FRAMESHOP:FRAMESHOP: STUCK IN THE STORY

Today's Posts (Tue June 28, 2005): 9:00am EST: Stuck in the Story 12:00pm EST: The Story We're Stuck In 3:00pm EST: A New Story 5:00pm EST: Magic Words to Listen for in the President's Speech Stuck in the Story No...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 06/28/2005

Stuck

Today's Posts (Tue June 28, 2005)

9:00am EST:  Stuck in the Story

12:00pm EST: The Story We're Stuck In

3:00pm EST:  A New Story

5:00pm EST: Magic Words to Listen for in the President's Speech

Stuck in the Story

No matter how bad things get in Iraq, we as a nation are sticking to our story. 

The majority of Americans now disagree with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld about the details of what is happening in Iraq, but still we are sticking to the story.

The problem is not that Americans are stubborn or that we all want to fight a protracted war in Iraq.  None of us want that.  The problem is that there is only one story.

The story that Americans stick to was first told to us by the White House following the attacks of September 11, and we have been repeating it over and over again ever since. At that time, the story mobilized a nation, unified a fiercely divided political system, and inspired a new generation to serve in the military.  Even if many of us did not agree with every detail, it was still a good story.  Or at the very least, in the absence of any other stories, we went with it.

But a lot has happened since we first heard the story of Iraq.  Too many of our most dedicated relatives and friends have died because we are in Iraq.   Too many of our prisoners of war have been treated in a cruel, un-American manner because of Iraq.  Too much money and to many allies have been lost because we are in Iraq.   Too much anxiety and fear has clouded the nation's future because we are in Iraq.  All these things have happened, but still America has stuck with the one story we have about Iraq.

Whether Democrats or Republicans have suffered more because of the story about Iraq depends on who you ask.  But much more important than political fortunes, the absence of a new story about Iraq has led to a very serious crisis for those Americans dedicating their lives to service in the Armed Forces.  They are now in trouble because of this one story that we keep telling.  And when they are in trouble, we are all in trouble. 

But whose job is it to come up with a new story?  In theory, that job belongs to the President, since he is the Commander-in-Chief and he is responsible for leading the nation in matters of national defense. Unfortunately, it does not seem that President Bush is up to the task.   As Americans will see tonight on national television, nobody in America is more stuck in the story than President Bush. 

As for the Democrats:  they do not like the story, they have tried hard to fight the story, but they are stuck in it, too.  Rather than tell a new story about Iraq, Congressional Democrats have chosen to fight the President on the details of his story.  Oversight is, undoubtedly, an important role for Democrats to play, but it should not be the only role.

It's time to tell a new story.

The Story We're Stuck In

The story America is stuck in about Iraq is a tale of heroic liberation.

In its most classic form, the heroic liberation tale is the story of the cavalry riding over the hill, bugles blazing, horse hooves clomping, bows and arrows whizzing past.  On a much grander scale, the invasion of France on D-Day is a also a heroic liberation tale, and more recently the intrusion into Kuwait to turn back the Iraqi occupation. 

The heroic liberation is a story that resonates with most Americans as it is steeped in our own national history and mythology--some true, some not true, but all of it understood by the culture at large. 

Here is a condensed version of the heroic liberation tale that the White House keeps repeating, and which is the one story about Iraq that we have at the moment:

On September 11, 2001, America was attacked by terrorist forces based in Afghanistan.  Thus, began The War on Terror.  Rather than attack out of revenge, the US government decided that the solution to terrorism was to liberate those nations in the world who had been overrun by despotic rule.  Soon thereafter, the US military retaliated against the despotic nation where the most terrorists were hiding:  Afghanistan.  In the process, Afghanistan was liberated and became a democracy.  Unfortunately, many terrorists fled to other countries sympathetic to their cause, thereby posing a continuing threat to the United States.  And so, as the next phase of The War on Terror, the United States liberated the nation of Iraq from the despotic control of Saddam Hussein.   But just as soon as Iraq was free, terrorists from all over the world descended on Iraq in a desperate effort to turn back the liberation.  As a result, America remains in Iraq to assist the free Iraqi government in their effort to defeat the insurgency against Democracy.  America will stay in Iraq until this insurgency is defeated, for to do leave now would be to concede what is not the central battle in The War on Terrorism.  The safety of America and the future of the free world depends on our resolve.  American will be victorious.

