War Stories: What Are They Good For?

It’s a proud tradition in EMS and public safety, the war story. The really good ones don’t need to be embellished, but some of the best are those that have grown increasingly impossible over years of telling and retelling. Some are gory; others are heartwarming. Many involve the kind of gallows humor that keeps paramedics, surgeons, and police officers able to face their jobs every day but makes the uninitiated turn white and go quiet. I am one of those, I admit, who gets a little queasy when the talk turns to spurting aortas and impaled torsos.

In fact, it was my own somewhat reluctant fascination with the war stories of coworkers who have been on the front lines that made me want to find out—why are they so popular? What are they good for? Do we really need them, or do they just satisfy the morbid curiosity of the listener and the macho pride of the teller?

It's a tough job--someone's got to talk about it!

It’s a tough job–someone’s got to talk about it!


A number of writers in the EMS world have tackled this question in the past few years. Mike Rubin takes a humorous approach in his not-to-be-missed blog post, “How to Tell a Good War Story,” while Carl J. Post, a professor at New York Medical College and EMS historian, takes on the question of historical narrative and what it tells us about ourselves. The blog Medic Madness, meanwhile, takes old-school back-room boasting public, providing a forum for all the goriest, funniest, and most revealing EMS stories its writer, Sean Eddy, can put on the page.

But what does EMS get from all this story-telling? Some claim that the purpose of a good war story is educational, that it’s a way to prepare the “new guy” or “new gal” for life in a difficult and sometimes terrifying job. It’s hard to know, though, exactly what the newbies are supposed to be learning from such stories—except how to tell a few of their own, that is. I think there’s actually more to it than that. What public safety and emergency medicine people get out of a good war story is recognition.

Not Exactly Millionaire Celebrities

The reality of EMS is that, no matter how vital to the community, it tends to be invisible except when there’s a problem. Most people’s interaction with emergency responders on any given day is likely to be a grumbled complaint about getting out of the way while a fire engine runs through a red light. And unfortunately, most citizens don’t hear about the work of EMS until there’s a lawsuit. Add all that to the fact that EMS isn’t exactly making anyone a millionaire, and you can understand why there can be a feeling among some emergency personnel that they are not being appropriately recognized for their hard, sometimes boring, sometimes dangerous work.

Of course, that goes double for dispatchers, who often feel overlooked even within their own agencies.

A war story is a way to push back against that invisibility, to get some credit for what they do. Even the grossed-out or shocked look on a listener’s face can feel like a recognition that the work you’re doing is hard, that it’s not something just anyone can do. That goes a long way to making the long shifts of saving lives invisibly, behind the scenes, often in unpleasant circumstances.

As Benjamin Gilmour puts it in his new book Paramedico (essentially one long string of international war stories—and really good ones at that), he wrote the book not so much to talk about the “sick and injured” as to bring the spotlight onto the ambulance workers he’s worked with, “the men and women who have remained a mystery to the world for long enough.” A good war story, in other words, is a (semi-) acceptable way to make your work a little less of a mystery, to get the spotlight on it for a moment.

Dying to Help

There’s another, slightly touchier, aspect to the war story as well. EMS workers—including dispatchers—tend to be dedicated, often “type-A” individuals. They work odd, often changing shifts. They see bad things and enter stressful situations, then sit for hours waiting for something to happen. It’s no surprise that the heart attack, chronic illness, mental health, and addiction statistics for emergency workers can be so abysmal. And that’s not including the inherent dangers of the job, especially emergency vehicle accidents.

In the past decade or so, the resources available to EMS workers and dispatchers, and the level of acceptance for actually using those services, have increased substantially. This is great news. Stress debriefings, support and therapy, and other official means of addressing the mental and physical challenges of the job are critically important.

But the war story has something to offer here, as well. We all know the feeling: something terrible has happened, or you’ve seen something gross, and you must tell someone about it or burst. It doesn’t matter whether the other person wants to hear; you have to tell. The war story functions in this way, giving emergency responders a way to talk about and decompress from difficult and terrible scenes.

I know that some of you will scoff at this. Many want to be seen as asbestos-coated, impervious to the stresses and dangers of their work. That’s fine. In fact, that’s precisely why the war story works sometimes when therapy won’t. The telling of a war story doesn’t force you to be vulnerable or talk about how you feel. The teller gets to maintain, or even boost, that sense of power and imperviousness that keeps him or her going, while still getting the benefits of sharing and validation.

And So Much More

These are really just a couple of the many ways war stories function in a high-stress occupation like emergency response. And what do I know? I’ve never done the job—just talked to a lot of people who have.

That’s why I’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation below and let us know: what is the real purpose of war stories? Do you tell them? What do they do for you?

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This entry was posted in 911/999 dispatch, Stress, trauma, War Stories and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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