I am not a Chinese culture, language, of history specialist. I am an observer of Chinese behavior and a proponent of recognizing narrative war as the active philosophy of war at the present. As I observe the actions taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the last several years, its emphasis on and adherence to what I label narrative war is clear and those who do not understand narrative war often misinterpret CCP actions and motivations.
Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, a Massachusetts congressman (1953-1987) and former U.S. Speaker of House (1977-1987), reportedly used the phrase “all politics are local” in his first political campaign in 1935. He is famous for this saying though it didn’t originate with him. Tip O’Neill was correct, all politics are local. It is also true that all foreign policy is local. National security decisions have much more to do with domestic politics and the internal narrative of a nation than anything happening outside the nation. The idea that all foreign policy is local (or domestic) is important in a proper appreciation in why one needs to understand the narratives of each nation and particularly those nations or states with which a country may be considering conflict.
That means, to understand a conflict with China, one must understand China’s narrative and the story of the current CCP leadership with respect to that narrative.
What is the Chinese Narrative? (Very Briefly Described)
When I took a film class as a college undergraduate, I was told that every film has a theme that can be stated in one or two sentences. I think that is true. I also think that every national narrative can also be expressed in one or two sentences. Here is my expression of the Chinese narrative as desired by the CCP.
China is the Middle Kingdom.
For most American readers that statement may seem overly simple and possibly confusing. What does the “Middle Kingdom” even mean, a reader might ask. The concept of Middle Kingdom in my words is that China is the belly button of the world. The source of all harmony and fortune and the place through which, from which, and to which all good things should flow. This is overplaying it a bit, but the CCP sees China as occupying the supreme and central position in the world and all nations, states, and international organizations should defer to it and its conceptions of the world order. This doesn’t mean that all nations must be subservient to China as powerful nations will not be, but all nations, even the most powerful ones, should acknowledge the Chinese position of preeminence.
For those thinking this is overly arrogant, consider that since World War II, the United States has in some measure behaved this way. It set the world order. It established the United Nations, first as an alliance against the Axis Powers in World War II and then as a global body. It established or coordinated with other like-minded states to form legal codes defining humanitarian behavior, financial interactions, and global commerce. This is not a judgment, but a statement of fact that expresses a part of why China rejects so profoundly this American (and Western) established order and feels that the world needs to be placed back in harmony by reestablishing China as the Middle Kingdom.
In a 1988 article, a Chinese political influencer and future power behind the throne, Wang Huning, wrote a profound piece titled in English, “The Structure of China’s Changing Political Culture.” I will reference this article a bit as I believe that Wang captures the heart of the Chinese narrative war strategy behind what we see in the world.
In his article, Wang identified a fundamental problem in China. I ask you to remember that this was written in 1988. Matthew Johnson, a scholar writing an introduction to the English translation of the article summarizes Wang’s thoughts this way:
“Wang’s argument is simple: it is a society’s cultural factors (rather than its economic organization) that create its politics. Changes in what Wang calls social “software” – values, feelings, psychology, and attitudes – can therefore shape a society’s political future. … Wang has a solution: to rapidly “re-engineer” and renew China’s political culture by purifying the traditional, modern, and Marxist-socialist structures that still remain, and build a unified “synchronic” political culture on top of these. As China’s population becomes more widely exposed to the process of political socialization, he implies, a new value system will begin to more fully emerge.”
Wang argues in his article that Western and Chinese social software are in direct opposition. They are not the same and they do not pursue the same objectives. He characterizes Western political culture as placing emphasis on external regulation whereas Chinese culture places emphasis on “virtues such as benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness, loyalty, filial piety, brotherly love, forgiveness, and courage, rites and sacrifices, such as those to the heaven, the earth, the ruler, ancestors, and teachers, and Neo-Confucian formulae like “aligning affairs, extending understanding, making intentions genuine, balancing the mind, refining one’s person, aligning one’s household, ordering the state, setting the world at peace," which emphasize the unity of heaven and man and the objective of becoming an “inner sage” and an “outer king.” That sounds wonderful until one understands what that means.
