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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Rewriting the Ending: Afghanistan

There is meaning in the lengths our veterans are willing to go to save the Afghan men and women they fought beside.

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.

Ajit Maan
Ajit Maan, Ph.D. writes the Narrative & National Security column for Homeland Security Today featuring her original work and work by guest experts in narrative strategy focused on identifying active narratives, who is behind them, and what strategies they are deploying to manipulate and muddy facts to the detriment of America. She is founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies LLC, Adjunct Professor at Joint Special Operations University, Professor of Politics and Global Security, Faculty at the Center for the Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University. She is also author of seven books including Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and Plato’s Fear. Maan's breakthrough theory of internarrative identity came in 1997; she published a book by the same name in 1999 which was released in its second edition in 2010 (with the addition of the subtitle Placing the Self). Internarrative identity deals with one’s sense of identity as expressed in personal narrative, connecting the formation of identity with one assigns meaning to one’s life experiences. Maan’s theories are influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s writings in narrative identity theory, and she cites several of his works in her book (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 90). The connection between the interpretation of personal narrative in relation to the larger social group seems to be a key factor in the work of both Maan and Ricoeur. She states that “Following Ricoeur, I’ve argued that who one is and what one will do will be determined by the story one sees oneself as a part of. Going further than Ricoeur, I have suggested that a genuinely imaginative theory of narrative identity would be inclusive of alternatively structured narratives” (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 71-72). This seems to indicate that Maan believes that identity influences behavior, but she also recognizes that one can be constrained by society to accept a self-narrative that fits within existing cultural norms. After establishing herself through her work on Internarrative Identity, Maan has now turned her attention to the analysis of narrative as a means of understanding (and combating) terrorist recruitment tactics. Her 2014 book, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, examines the scripts perpetuated by a wide range of terrorist organizations while also making important interdisciplinary connections between studies in the humanities and current world events (a workbook companion to the text was published in 2018). She collaborated with the late Brigadier General Amar Cheema on the edited volume titled Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare, published in 2016. Maan's 2018 book, titled Narrative Warfare, is a collection of articles examining the topic of weaponized narrative; her 2020 book, Plato's Fear, examines the relationship between narrative and power. Her work was the focus of Representations of Internarrative Identity, a 2014 multi-authored scholarly monograph dedicated to the exploration of Internarrative Identity through diverse fields of study and from international perspectives. In addition to her contributions to academia, Maan has been active in sharing her knowledge with a wider audience thereby uniting military and academic experts in the cause of eradicating violent extremism around the world.

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