war on the rocks

Entry 37: Chronology and Context

February 2, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 37th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?


I wrote a little over 1,100 words today. This Obama chapter is pouring out of my fingertips and onto the keyboard. I suppose it helps that I lived it at the Pentagon.

I sent my draft chapters so far to a couple friends for critiques. I don’t generally like doing that, but the timeline is so short for this project that I’m not really in a position to hold back until the entire manuscript is finished. The feedback was strongly positive, but there were two broad issues that came up.

One issue is that the chapters need to be written more for a general audience. I’m told I use way too many footnotes and citations for a layperson (a hazard of the profession, but it’s important to attribute knowledge where attribution is due). Some people find even basic terms like “deterrence” and “escalation” to be esoteric. And I need a lot more background information introducing things that are extraneous to the argument, like the Japanese colonial period or some basic information about Kim Jong Un.

The second issue is the chronology. What I’ve written so far is broadly chronological — Clinton before Obama and Obama before Bush etc. But within those different eras I explain what happened through themes or mini-narratives that account for overlapping periods of time.

So, for example, writing about U.S. extended deterrence during the Obama era in one part of one chapter requires mentioning aspects of U.S. extended deterrence policy that manifest as early as 2010 and as late as 2016. But that extended deterrence section is followed by a section on strategic patience that spans from 2012 to 2016. So the starting point for each section is broadly sequential, but their content involves overlapping chronologies. To me this isn’t problematic, but at least one friend (a historian) thought it would be an issue.

I addressed this dilemma in a previous entry, but for a straight-up history book, you of course write stuff in the order it happens while trying to distill events into mini-themes that add up to the larger narrative argument. For my field (international relations), that’s often not how it works. You present your argument, and then you show the evidence necessary to convince the reader of your argument. Only sometimes does that mean telling a story chronologically.

I’m stumped about how to resolve this. There are a number of specific places where I can impose chronological boundaries more tightly, but I don’t know if I can/want to present everything in a linear sequence because the meaning of some events only comes out of its connections to other events moving forward and backward in time. Maybe I’m crazy.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.

Image: CC, Illymarry