Best Defense

Iraq and ‘the dominant narrative’

Whilst recuperating from the ‘flu, I’ve been contemplating the phrase “the dominant narrative.” It is implicitly negative, akin to labeling something “the conventional wisdom.” I was thinking about this again because of a dumb piece that ran in yesterday’s Washington Post. Let’s break it down here. What is wrong with narrative? As it was put ...

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Whilst recuperating from the ‘flu, I’ve been contemplating the phrase “the dominant narrative.” It is implicitly negative, akin to labeling something “the conventional wisdom.” I was thinking about this again because of a dumb piece that ran in yesterday’s Washington Post.

Let’s break it down here. What is wrong with narrative? As it was put by Jerome Bruner, the social psychologist who seems to have coined the term “dominant narrative,” people have “a readiness or predisposition to organize experience into a narrative form, into plot structures and the rest.” In other words, this is the manner in which human beings explain things to each other—that is, with what my Wikipal calls “sequential, action-oriented, detail-driven thought,” which, by the way, I would call the definition of a good newspaper story. Or of the 1,001 Arabian Nights.

So, nothing wrong with narrative—or with wisdom, for that matter. In both cases, the issue is with the modifier. “Dominant” is a loaded word, carrying connotations of being overbearing. In the context of Iraq, I hear the phrase “dominant narrative” used most often by people who think that the American effort in Iraq was pretty good in 2006. In their view, they were more or less doing all the right counterinsurgency tasks that surge-era commanders are credited with doing in 2007-08. If their view is accepted, then the American people have been subjected to a massive fraud by the military and reporters who cover it. 

I am sorry, but I am not buying it. Yes, the public (along with writers such as myself) has signed up to the narrative that American military operations in Iraq were radically different in 2007 from the previous several years. This is why: 

  • When I was in Baghdad in January and February 2006, there were almost no American troops evident in the streets. This was certainly not the way Baghdad felt in the spring and summer of 2007, during the surge. 

 

  • Later in 2006, American troops did indeed move out into the streets, in two operations called “Together Forward I” and “Together Forward II.” Both failed, and central Iraq slid into a small civil war.
  • There were a few American outposts in the city back in 2006, but nothing like the three-score that were established in the spring of 2007.

  • In 2006, the top priority of the American mission was transitioning to Iraqi authority. In 2007, this was changed to protecting the Iraqi people. Big difference that affected the mission in myriad ways. 

Yes, the turning of the insurgency made a big difference, as did the fact that by the surge had begun, the ethnic cleansing of much of Baghdad was largely completed. Those facts, combined with a new American approach, made the war feel very different to me in 2007 than it had from 2003 through 2006. This is in no way a hit on the troops who did their best in those earlier years. It is indeed a hit on their leaders.  

“Narrate that,” I am tempted to conclude–but then it occurs to me, I already did, in my latest book.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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