The great power in the heroic liberation tale is the role of absolute moral virtue it gives to the liberators.  There is an elegance and clarity to it.  The good king defeats the bad king, and the then the people of the kingdom are free.  We know what role we are supposed to play.  The act of liberation can be visualized in simple terms: gate thrown open with prisoners running free; townspeople cheering in a central square; the statue of the dictator toppled and destroyed.

Most importantly, the heroic liberation tale gives a clear role to those who seek to serve the country in the interest of justice.   For it is justice more than any other value that holds the heroic liberation tale in the minds of the American people.  We may be fighting for the freedom of the Iraqi people, but we do so for the sake of justice.  So long as we are liberators, the road may get difficult, but we know that our work is true and our cause is just.

The liberation tale also brings people together.  There are despots in the world and we all want to believe that the world would be a better place without them.  Happy or not with the people leading the charge, we are willing to give heroic liberation a try.

But there are also three big problems with the heroic liberation tale:

  1. The Liberated: Success in the heroic liberation story depends almost entirely on the perception of the oppressed that they are indeed being liberated.  In World War II, for example, this was clearly the case.  Europe was overrun by a cancerous, violent regime that destroyed millions of lives in a seemingly unstoppable quest for world domination.  Just about under their control wanted to be liberated.  Iraq has not been so clear.  Many people crave liberation, but there is at best a balance of people who wanted and did not want to be liberated. 
  2. The Liberators:  Belief in the justice of the heroic liberation story by those who are doing the liberating is very much tied to the ongoing perception that the work is just.  Each time the work of liberation is reacted to as an act of domination, soldiers begin to doubt themselves.  Doubt,  unfortunately, dissipates slowly and tends to accumulate in such a way that it begins to weaken the morale of the liberation.  It is a terrible cycle.  The more people  doubt themselves as liberators, the more people suspect their motives.  Heroes become villains, both in their own eyes and the eyes of the people being liberated.
  3. Results Felt at Home: Enthusiasm for the story of heroic liberation is directly linked to how much that liberation increases the feeling of well being or safety in the American public.  In World War II, the liberation of Europe made ordinary Americans weep.  The liberation of Kuwait brought a feeling of relief to the American public. Unfortunately,  the current liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein has not translated directly into any feeling of safety or relief.  Quite the opposite.  With each passing day, more families feel unsafe as a result of the continuing violence.  The liberation is having a negative impact.

All three of these factors have come into play in the current  situation in Iraq, but the story has remained the same.

What happens when things go bad, then, is that certain key parts of the heroic liberation tale are overemphasized to compensate.

For example, in response to short term losses, we are told that the liberation is the product of not believing deeply enough in the mission of liberation.  This, of course, is an overcompensation for the growing sense that neither the liberators or the liberated believe any more in the story.

In response to a lingering conflict seemingly without end, we are told that decisive victory depends on staying the course until the end.  This is an overcompensation for the growing sense that the liberation will not take place after all.

And we are told that we are much, much safer now than before the liberation began, which is an overcompensation for the increasing anxiety that we feel as the liberation lingers.

These over-compensations are rife with sincere and passionate appeals to the public on behalf of the liberators on the battlefield.  Despite the increasing concern  for those relatives and  friends  of the American public who are stuck in the battlefield, the public is told that success in the battlefield depends on them not turning against the soldiers.

Thus, where the story of heroic liberation begins as an inspiring tale, it quickly descends into contradictions and anger.  Because the heroic liberation tale is what motivates the soldiers in the field, leadership works to keep it active in their minds.  But the longer the the liberation lingers without clear success, the more that tale in the minds of the soldiers and the public leads to frustration, morale problems, and self doubt.

