Understanding the Importance of Narrative

Sextus: You can break a man's skull. You can arrest him. You can throw him into a dungeon. But how do you control what's up here? [taps his head] How do you fight an idea?

Messala: Sextus, you ask how to fight an idea. Well, I'll tell you how... with another idea!

Ben-Hur (1959)

Check out this review of my book ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State in the August 2017 edition of Military Review.

The character of conflict is primarily a competition of narrative.  Current thought, tactical and operational approach, and confusion at the strategic and policy levels ensure that the US is losing this competition.  Influence is the relevant combat power for the narrative competition.  In this case it is influence to affect the thinking and actions that shape people and nations.  It is through matching actions with words and effective engagement that we develop meaningful relationships and the associated influence it brings.  To develop the combat power of influence requires understanding the nature of complex systems associated with cultures and countries, recognizing the current character of conflict as a competition of narrative, and understanding the opponent in context.

For most of human history warfare has been primarily a competition of violence – meaning that whoever won that competition – in the fight, on the battlefield – won the competition and the war.  In modern military jargon we often refer to this as the kinetic fight.  Kinetic because bullets, bombs, rockets, and missiles use kinetic energy to deliver their violence.  War today is primarily a competition of narrative.  In neither case is the competition 100% exclusive – this is really a question of emphasis or dominance. The “decisive operation” on the current Middle Eastern battlefield is narrative.  Violence is still a critical portion of conflict, but it serves a subservient and supporting role only.  ISIS and others use violence primarily to communicate, confirm, or advance their narrative.

This website is designed to help readers understand the current debate regarding the changing nature of conflict and how the United States can achieve lasting success on an ever evolving battlefield. The answer is maneuver in the narrative space. Conflict is primarily being waged in the narrative space and until the United States military demonstrates appropriate dominance of that space it will continue to be waged there.  Contrary to current terminology, conflict is not in a gray zone between war and peace.  Conflict has changed domain whether that conflict is mostly war or mostly peace.  Understanding the gray zone will not solve the problems of present conflict unless that zone is defined within the narrative space.


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