Chinese culture places emphasis on social harmony. Anything unharmonious needs to be corrected such that harmony resumes. This statement should cause one to reflect on the significance of the Chinese social credit system. This is a collective form of societal control that rewards those who do things that promote harmony and chastises (my word) those, and their family and social connections, who promote disharmony. Thus, if a person posts something that harms the harmony of the state, consider this as expressed in the form of the CCP, those people lose status in their social credit and so will all those connected to them. This will affect credit, the ability to make reservations for services, and a host of other business, recreational, and basic life functions. All done in the name of harmony. It sounds great in the expression of Wang but sounds eerily Orwellian in my explanation.
In 1988, Wang identified the primary problem for China was the disruption and disintegration of Chinese culture by the interaction with Western culture. He recommended in his paper emphasis on reintegration of the culture. There needed to be one Chinese culture. In my words, one, and only one, Chinese narrative. My argument is that what we observe in China’s actions with the world since the elevation of Xi Jinping to General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012 is an effort by the CCP to enforce an integrated Chinese narrative across the entirety of the Chinese population.
Wang recognized that the effort he recommended was the creation of a new narrative or at least a modification of the then prevailing route of the current narrative into a new narrative based on the “original” or older societal narrative. Wang says it this way by using the phrase value system rather than my use of narrative: “… the most urgent task in the transformation of Chinese political culture is to form a new value system. We of course cannot conjure this value system out of thin air; on the one hand, it must accord with objective political, economic and cultural developments, and on the other, it must promote a higher-level cultural and spiritual atmosphere that will contribute to the objective development process. Only when the new value system is established and fully socialized will the situation we have been discussing finally change.”
That singular and integrated narrative is ethnocentric. Yes, China is the Middle Kingdom, but that Middle Kingdom is Han Chinese. Thus, there is no such thing as a Uyghur or a Hong-Konger, or a person of Shanghai, or a Taiwanese. They are all Han Chinese under CCP control. If such a person thinks or acts like they are not Han Chinese then that person, group of people, or population is treated as if they are outside the norm – ignorant or crazy and therefore dangerous to the harmony of the state. They need to be reeducated, corrected, punished, or controlled.
From this perspective, there is no genocide in Xinjiang, China as there is no identity of Uyghur to be removed or destroyed. These are simply confused people who need to be properly educated or they are dangerous rebels who need to be punished. I am not justifying CCP behavior. This isn’t a judgment on the morality of their actions. This is an explanation of the thinking behind those actions.
The suppression of Hong Kong protests that began in 2019 was another expression of this emphasis on enforcing a common narrative. I argue that the locking down of Shanghai in 2022 and Beijing and other major cities across China under a zero COVID policy had and has nothing to do with COVID-19, but was and is an expression of CCP power to define, enforce, and control the narrative. Everyone has to be in harmony with that narrative or they will be punished.
Thos who believe that the CCP will cease to do this when sufficient economic pain begins are wrong. Xi Jinping and possibly many other CCP leaders are fully committed to this integrated Chinese narrative, and they are willing to do EVERYTHING necessary to establish such an integrated narrative.
For those who believe efforts to achieve this integrated narrative will fail, I simply say wait and see. I believe that we will see how much pain and violence is necessary to establish a common narrative across 1.4 billion people. I believe that it will take significant pain and violence, but the CCP was willing to allow tens of millions to die in pursuit of previous narrative efforts including Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It is unclear how many Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, and residents of major Chinese cities have died since Xi Jinping came to power in pursuit of these efforts. Don’t ever count out those who have the power of life and death and are willing to use it.
How is the Narrative Being Shaped and Promulgated
For those who read this and wonder why this matters to you. I think that is a good question. Other than the ongoing humanitarian tragedy resulting from the current Chinese narrative war that compels an integrated singular narrative on its own massive population, I believe that there are three reasons why this should matter to the rest of the world.
