A Year At WarPosted: 04/01/2011
A Year At War is a massive undertaking with the kind of scope only a major publication like the New York Times could manage. It follows the men and women of the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division over an entire year of deployment in Afghanistan, from March 2010 until March 2011. Quite a few topics are covered, both big and small. Soldiers pray, receive mail from home, go out on patrol, train Afghan police, play the guitar, exercise, and trade fire with insurgents. They talk about what they miss from home, what they fear, and why the joined the army.
How It Works
New content was constantly being added . Because of this, there isn’t one single narrative. Rather, A Year At War is a collection of shorter elements, mostly videos, about Afghanistan and what it’s like to be a soldier there.
The content is divided into three parts. The first, “Going To War,” covers life in Afghanistan. There are seven “features” about important aspects of the mission such as building trust with locals and the trails of leadership. Seven “shorts” consider smaller topics like the death of a soldier and the war dogs the battalion adopted. Nineteen “moments” offer brief glimpses into life in Afghanistan, presented without commentary or cuts. Users are free to browse through these videos according to type, or to watch a curated playlist in chronological order.
The second part, “The Battalion,” is a series of video interviews with both U.S. soldiers and Afghan National Police. They talk about the mission, things that have happened to them in Afghanistan, and issues from home. The user can browse either by individual soldier or by topic.
The third part, “Dispatches,” includes pictures, emails, and messages submitted by the soldiers themselves.
There is also a map of northern Afghanistan for geographical context and a list of links to related articles and multimedia on the New York Times website.
What Works, What Doesn’t
A lot can happen over an entire year. The amount of content here makes other non-linear narratives like Out My Window feel relatively concise. A good editor could probably make a feature-length documentary out of A Year At War. As it is, it’s up to the user to sift through the various bits and pieces and find the story.
For this reason, good navigation is vital. And while it’s not difficult to get around A Year At War, it’s also not always clear what to click on next. The first section has a curated playlist of clips ordered chronologically, which helps. But the second section gives users a list of 34 different soldiers who each talk about a variety of different things, everything from being promoted to the loss of a fellow soldier. Fortunately for the user, for each solder there are links to related content from the first and third sections to fill in a little more context.
But by using individual small clips, A Year At War is able to highlight not just major events but also the little moments that give a fuller sense of place. The 19 “moments” might have been lost in a larger narrative. Presented as individual videos, they demand attention from the user.
A Year At War is first and foremost a visual story, mostly made up of videos and images. Aside from the user-submitted writing and related Times articles, text only appears in captions. This approach fits the subject matter. A Year At War isn’t trying to explain the war in Afghanistan to users. It’s trying to give a sense of what it’s like to be a solider in that war.
To this end, the video content is very well done. Not only does it look great (something newspapers don’t always manage when they try to use a new type of media), it also has impact. The user can watch soldiers talking about their experiences. They can watch intense moments, such as a Taliban ambush recorded by a helmet-mounted camera. They can watch moments of life in the base.
The content submitted by the soldiers themselves adds to the personal connection. A Year At War really does connect the user to the soldiers of the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division.