American Power After Afghanistan
How to Rightsize the Country’s Global Role
Two new books about the May 2, 2011, raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama bin Laden are scribbling in the margins of the first draft of history. No Easy Day, written by Matt Bissonnette (under the pen name Mark Owen), a Navy SEAL who participated in the operation, offers a fresh accounting of what will likely be remembered as one of the biggest moments of the decade. No Easy Day has roiled Washington. It has also sparked the publication of a competing e-book, No Easy Op, which was quickly assembled by a group of special operations veterans who question Bissonnette's motivations and criticize his incomplete recounting of what actually happened on that moonless night in South Asia.
Those involved seem to assume that the truths they uncover today will be chiseled into the historical record tomorrow. What survives in historical memory, however, depends as much on patterns of human understanding and memory as on reports, details, and arguments churning through the news cycle. Rather than the truth freeing itself through revelation and sharing, what is actually remembered about the killing of the world's most wanted man will likely be shaped by larger, more commandeering forces. Political pundits recognize this, which is why they talk about "controlling the narrative."
A century of research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology offers insights into how processes of historical memory work. Human beings are quite adept at remembering the gist of events, yet they often fail to hold firmly onto details. The human mind likes a good story, so remembering means holding on to the most important plot twists -- i.e. SEAL Team 6 killed bin Laden -- but not everything that led up to them.
Is it possible for powerful spin masters to control a story, especially one as closely watched and important as the raid in Abbottabad? If it were, then the memory of the raid would be largely in their hands. But every society has only a few tropes that jibe with their collective identities. A narrative at odds with those core stories will have a harder time gaining traction, a constraint on those who would control what is remembered and what is forgotten.
Masterful politicians understand this very well. Think of the "city upon a hill" trope that has been hardwired into the national psyche since John Winthrop's famous Puritan sermon in 1630, when he said, "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." People elsewhere in the world may find this idea puzzling, even arrogant, but it remains an underlying code of the U.S. political culture. Skilled communicators, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, have understood this and harnessed the "city upon a hill" story when making rhetorical appeals for the nation to act. Rather than basing these petitions on the need to expand our markets or access to resources, for example, they have consistently chosen to talk about the United States' role as a beacon of freedom and liberty for others.
Another enduring narrative at the core of U.S. identity is the heroic saga that begins with an unprovoked attack from an external enemy, moves on to the massive and spirited response, and ends with a decisive victory. Other nations employ this arc, too -- think of Russia and its historical memory of Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler. In the United States, this narrative helped make sense of events such as the War of 1812, and it took on particular meaning after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, which in turn echoed loudly on 9/11. And just as in the defeat of Japan in 1945, killing bin Laden served as a coda, providing closure and assembling events into a meaningful whole.
So the stakes of understanding what happened in Abbottabad are high, hence the tension and acrimony over the publication of No Easy Day, as well as the great pains the White House took to disseminate its version of events in the hours immediately following the raid . Other raids in Afghanistan and elsewhere might have involved greater risks and heroism, yet because they were not a central part of this larger narrative template, they had less chance of entering the national memory. As the ideal coda for the narrative arc that started with 9/11, the Abbottabad raid is likely to push aside other candidates for inclusion.
Scholars and scientists have only a partial understanding of how narrative templates shape national memory, but a few things are clear: They encourage a cognitive narcissism that privileges a nation's own interpretation of events to the exclusion of others and makes it difficult to believe that anyone else could offer other credible information. In The Irony of American History, the U.S. philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr describes such a phenomenon during the Cold War: "We are as persuaded as [the Soviets] that our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of any of our actions."
This kind of narcissism runs so deep that challenges to one nation's view of reality can be interpreted as challenges to its very honor. Americans, for example, find the Russian claim that former U.S. President Harry Truman used atomic weapons in 1945 to intimidate Stalin rather than force the surrender of Japan not only surprising but offensive. The city-upon-a-hill narrative template, after all, suggests that Truman simply could not have had such a motive.
Narrative templates function at an unconscious level and often influence the instantaneous, unreflective decisions that go into forming historical memory. Cognitive scientists have recently provided extensive documentation of the human tendency to jump to conclusions about a situation with little rational thought. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman highlights the quick, automatic decision-making that permeates our lives. We tend to make most decisions quickly and with little sense of control -- even when we know we should be proceeding more deliberately. We may rely on stereotypes, for example, even when we have statistical procedures readily at hand for determining the likely behavior of others.
Kahneman's research demonstrates that we tend to be overconfident in what he calls System 1 thinking. This form of decision-making may have had advantages in dealing with problems our evolutionary ancestors confronted, but it is likely to produce errors in modern society. In an age of complex financial markets, for example, limits of System 1 thinking are evident in the tunnel vision that makes for misguided investment decisions. Negative outcomes often stem from quick decisions that fail to consider all the relevant dimensions of a complex context.
The other character in Kahneman's story of human thinking, System 2, occasionally steps in and moves one to consider the alternatives, but it is "lazy" (his word) and often leaves quick, emotional System 1 processes unsupervised. In other words, most thinking, including the thinking about past events involved in national memory, may occur in the blink of an eye and amount to what Kahneman calls "a machine for jumping to conclusions."
Although it may be unflattering, Kahneman, along with many other figures in cognitive science, provides a convincing picture of the all-too-human tendency to succumb to System 1 thinking, with important implications for historical memory. Much of the recollection of an event such as the Abbottabad raid will be the product of unreflective, nearly instantaneous judgments grounded in the nation's narrative templates, not the kind of careful consideration of evidence and alternative explanations used by historians. Information acquired along the way that is not consistent with our stock of stories will often fail to be considered and will drop out of national memory, even in the face of strenuous efforts to steer the narrative in other directions.
All this means that many of the information contained in No Easy Day and its critiques have little chance of becoming part of the nation's historical memory. Instead, the story will be about the gist of the event at the expense of details. This will be based on quick, confident decisions made independent of conscious reflection. Moreover, the account will be shaped by a national narrative template, which means it will involve a dose of cognitive narcissism.
These forces make it possible for an entire population to understand the past in a similar way, and this has great benefits when it comes to forming national identity and will. But these forces come at a cost: They oversimplify and limit perspective. The antidote is to treat accounts of the past as part of an ongoing dialogue rather than a frozen truth. The criticisms that No Good Op makes of No Good Day mark the beginning of such a dialogue, but what will come of it will likely be limited. In more ways than not, the killing of bin Laden has already been inscribed in the nation's historical memory; any changes to what is remembered, true or not, will be hard to make.