Purnima Bose’s scholarly study Intervention Narratives: Afghanistan, the United States, and the Global War on Terror nicely complements Caleb Cage’s War Narratives: Shaping Beliefs, Blurring Truths in the Middle East, which I reviewe here. Much as Cage’s book does for Iraq, Intervention Narratives locates dominant themes in Afghan war-writing and film that reflect and shape American attitudes about the Afghanistan War held by war-participants, the populace, the media, and government officials. Even more so than Cage does in War Narratives, Intervention Narratives provides theoretical underpinning to explicate the narratives Bose analyzes, and Bose also offers a comprehensive thesis about what makes them persuasive, compulsively repeated, and ultimately harmful.
By “intervention narratives,” Bose directs attention to the stories told by Americans about individual endeavors within the larger historical sweep of American engagement with Afghanistan dating back to the Cold War (a few Indian and Pakistani books and films are also analyzed for contrast). The focus, then, is primarily on memoirs and movies that tell stories of highly-individualized personal efforts by Americans in Afghanistan to influence the war. Bose suggests that however grander narratives about the war might have it, the personal sagas she examines better or best reveal the cultural dreams that prohibit honest reckoning with the catastrophic failure of the Afghanistan mission over forty years. The particular target of Intervention Narratives are “feel good” books and movies that attempt to justify their subjects’ Afghanistan endeavors and try to foster sentiment that American mission in Afghanistan has been anything other than a debacle. From the Introduction:
I have argued that the ideological work of these four intervention narratives is reparative and aimed at generating positive feelings about the Afghan war. Telling ourselves that we supported ‘the good guys’ against evil communists, we inspired Afghan women to become entrepreneurs, we rescued adorable dogs, and we eliminated the ‘bad guys’ contributes to the fantasy that we are on the right side of history.
In Chapter One, Bose examines what she calls “The Premature Withdrawal Narrative,” which locates blame for the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s on the abandonment of the Afghan mujahedeen to the Taliban after the expulsion of the Soviet Union. Key to the idea of “premature withdrawal” are movies such as Charlie Wilson’s War, to use one of Bose’s examples, that glorify heroic individuals who aid the mujahedeen only to have their accomplishments undercut by the government they serve. The problem, Bose asserts, is that these stories come at the expense of truth, such as that Charlie Wilson wasn’t nearly as effective as the movie about him would have it, and to the extent that he was successful, he exacerbated patterns of violence within Afghanistan that tore the country apart in the 1980s and from which it still suffers. But belief that America, or at least one American, accomplished something significant long afterwards fueled foolish optimism that later efforts to intervene in Afghan political, cultural, and tribal dynamics might prove effective, while obscuring long-lasting, endlessly repeated mischief (read, “carnage”) generated by America’s initial support for the mujahedeen.
The next two chapters describe quirky but seemingly well-meaning non-military Afghanistan interventions by Americans in the years after 9/11. Chapter Two, titled “The Capitalist-Rescue Narrative—Afghan Women and Micro-Entrepreneurship,” examines two memoirs by American women that describe the author’s effort to help Afghan women start small businesses centered around beauty and fashion. Chapter Three, “The Canine-Rescue Narrative and Post-Humanist Humanitarianism,” identifies a corpus of stories and movies about elaborate and expensive efforts to bring military working dogs and soldier FOB pets to America from Afghanistan. Bose, however, is not impressed by these type of endeavors, finding them ineffective, misguided, and/or oblivious to the real conditions of war and culture in Afghanistan, and the books and movies written about them unfortunately more self-promotional than caring or wise.
As evidence that American ideas about helping Afghanistan could be quite loopy, beauty-and-fashion and dog-rescue sagas are damning, but not exactly consequential. In Chapter Four “The Retributive-Justice Narrative—Osama bin Laden as Simulacra” Intervention Narratives takes a much more trenchant bite into the cultural and psychological fantasies that fueled American military endeavor in Afghanistan. Bose calls SEAL memoir No Easy Day: The First-hand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden by Mark Owen (a pseudonym for ex-SEAL Matt Bissonnette) an example of self-justifying “life-writing” by an elite-warrior who claims he can’t be held accountable for “minor” transgressions of just-war law, policy, and ethics because his commitment to “retributive justice”—killing bin Laden—supersedes all other considerations. The eight-to-ten pages in which Bose interrogates No Easy Day, and by extension the mythos and self-conception of all SEAL memoirs and special operations generally, is the most exciting part of Intervention Narratives, for my money:
Structured as a teleology that culminates in bin Laden’s execution, Owen’s narrative is centrally about the production of techno-military masculinity that finds its legitimization and actualization in retributive justice. No Easy Day reveals how this particular gendered and racialized subjectivity is dependent on surveillance technology and sophisticated weapons that render Owen into a quasi-cyborg. Read against the grain, the memoir discloses the fragile nature of life under the US rule of law, more often represented by Owen as burdensome bureaucracy, which can be jettisoned at will by agents of the state.
Bose continues by defining four attributes of “techno-military masculinity”: “extreme physical fitness, dependency on technological prosthetics, Euro-American male superiority, and disdain for civilian authorities.” In Bose’s view, the cultivation of techno-military masculinity has become an end in itself, an intoxicating preoccupation and identity for white males made available by contemporary war, quite independent of and even antagonistic to older conceptions of soldiering and soldierly obligation to higher authority and ethical precepts.
Hey, if the desert combat boots fit, American military war-farers will just have to wear them, and I’ve got blood on my size-12s, too. Still, one might point out that Matt Bissonnette’s ideas about the war aren’t every soldier’s ideas, and one wonders how a film such as Zero Dark Thirty, in which the female agent played by Jessica Chastain out-machos her male CIA colleagues and SEAL partners in pursuit of bin Laden, fits the “techno-military masculinity” formula. But lest I’ve given the impression that Intervention Narratives is unfair to true-blue American heroes who have done the best they can under difficult circumstances, Bose ends by asserting that responsibility for the graves we have spent forty years digging in Afghanistan starts on-high and transcends partisan politics. Finding more similarity than discontinuity in presidential policies toward Afghanistan from Bush to Obama to Trump, in spite of their differences in style (great line: “Bush’s blandness, Obama’s urbanity, and Trump’s vulgarity”), in the conclusion Bose proposes that stories centered on somewhat quixotic minor figures in the long war also help define and explain the larger perspectives and actions of its major players, complete with characteristic mistakes, blind-spots, lapses in logic and judgment, and self-serving machinations.
Intervention Narratives is one of number of scholarly studies in a welcome new series titled War Culture, published by Rutgers University Press. Many books in the War Culture series focus on 21st-century war, which is even more welcome, and I look forward to reading and thinking about them.
Purnima Bose, Intervention Narratives: Afghanistan, the United States, and the Global War on Terror. Rutgers UP, 2020.