How the US Army Visually Narrates the Fall of Afghanistan

In a blog post published last week, I examined how different actors framed, or narrated, the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan. Examining the use of digital diplomacy by world leaders, Embassies, diplomats and individuals, I demonstrated that social media are a competitive framing arena in which multiple actors vie over the attention of digital publics while hoping to shape public perception of world events.

Although different actors framed the fall of Afghanistan in different ways, with some labeling it a fiasco and others stating that it was foreseeable, there was a dominant frame of chaos, disorder and debacle. Images circulated online documented the mayhem at Kabul airport with Afghan citizens clinging to, and falling from, US planes taking off the ground. While American and European diplomats used Twitter to document their efforts to evacuate citizens and allies, media channels and individuals negated this frame by sharing horrific images and videos of the deteriorating conditions at Kabul airport.

This week a new frame has emerged- that of a humanitarian crisis. This frame is most evident on the social media accounts of the US Department of Defense. Images and videos shared on Twitter in recent days do not focus on military activities to secure Kabul airport, on the airlift of allies or on military strategies to prevent the Taliban from entering the airport. Nor do tweets detail military actions taken to safeguard US diplomats or military Alliances that will collectively face the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan. Rather, the images shared by the Department of Defense mostly depict interactions between US soldiers and Afghan children. Through these images, the military effort in Kabul is transformed into a humanitarian operation meant to elevate suffering and violence. In so doing, the Department of Defense negates the negative framing of Afghanistan’s fall as a US strategic blunder similar only to the fall of Saigon.

To date, the visuals shared by the Department of Defense can be categorized based on four themes. One group of images features US soldiers feeding and providing children with water at Kabul airport.  A second set of images depicts US soldiers playing with Afghan children. In one image, shown below, Kabul airport is actually home to soccer games between soldiers and children.

A third theme focuses on the most vulnerable population- babies awaiting evacuation with their families. In these images, US soldiers, both male and female, cradle Afghan babies while still wearing their full military uniforms. Through these visuals, the US army is transformed from an occupying force, or a military farce, into a great humanitarian. These images, which exude a sense of calm, directly negate the videos of chaos published last week. Indeed, these visuals suggest that the situation in the airport is not only secure, but safe enough for soldiers to take time and cradle babies. There is also a powerful analogy. The US remains committed to the future of Afghanistan which is symbolized through infants. There may also be an assertion that no man, woman or child will be left behind. Unlike Saigon, America is committed to airlifting all those families that helped the US during its 20-year war in Afghanistan.

The final themes depict US soldiers interacting with children, be it in Kabul airport or in Germany during transit. These visuals help to humanize the US military, and perhaps the US itself. These are visuals that supposedly capture intimate human interactions. The moments captured through the camera lens are not staged but arise naturally as one human interacts with another. As is often the case with digital diplomacy, these images offer social media users a voyeur’s look into the American airlift operation.

Notably, not only did these visuals resonate with social media users, who shared them thousands of times, but the framing offered by the Department of Defense has been adopted by several news agencies. Some news organizations documented a woman boarding an evacuation flight after just giving birth to a baby. In other instances, individual journalists used Twitter to describe the warm and compassionate interactions between US troops and Afghan children. Even academics published these images carrying the Department’s frame further, and farther online.

The competition over the framing of Afghanistan is not over. Diplomatic actors are now engrossed in the task of shaping the collective memory of social media users. When people think of Kabul’s fall in 10 years’ time, what will come to mind? Visuals and images play a crucial role in collective memory. Certain images become iconic or clichés, they are used time and again to reference a historical event. It is through visuals that the past is summoned to the present. This is true of the famous image of US soldiers raising the American flag in Iwo Jima, or the ‘Napalm Girl’ in Vietnam. Recognizing the importance of visuals, the US Department of Defense is taking part in the visual narration of America’s exit from Afghanistan, hoping that in 10 years’ time, people will recall image of US soldiers cradling Afghan babies as opposed to visuals of chaos, mayhem and death.

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