Josh Manchester writes of narratives and counternarratives, of soldiers and journalists, of traditionalists and multiculturalists, at TCS Daily.
When it comes to ground forces, the American press has a standard template for wartime narratives. Developed in World War II, it has morphed over the years (to the detriment of the perception of our forces) but has remained largely intact. Much of it has reflected the nature of the wars in which the US has become involved.
The Standard Narrative goes something like this: There is a massive deployment of US forces to the far side of the world. This action is more or less just and warranted. The troops charge into battle, sometimes many battles. All the while, there’s an understanding everywhere of an end-state – a point at which the war’s goals will have been accomplished and then, most importantly, everyone can come home.
Throughout all of this there is a standard typecast character: the American enlisted infantryman. Usually he is portrayed with undercurrents of victimhood (this is one of the innovations in the Standard Narrative since WWII.). We see such images in the recent gaffes of Senator Kerry and Congressman Rangel, in which they respectively questioned the intelligence and alternative employment prospects of military personnel. Running through this undercurrent are a couple of others: a sort of class warfare vibe, in which it is assumed that only the poor do the fighting, and a related guilt vibe, in which it is posited that since the troops are merely pitiable, poor, undereducated, unemployable automatons, the best way to “support” them is to bring them home. This entire panoply of implied images even applies when troops are painted in a semi-heroic light. See Forrest Gump.
There’s one more aspect to the Standard Narrative: frequent “horror of war” type memes.
Many have long complained that the press tells the wrong stories about everything, but that they are even worse at telling stories about war than other topics. This seems to be because instead of telling the story as it happens, they overlay the events they report into a story they brought with them. This is why the stories told by reporters bear only a funhouse mirror resemblance to the events they report. This is because reporters
believe act as if they are fiction writers, not reporters.
Maybe an example of how these stories work will help.
One typical war story pattern is Supplication, as in the Seven Samurai or the Magnificent Seven. A village of ordinary people is plagued by renegade soldiers who have become bandits. They send a Supplicant to find some rough men to protect them and promise them all sorts of inducements.
In the Seven Samurai, it continues like this, with the second half of the plot being Deliverance. The warriors come and fortify the town, trying without much success to stiffen the backbone of the villagers and turn them into fighers, and finally defending the town against the renegades. Almost all the warriors die heroically in battle. One or two survive, and are rushed out of town by the disgusted and frightened villagers.
If you paid close attention, you will realize that Supplication and Deliverance is exactly the story that was told by Operation Desert Storm. The villagers were Kuwait. Saddam and his army were the villains. America and the Coalition was the power that brought deliverance.
These two dramatic situations come from a list of 36 that is terribly useful for writers of fiction, if somewhat less than prescriptive. Long ago, a fellow named Georges Polti wrote a book of the 36 basic dramatic situations that he believed all literature could be reduced to. Though the book must be in the public domain by now, the most faithful explanation of it online appears to be here.
- Supplication – Persecutor, Supplicant, a Power in Authority
- Deliverance – Unfortunates, Threatener, Rescuer
- Revenge – Avenger, Criminal
- Vengeance by Family upon Family – Avenging Kinsman, Guilty Kinsman, Relative
- Pursuit – Fugitive from Punishment, Pursuer
- Victim of Cruelty or Misfortune – Unfortunates, Master or Unlucky Person
- Disaster – Vanquished Power, Victorious Power or Messenger
- Revolt – Tyrant, Conspirator(s)
- Daring Enterprise – Bold Leader, Goal, Adversary
- Abduction – Abductor, Abducted, Guardian
- Enigma – Interrogator, Seeker, Problem
- Obtaining – Two or more Opposing Parties, Object, maybe an Arbitrator
- Familial Hatred – Two Family Members who hate each other
- Familial Rivalry – Preferred Kinsman, Rejected Kinsman, Object
- Murderous Adultery – Two Adulterers, the Betrayed
- Madness – Madman, Victim
- Fatal Imprudence – Imprudent person, Victim or lost object
- Involuntary Crimes of Love – Lover, Beloved, Revealer
- Kinsman Kills Unrecognised Kinsman – Killer, Unrecognised Victim, Revealer
- Self Sacrifice for an Ideal – Hero, Ideal, Person or Thing Sacrificed
- Self Sacrifice for Kindred – Hero, Kinsman, Person or Thing Sacrificed
- All Sacrificed for Passion – Lover, Object of Passion, Person or Thing Sacrificed
- Sacrifice of Loved Ones – Hero, Beloved Victim, Need for Sacrifice
- Rivalry Between Superior and Inferior – Superior, Inferior, Object
- Adultery – Deceived Spouse, Two Adulterers
- Crimes of Love – Lover, Beloved, theme of Dissolution
- Discovery of Dishonor of a Loved One – Discoverer, Guilty One
- Obstacles to Love – Two Lovers, Obstacle
- An Enemy Loved – Beloved Enemy, Lover, Hater
- Ambition – An Ambitious Person, Coveted Thing, Adversary
- Conflict with a God – Mortal, Immortal
- Mistaken Jealousy – Jealous One, Object of Jealousy, Supposed Accomplice, Author of Mistake
- Faulty Judgment – Mistaken One, Victim of Mistake, Author of Mistake, Guilty Person
- Remorse – Culprit, Victim, Interrogator
- Recovery of a Lost One – Seeker, One Found
- Loss of Loved Ones – Kinsman Slain, Kinsman Witness, Executioner
Operation Iraqi Freedom was presented by Bush’s team with multiple storylines, which is why it was never widely accepted.
Obtaining: Saddam desired WMDs with George W. Bush opposing and the UN as impotent Arbiter. When the WMDs don’t turn up, then this story gets twisted inevitably into a story that turns on foolishness, whether real or perceived.
Daring Enterprise: George W. Bush going against Saddam with Democracy for Iraq as his goal.
Loss of Loved Ones: Saddam was the executioner who slayed hundreds of thousands, their kin bore witness at his trial.
Ambition: Saddam had an ambition to be the big cheese in the middle east by using terror and weapons of mass destruction, and was halfway to wriggling out of sanctions by means of judiciously placed bribes at the United Nations and other places. But George W. Bush stood against him.
Even worse, political opponents and media have added to the confusion by casting it as Madness, Disaster, Revolt, or Fatal Imprudence, all with George W. Bush as the tragic figure and Saddam as a bit player.
What is to be done with these? Now that we know the kinds of stories that reporters are using to frame and make meaning of the events that they see, those they interview can suggest a frame for the story. Reporters are lazy, just like everyone else. Though some are pathological and will always look for a way to frame events in the worst possible light, most will be thankful for a frame they can use to produce a coherent storyline. When speaking with reporters and other influential folks, always suggest a storyline that serves the purpose of the counterjihad.
Related: Counterterrorism Blog