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The US Army has released its first audiobooks

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It’s catching up to what the publishing industry has realized: audiobooks are popular

Graphic by Michele Doying / The Verge

The US Army wants its soldiers to begin listening to its training materials, which, surprisingly, has never been an option before. In recent weeks, the Training and Doctrine Command’s Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate (CADD) has released audiobook versions of a pair of training manuals for the first time as part of an experiment to see if it’s an effective medium to spread information to soldiers across the force.

It’s part of a wider effort to overhaul and modernize how the Army conceptualizes and trains its forces and, in doing so, catch up to what a large segment of the publishing industry has already realized: audiobooks are increasingly popular.

CADD has a particularly important role within the Army: it’s responsible for developing and distributing Army doctrine — the documentation and reference for how the military operates, combining military theory, history, and best practices. In June, it announced that it was releasing its first audio training manual, FM 3-0, Operations, and this week, it’s joined by ADP 7-0, Training. You can listen to both of the books (and read them, for that matter) via CADD’s website now.

FM 3-0, Operations describes doctrine for how the Army operates in the field, while ADP 7-0, Training is all about how it undertakes training. The books aren’t exactly page-turners for the general public, but both are important documents internally for Army personnel to understand. As Col. Richard Creed, who heads up the audio project, put it: it’s a common language so that the military, in its vast complexity, can understand itself.

Col. Creed told The Verge that the project began 18 months ago with a brainstorming session about finding new ways to deliver information to soldiers, like interactive text or links to videos online. “We were looking to branch out a little, and said, ‘Okay, so where else would people have an opportunity besides the classroom or in their unit, or professional development session to become familiar with doctrine?’” he explained. “We were thinking to ourselves that a lot of people listen to audiobooks while they’re in their cars or while working out.”

CADD had just released the print FM 3-0, Operations manual and decided that it would be a good candidate for audio: it was new, and people would be reading up on it. The goal was to “compress the time that the doctrine is absorbed by the force,” he said, noting that the times when most officers are exposed to doctrine is in the classroom and that it can take 20 years for a soldier to rise through the ranks before going to the Army War College. “That’s not enough exposure to drive the doctrine into the culture of the force.”

“So what we were thinking was that this audiobook, [because it’s] easily accessible and uploadable on one’s personal electronic device, would be the kind of thing that would [reinforce the teachings] with the force,” Col. Creed said. “And those folks who are interested in doctrine but don’t have time to read.”

That’s one reason why this audio experiment feels important: historically, doctrine has been issued in books. By adopting a new medium, it’s another way the force is modernizing.

These audio versions aren’t designed to supplant physical books, but they are designed to allow soldiers to remain familiar with the material by listening to specific sections when they might otherwise not be able to pick up a book. “The way I see this being used is as a kind of reinforcement,” Col. Creed said.

Steve Leonard, a retired strategist known in military circles as the creator of “Doctrine Man,” a social media profile and webcomic that offers up military news and commentary, noted that the military has talked for years about how to better deliver doctrine. “Everything points back to a desire to get people reading and learning our playbook ... because they don’t,” he told The Verge. He pointed out that the most recent system was “supposed to [deliver] shorter, fewer, and better manuals,” but that didn’t happen. “We ended up with more manuals, bifurcated content, and confused more people than we educated.”

Despite those difficulties, Leonard pointed out that audiobooks are more popular than ever, and he hopes that it’ll get back to the core of what the Army hoped to do with its manuals: effectively educate its soldiers.

In the last decade, mainstream publishers and studios have found a figurative gold mine in audio fiction. The Audio Publishers Association released figures earlier this spring showing that more people are listening to audiobooks. Retailers like Audible have been developing their own original content to take advantage of the trend. The US Army, it seems, isn’t immune to the primary thing that made the audiobook marketplace explode: convenience.