How Narrative Impacts Warfare

F-35 jagerfly på Luke Air Base / 62nd FS Photo Shoot on the ramp at Luke AFB. (Photo by Morten Hanche/Forsvaret/Royal Norwegian Army)

Part of the war games the U.S. and Norway are currently conducting ought to involve practice in the deployment of strategic narrative. In what may be the understatement of the decade, one Norwegian official said, “we have gradually seen more and more … strategic messages being sent [by Moscow].” It is imperative that coalition forces have a grip on how narrative operates in contemporary warfare.

By Ajit Maan, Ph.D.
Strategic Narrative Expert

The connection may seem counter-intuitive: what do stories have to do with bombs and bullets? Everything. What we are seeing right now, world over, is a return to an ancient form of warfare: the art of influence. And stories have everything to do with influence.

Warfare has been taken from modern battlefields into ancient battlefields – the grey zones between war and peace. And as a result, public opinion has become the target. Undermining public trust in government is high on the list “to do” list of those forces seeking to destabilize communities. The role of narrative strategies is central to grey zone maneuvering when the battlefield is not limited to physical territory, and even when it is.

The center of gravity now is the narrative space. And dominating it should be a priority. That is where violent extremist non-state actors fight best. That is where foreign governments have proven effective in waging war fight without getting dirty hands. And the US and coalition forces are having serious trouble keeping up.

Narrative directly impacts the threat environment whether in a physical conflict zone, in terms of the effects of domestic radicalization, or the interference of foreign governments in domestic politics. Any influence operation that fails to account specifically for narrative influence will not be able to accurately anticipate nor calculate human dimension outcomes. And warfare is, ultimately, a human endeavor.

Our continued failure to understand, plan, and execute synchronized maneuvers in the narrative space will allow our enemies continued advantage over us. Coalition allies should develop pedagogical from Basic to War College that define narrative from micro to macro, and explain how to coordinate and execute operations in the ever-expanding narrative space. That is precisely where our enemies dominate, and no amount of firepower will create a win in that space (although denying territory can degrade the enemies narrative if a large part of it is territorial in nature).

We need:

  1. A Meta Narrative that influences how the international community regards a situation – one that encourages a perspective that is consistent with coalition interests.
  2. Strategic (Master) Narrative that describes what we are doing, why we are doing it, how it will help the situation, and how the TA – national/international community should respond and how they will benefit by such a response.
  3. Operational Narratives that connect and synchronize the micro and macro narratives in action.
  4. Tactical (personal/micro) level Narratives that address the concerns of local populations, domestic audiences, and soldiers on the ground.

We need to create social resilience to attacks on our narrative; we need to be prepared to adapt and quickly recover from hits. A civil-military alliance is necessary to protect infrastructure, to withstand cyber attacks, and to maintain defense capabilities. We need to develop both offensive and defensive cyber operations, intelligence operations, information and social media campaigns. We need to be able to deal effectively with uncontrolled movements of masses of people. Predictive analysis is increasingly important to the homeland. Unpredictability can be a weapon.

What we need are pre-conflict stability operations, both foreign and domestic. And one of the many purposes storytelling has served, since the dawn of man, is to stabilize (or destabilize) populations.

Ajit Maan is President of Narrative Strategies, a think-and-do tank focused on the non-kinetic aspects of counter-terrorism, security, and national defense. She is author of Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, and Editor of Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare.



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