from the events that led up to it through the aftermath. He uses primary sources to bring to life the voices of men and women whose lives were torn apart by this unimaginable conflict, the effects of which are still felt today across the globe. Carlin sticks to the facts, and maybe dabbles in a bit of armchair psychology, but his argument in the end is broad and clear. Carlin makes the case that World War One is the most important conflict in human history, and marked the true beginning of the modern, global epoch we live in.

His choice of the podcast medium to tell this story is significant. He is too much of a dramatic storyteller to be confined to academia, and yet far too in depth in fact and detail to write this story as a film. This story had to be told as a long form podcast. You can hear the excitement in his voice as he reads what he prepared for the listener. It sounds like the most interesting lecture you’ve ever been to from a guy who genuinely loves the subject matter. His narratives are deep and intertwining. He has a keen sense for what makes a story a high stakes drama. But his storytelling style wouldn’t lend itself well to the written word. He’s not an academic historian. He’s an enthusiast who has done his homework. He’s not after any new discoveries or insights, he just loves reading about this stuff and loves talking about it, and millions of people love listening.

Where a historian might be self-conscious about hamming up a narrative, even if it only uses the facts, Carlin revels in it. In the opening episode he asks us to “Imagine you’re an eighteen year old Serbian revolutionary. Imagine the leader of your own little group of revolutionaries has given you a bomb. Imagine your job is to use that bomb to assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria during a parade through the public square. Imagine you get close enough to throw that bomb, and you work up the courage to actually follow through with it. And imagine it lands next to him in his convertible. But it doesn’t go off!”

I don’t know of any academic historian who would write a book this way. And sure, a film could be made, and probably already has been made, but you couldn’t use Carlin’s storytelling style to do it. He sticks to the facts like a book would, but raises the dramatic stakes with great narrative exposition and dialogue like a film. The only way to combine these two elements is in a long form podcast.

He sticks to this style of storytelling even when recounting the smallest detail. In episode two, he talks about how the way of life of the old world was colliding with the technology of the new. He describes how French cavalry soldiers, in the opening days of the war, were still being issued the same uniforms they’d been wearing since the time of Napoleon. He describes a picture of the men, saying; “If it weren’t for the fact that there were no cameras 100 years prior to this photograph being taken, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between these men and soldiers in Napoleon’s army.” The point here is obvious, but an academic historian might come in and say, “well that’s not technically true. That church in the background wasn’t built until…” and they would kill the buzz and miss the point. Carlin describes how bizarre and tragic it must have been to watch men in bright blue velvet uniforms brandish swords and charge head first into German machine guns. He is willing to put himself in the mind of the characters in these stories in a way that inspires empathy, and I think, a truer understanding than cold hard facts alone could.

He reads from the diary of Charles de Gaulle, the future leader of France, who at the time was a young infantry officer. He describes how a French officer was never to take cover, and always be standing up: A doctrine that was also a relic from the time of Napoleon. Carlin asks, “Can you imagine being a young officer, told never to take cover? What would you do if you were caught in the middle of a modern artillery barrage?” He then goes on to read from De Gaulle’s own personal account: “On the first barrage we encountered I saw many young officers bravely follow through with their duty to stay upright and lead.” None of the officers survived.

It is Carlin’s masterful grasp of the empathy required for high drama storytelling, combined with his detailed factual research that gives Carlin’s work its own style and its own rabid fan base. And to combine these two elements requires a long form podcast to be done correctly. This epic series spans over 18 hours of detailed content, and he has to admittedly leave out many major moments to make it all fit. The podcast is the only medium Carlin could have used to tell the whole story in detail, the way he wanted to tell it. His script is too dramatic to be taken seriously as an academic text, and yet too long, factual, and detailed to be adapted as a play or a film. Carlin needed almost an entire day of podcast to tell this story the way he wanted to, and he did it masterfully.

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