As we approach the 12th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, we must note how strange our current historical moment is with regards to Iraq. On the one hand, most Iraqis feel that their country is in the worst state it has been since the Mongol invasion of 1258. Despite the immense suffering in Iraq, brought on by 24 years of American war, sanctions, and occupation; the US is currently escalating its use of military force in Iraq. Yet no sense of fault can be found in the American public’s enrapture with the film American Sniper and its celebratory depiction of American war-making. Based on this casual observation, it becomes clear that the Iraqi experience of American military action in their country and America’s imaginative story telling of those same events run almost parallel to one another—the two never intersect. But if we were to engage with the Iraqi experience, it would become further obvious how much the American understanding of our actions in Iraq has almost entirely been shaped by story telling, in other words, by narrative.
Cognitive scientists now regard narrative as an unconscious, readily available structure that we use to help us understand complex events, or series of events. Narrative abstracts away the many irrelevant details of an event and simplifies the relevant ones into a plot-like, temporal structure with a clearly marked beginning and end. Also, the infinitely complex causal forces that bring an event into being are condensed and simplified into easily identifiable agents with goals and motives. Actors are neatly sorted into familiar categories, such as protagonist and antagonist, with explicit motives at either of the spectrum of good vs. evil. And human meanings (such as purpose) are imposed onto worldly events. The power of narrative is that it makes thinking about complex events easier. It cuts out the irrelevant stuff and finds an easy way to explain the important stuff; it takes complex realities and translates them into a format that the human mind can comprehend. It also performs important identity forming functions. Yet these same cognitive and social tools that narrative provides us are exactly the features that limit our understanding of our nations long history of interference in Iraq.
Over the past 24 years, the mass media has relayed information about US military action in Iraq in the format of a story, or of a series of stories, with artificially imposed beginnings and ends, unrealistic abstractions of good guys and bad guys with overly simplified goals and motives, and complex causalities reduced to the actions of single individuals (like Saddam Hussein, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and now Abu Baker al-Baghdadi). Each narrative ends when the President declares “mission accomplished”; and a new one begins with a new caste of characters, new conflicts, and new goals. Each narrative is encapsulated, to a degree, such that each one rarely informs later narratives and we never see reoccurring patters.
Consider the justifications given for the initial invasion of Iraq—that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and thus constituted a threat to the world (this is the self-defense narrative in which the US is both the hero and the victim) and that he was a dictator who killed and tortured his own people (this is the rescue narrative which positions the US as the hero and the Iraqi people as the victim). Yet these stories begin after 9/11. The facts that the CIA aided Saddam Hussein in his rise to power, facilitated his purges of the communists in his country, and armed him with the very WMDs we accused him of possessing were simply not included in this story. And George Bush provided closure and resolution to the plot by declaring “mission accomplished” on May 1st, 2003. For a moment there was some questioning about the status of US troops in Iraq, since the official justifications for them being there (the presence of a dictator and WMDs) had evaporated. But then a new threat emerged—the insurgency—and an entirely new cast of characters appeared in the media discourse with a new set of goals.
The insurgency eventually became characterized (and I mean “characterized” in the literary sense) by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. All the complexities of the insurgency—the hundreds of militias fighting against the occupation with various ideologies, tactics, and goals—were reduced to single persona; and all the other resistance fighters running around Iraq were portrayed as mindless drones who were nothing more than enactments of Zarqawi or Bin Laden’s will. The US (the protagonist) now had to defend Iraq against the bad guy (Zarqawi) and his jihadist army. But notice who is not an actor in this story—the Iraqi people. This story was rarely challenged by the voices of ordinary Iraqis, who neither wanted Zarqawi nor the American-led occupation. This narrative also imposed an order and logic of events, in which the US-led occupation was justified by the insurgency, when in actual fact it elicited it. Furthermore, the US played a significant role in narrating its own antagonist, since most the information that was put out about Zarqawi was the product of a US military Psychological Operation.
President Obama concluded this narrative in his speech at Fort Bragg on December 15th, 2011, when he said that, “[o]ne of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of the American military will come to an end . . . America’s war in Iraq will be over.” However, the situation on the ground changed very little for Iraqis. Occupying soldiers were merely replaced with the soldiers of a client state, and much of the same oppression remained in place. It wasn’t until June 2014 that Iraq reemerged in the US media, when rebel forces pushed the Iraqi army out of Mosul and occupied the city. This event was selected by President Obama as the inciting incident in a new war narrative. He also identified a single antagonist (the so-called Islamic State). However, this narrative omitted several important facts: That the Iraqi government had been waging a genocide against the Sunni population, with US weapons and support, since January of that year. That this allowed the Islamic State to grow and thrive in Iraq by claiming they were defending a desperate population from oppression. And that the Islamic State was only the most extreme force amongst many fighting against the Iraqi government, many of whom had perfectly legitimate reasons for fighting, had very respectable goals, and used tactics that were in line with international conventions. But what this narrative obfuscates most is that the US was once again presenting military action as the only solution to a catastrophe that it had created, and that President Obama’s proposed course of action mirrors the conditions that allowed the Islamic State emerge and thrive in Iraq.
All of this points to an important feature of narrative—that narratives are structured from a perspective, and choices are made about what information to include or exclude based on that perspective. Furthermore, by sharing in a perspective, and making common abstractions about good guys and bad guys, common inclusions and exclusions, and shared assumptions about what is legitimate or illegitimate, we construct a shared identity. It is not surprising then that Iraqi suffering is the greatest it has been in centuries at the same time that a film like American Sniper is enjoying enormous box-office success. At a moment when we could be feeling dissonance over our role in the bloodshed in Iraq, we are instead celebrating the heroism and patriotism of soldiers like the one portrayed in American Sniper. Chris Kyle’s autobiography of the same title, off of which the film was adapted, drew upon several of the narratives already told about Iraq and reaffirmed them through his authority as a Navy SEAL. It is also not surprising that Iraqis would be portrayed in the film as either hapless idiots incapable of running their country without American tutelage and protection, or as blood-thirsty maniacs bent on anti-Americanism, since this is how the civilian/insurgent dichotomy was portrayed in official narratives.
The result is that these narratives are now deeply engrained in American identity, and American Sniper is not just a celebration of the stories we tell ourselves about Iraq, but also of the stories we tell ourselves about us. The enormous factual inaccuracies and over simplifications in these narratives are problematic enough, yet we must also note the almost total exclusion of other narratives—like the ones Iraqis tell about what we did to them. In this strange moment that we inhabit now, our understanding of who we are and how we behave as a nation is being constructed around these self-serving, over simplified, and often false narratives. What’s worse is that our current foreign policy in Iraq is based off of these same abstractions, and Iraqis will surely continue to suffer because of this.