At this point, the only possible solution is to provide a new story that helps everyone make sense of what is happening on the ground, that re-empowers those Americans serving in the Armed Forces, and opens the way to completing the mission.

A New Story

A new story about Iraq should be a story of unity and service.

The stories of unity and service are at the very foundation of American history and progress, and have always been present when the nation has faced a great challenge.  The Declaration of Independence is couched in a story of unity and service.  Lincoln's ideas were framed by a story of unity and service.  FDR's appeal to the nation following the attack on Pearl Harbor was a narrative of unity and service. And more recently, John F. Kennedy's vision of a stronger America was based in a story of unity and service.

Building a new story for Iraq is work separate from the task of critiquing the problems in Iraq. There are many problems in Iraq that need to be addressed without pause, ranging from cronyism in military contracts, manipulation of Congress through false intelligence, over spending, misappropriation of US funds and Iraqi resources, environmental violations, and so forth.  There are many issues to be critiqued and that critique is an important part of governing through checks and balances.  But a new story about Iraq is not a critique.  It is a broad narrative that refocuses purpose, re-empowers our servicemen and servicewomen, and paves the way for completion.

Here is one example of what a new story based on unity and service might look like:

America is strongest when we stand together at home and the world is safest when America leads by example abroad.   On September 11, our nation's strength was tested, but not broken.  No sooner were we struck down, than we all stood back up, shoulder to shoulder, committed to restoring peace and justice in a world so suddenly and brutally assaulted.  As it became necessary to face the threat of terrorists seeking to strike again, Americans serving in our Armed Forces led the world by example, unifying our allies in their selfless dedication, and completing the difficult work of containing those who  seek further to harm our citizens as well as those of our allies.  There will always be those in the world who are threatened by America's greatest asset:  unity and dedication to service.  But through our tireless commitment to each other and to our allies, to the value of service and the strength of our ideals, unity and peace will prevail.

Many Americans are out of practice when it comes to speaking about our military in terms of such lofty ideals as "unity and service."   Some may even think that the only new story America should tell about Iraq is the story that casts the White House as cheats and war criminals for lying to the American public and destroying Iraq.  Nonetheless, while there will always be a need to deal with the errors committed in Iraq, our first priority must be to generate a new story that will help us understand a better way to solve those problems and move forward.

The great strength of a unity and service story about Iraq is its focus on the men and women serving on the front lines.  They are not just warriors, they are also leaders, ambassadors of American idealism, and catalysts of the very unity that all  Americans know to be the source of our independence and our strength. 

Now, in this narrative we see some possible responses to the problems we face in Iraq, today:

  1. Hired Guns Undermine Unity, Mock Dedication to Service:  One of the key problems in Iraq, today, is an emphasis on outsourcing military strength and services in the interest of saving money.  The goal of our military should always be to lead the world by example.  The more we dilute our enlisted servicemen and servicewomen with contract labor, the more we undermine our greatest strength. 
  2. There Can Be No success Without Unity: History has shown time and time again how a battle that ends in deep divisions between allies  actually leaves the world a more dangerous place.  One key problem we have in Iraq has resulted from our overvaluing of individual strength, and an under appreciation of the power of our example to unify the world, solve problems, and restore peace.  Our soldiers are not just killers, they are examples of American character who lead by example.
  3. The Cause Must be Honest to Be Just:  Dedication to service garnered on false pretenses is a deep threat to the strength and dignity of our Armed Forces, and hence our nation.  While the nation was unified in its belief that the perpetrators of the September 11 massacre should confronted with our military, we were not clear what the next step should be.  Resorting to a pre-September 11 plan for forcing American strength into Iraq has weakened national unity, has brought Americans to the battlefield on false purposes, and has created doubt and suspicion between America and our allies.   The only way to restore unity and our strength is through a complete re-evaluation of the policy such that Americans can proudly re-dedicate themselves to service, and America's allies can rededicate themselves to working with us.