A narrative is how a person or country makes meaning of the world. A story is how that person or country expresses that narrative to itself or others. China is the Middle Kingdom and the CCP is expressing that by convincing the world that it is the indispensable nation. All the world is connected to China and all benefits come from or through China.
The CCP Belt and Road Initiative or the One Belt and One Road Initiative is a way that China is enacting its story in the world. It is connecting the world (or the world that matters anyway) to itself.
Because a narrative is often unconsciously understood, it is often enacted without consciousness regarding how people develop stories or messages. In that sense, an actor in the world that expresses his or her story may be doing so in a way that appears duplicitous or deceitful but can be justified in the mind of the actor as necessary, honest, and valuable. I am not saying that every time a CCP official lies in making a promise or a statement that this is somehow an honest mistake or misperception. In some cases, it is an outright lie, but that lie is being given (from the mind of the speaker) to establish a proper global harmony. In a way, this can be understood as an end justifies the means type of argument.
Taiwan is the most obvious way that the CCP enacts its narrative in the world. Taiwan is part of China and is Han Chinese. There is no such thing as Taiwanese. Claims to being independent are responded to as if the CCP is a parent dealing with a rebellious teenager. As of the time of writing this (August 2022), the most recent punishments of Taiwan come in retaliation for the Taiwanese government welcoming and hosting the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives. Such a welcome was perceived as nothing more than pointless lashing out at the Middle Kingdom’s authority and economic, military, and social sanctions began during and immediately following the visit.
The best expressions of CCP story promulgation came in the 2008 and 2022 Olympics hosted by the CCP. These events communicated the message of China as the Middle Kingdom to which the world came and from which harmony flowed. The particular message of the 2022 Olympics was that China was the only country capable of gathering the world in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence of CCP success in this narrative is that American-born freestyle skier, Eileen Gu, competed and won a gold medal for China during the Olympic competition. By her actions, she communicated that prestigious athletes in America see China as the Middle Kingdom.
The CCP has been successful in coopting a variety of influential spokespeople for the Middle Kingdom narrative even if it is never spoken this way. One example is the National Basketball Association that has lucrative business contracts with the CCP. In 2019, the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted out “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The general manager effectively apologized and the NBA made numerous statements kowtowing to CCP authorities. The Houston Rockets were the most popular team in China because of their former player and Chinese great Yao Ming. The business connections forced a major American entertainment industry to change its behavior and perspective on free expression because of recognition that China is the Middle Kingdom.
In 2021, John Cena, one of the stars of the Fast and the Furious films, F9, referred to Taiwan as a country during promotions for the movie. For the effrontery of challenging the CCP narrative, John Cena issued a 68 second apology in Mandarin Chinese where he regularly said that he was sorry. In effect, he had to reestablish that China was the Middle Kingdom. John Cena was a professional wrestler and, in many ways, perceived as an icon of American masculinity and even he acknowledged China in its proper global position.
There are numerus other anecdotes of major American entertainment figures, politicians, and thought leaders acknowledging the greatness of China and, in effect, declaring it as the Middle Kingdom.
I make no distinction between Chinese business and the CCP for several reasons. One, most large corporations in China are at least in part owned by senior CCP officials. Two, most, if not all, corporations that function in China do so at the behest of the CCP and therefore guidance and direction come from the CCP when deemed necessary and that guidance and direction is followed. Three, the social controls previously referenced as part of the social credit system mean that even if a business had no CCP ownership and received no direct guidance, its senior officials would still be controlled through the social credit system and under the direction of the CCP. In short, there is no such thing as an independent company or industry in China.
China has become a direct challenge to the U.S. film industry. Chinese made films often gross in the hundreds of millions of dollars and ninety percent or more of those earnings often come from Chinese audiences alone. These films communicate to us the CCP story. I want to reference one specific film though I believe that these ideas are present in most of the other big budget Chinese produced films. The film that I want to discuss is the 2015 film Wolf Warrior. This film was not as financially successful as its successor Wolf Warrior II, but I believe that its expression of the CCP story is much more simply given.
