No one has given soldiers and veterans a satisfactory way to understand efforts of the last 20-plus years in Afghanistan. “Lessons learned” feels hollow to those who are not policy makers, strategists, or historians. If it was a mistake for the U.S. to be in Afghanistan in the first place, the mistake was not made by those who got bloody. It is not their mistake. And “lessons learned” does not speak to their sacrifice.
The gap in the meaning of their efforts is causing moral harm. Moral harm has been defined as perpetrating, failing to prevent, or witnessing events that contradict deeply held moral beliefs. Betrayal from leadership is a central and deeply injurious violation of moral code.
There is a way forward demonstrated by those involved in Task Force Pineapple, and other veteran/civilian groups, who are working together to get American citizens and Afghan partners out of danger. Whether they know it or not, they are mitigating the effects of moral harm by rewriting the ending of their stories.
The overt mission is to Honor the Promise. But inadvertently, they are taking control of the meaning of facts over which they had no control.
These citizen/vet coalitions are not allowing the technical blunder of the official withdrawal overshadow the larger meaning of the Afghan experience. The meaning is in the brief time in which a generation of girls was educated, children grew up with educated mothers, lasting partnerships were formed. There is meaning in the lengths our veterans are willing to go to save the Afghan men and women they fought beside. And there is meaning in the support the rest of us demonstrate for them.
And there is broader meaning for strategists and historians to take from the spirit of the SOF vets who have come out of retirement to assist the younger generation of soldiers with a job they were not allowed to finish. One lesson that ought to be learned is that a tactical miscalculation in exit strategy will not undermine or overshadow the on-the-ground meaning of Americans in Afghanistan unless that is the story you tell.
I challenge the categorical distinction between “lessons learned” and “stories told” in which “lessons learned” equates with hard, factual, reasoned analysis in opposition to “storytelling” equated with soft, fictional, entertainment.
Stories, and the narratives that support them, belong inside the category of strategic analysis. Wars are not generated over facts. There may be agendas, but to get things going you don’t need facts. You need a good story. A good story is one derived from a narrative with which the audience identifies.
“Lessons learned” will be derived from stories told.
Narratives are culturally specific foundational myths/archetypes that function as meaning maps. The Hero’s Journey is an example. Narratives are generally not told. They are simply present. Stories (like The Hunger Games) are specific instances of the narrative. We generally don’t control the narrative but we can control stories, especially our own. And it is imperative that we do.
Americans ought to look hard at the example set by these citizen/vet coalitions because we can decide that they are telling our story. That is, we can allow the meaning of the Afghan experience to be handed to us as historical and strategic “lessons learned” or we can understand lessons learned as one part in a larger and more meaningful story.