When Iraq is discussed through a story of unity and service, the concern over what can be lost and what can be won changes dramatically.

In the current story, the White House talks only about losing the war.  In the new story, we will talk about re-evaluating our policy in order to win back American unity at home and leadership abroad.  In the new story, we stand to lose the most not by giving up the fight, but by refusing to take seriously how our current policies are weakening the nation by weakening the resolve of our citizens to serve.  In the new story, victory is not a discourse about creating an Iraqi government, but about restoring faith in American idealism in our own hearts and in the eyes of the world.

Unity and service is just one new story.  Potentially there could be several. But it is a beginning.

Unfortunately, it is likely that the President is to deeply entrenched in the heroic liberation tale to see how damaging it has become to American idealism at home and our ability to play a leadership role abroad. 

In tonight's televised speech, it is likely that the President will use words that attempt to re-emphasize the heroic liberation story in Iraq.  To prepare for this, it is important to take a few moments to consider some of the magic words that will be repeated this evening.

Magic Words to Listen for in the President's Speech

While most Americans want the President so stop using the same story of heroic liberation when he talks about Iraq, the President is committed to sticking with it.  Even though the White House initially chose a story about retribution in the days after September 11, and then subsequently switched to a story of heroic liberation, they have been firm every since.  This is unfortunate, because the President has unique power in American society to quickly change how people view world events through the language that he uses. 

In the President's speech to the nation, tonight, we can expect these phrases to be  used to re-emphasize the heroic narrative story:

  1. "Keep the American People Informed":   Much has been said about how the President has lied about the details of Iraq, so we can expect the President to emphasize how much he believes in telling the truth to the American people. 
  2. "A Time of Testing":  This key phrase will be used by the President to overcompensate in the face of increasing doubt about whether or not American is actually engage din in the liberation of Iraq.  Rather than addressing the public concern that our soldier's dedication to service has been undermined, and that our mission needs to be re-evaluated, the President will simply call on the nation to not waver in times of difficulty.  In fact, believe that the mission needs to be re-evaluated is not about wavering, it is about dedication to service and a belief that the nation must be re-unified to achieve our military goals abroad.
  3. "Terrorists Seek to Shake Our Will": Here the President will once again emphasize the liberation narrative, and call on us to stand firm.  However, due to his complete reliance on the heroic liberation story about Iraq, the President is either unable or unwilling to see the source of the anxieties amongst the public and our soldiers.
  4. "One Year Anniversary": The President  has timed his speech on the one-year anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq, and he will emphasize this point, tomorrow.  This will attempt to once again hit on the story of heroic liberation.  If there is an anniversary, that means that the story of liberation must be true.  But we all know that things have become much more complicated than the President is willing to discuss.
  5. "No Regard for Human Life":  The President will use this phrase to characterize the fighters that our men and women in the Armed Forces are confronting  in Iraq.  Rather than talk about solutions, the President will prefer to simply demonize the enemy in an attempt to intensify America's anger.  In fact, the main reason Americans are now anger has less to do with the terrorists than the discrepancies between the heroic liberation story and what is actually happening on the ground in Iraq.
  6. "Clear Path to Victory":  This phrase will be used by the President and by Dick Cheney in the days ahead.  The idea also emphasizes the heroic liberation narrative.  It is a phrase built on a dangerous fallacy--that someday in the future, the insurgency will go away by the sheer force of our guns and soldiers.  In fact, the key to restoring peace in Iraq is not guns, but our ability to unify and lead. 

There may be more phrases repeated in the speech than listed here, so listen carefully for anything that emphasizes the heroic liberation story. 

If the heroic liberation story remains the one story that Americans resort to in their discussion of Iraq, our policy there will continue to flounder.

But if the American public is willing to give voice to a new story about American unity and dedication to service, that will have a lasting and positive impact on Americans at home and in the battlefield.

Keep the conversation going.

© 2005 Jeffrey Feldman
© Jeffrey Feldman 2005, Frameshop

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