The main character is a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) special forces sniper who, at the beginning of the film kills the brother of a powerful drug lord. The main character is subsequently welcomed into the elite opposing force for the PLA training center called Wolf Warriors. The drug lord sends a mercenary team lead by a navy SEAL into the training center to find and kill the sniper. We are told multiple times that the mercenaries fight for money. Once it is clear that the mercenaries are killing PLA soldiers in the training center the Wolf Warriors are given live ammunition and they replace the unit patch on their shoulder with the Chinese flag with the phrase “I fight for China” written under it in English letters. During the fighting, the PLA soldiers risk their lives to save wounded leaders and they sacrifice their lives in pursuit of the enemy.
This is a B action movie analogous to the Arnold Schwarzeneggar or Sylvester Stallone movies of the 1980s. Despite its lack of cinematic profundity, the film is tremendously valuable in understanding the CCP story. What are the major messages that the CCP want the Han Chinese people to know?
It may seem simplistic to say that a film is the expression of the CCP story, but I think that successful films regularly express the story of a society. Other popular Chinese films reinforce these same messages. The most successful Chinese films during the COVID-19 pandemic have been a series on the Korean War and the enemy is an evil, depraved, and weak American military that was driven out of Korea by the valiant and honorable soldiers of China.
It doesn’t matter whether or not the films relay historical reality. Films often convey metaphorical truth. In the case of the movies referenced, it is a truth of the relative positions of America and China in the world and of the honor, power, and capability of China to be the Middle Kingdom.
Narrative isn’t just about words and stories. It is about understanding the narrative space terrain on which one operates. Who are we and who is our opponent? What is our narrative? What is their narrative?
China’s narrative war isn’t limited to the military and its efforts in cyberspace aren’t limited to actions against corporate America to steal intellectual property. China is reshaping its people to have a common integrated narrative across more than a fifth of the global population. This is a herculean effort that may succeed through Orwellian excess.
For all those who promote the endeavor to have a common American narrative through some form of compelled speech or coerced thought I ask you to observe what China has and is doing and note that the only way to achieve such ends is through massive amounts of government power and government expressed violence.
The CCP is waging a seventy-year war to change the American narrative space terrain. It has been successful in achieving some significant gains as it controls the speech and maybe the thoughts of popular athletes, prominent business leaders, and much of the American culture. I haven’t even mentioned Tik-Tok and the purposeful efforts of that platform to transform a generation of Americans in thought and action. This is serious stuff, and we must be aware. War with the CCP isn’t about aircraft carriers, submarines, and bombers. It is about thought, speech, and action inside the United States of America and every other country on Earth. All national security policy is local.
The war between Russia and Ukraine is a great example of what happens when you get narrative war wrong. The biggest problem with narrative war is the semantic overload of the term narrative. It gets used to mean a lot of different things and many of those meanings matriculate to the discussion of narrative war. People think that narrative war is about words, or ideas, or story, or framing of a situation in a way that is advantageous for one side rather than the other. These expressions of narrative have some value when discussing narrative war, but they are insufficient for appreciating the full concept of narrative war theory. What I plan to do in this post is discuss the fundamental aspect of narrative war by using two examples coming from Ukraine. The first is what Russia got wrong and the second is what the United States or the West got wrong. I conclude with my thoughts on meaning.
What Russia Got Wrong – Misreading the Narrative Space Terrain
It is important for me to state that I haven’t spoken with Vladimir Putin, and I have not had access to transcripts of his phone calls or any technical surveillance or intelligence on his personal communications. My suppositions come from observations of open-source material since the Russian invasion of Ukraine that commenced on 24 February 2022. With that statement made, let me begin.
Vladimir Putin misread the narrative space of Ukraine in that he seemed to have believed that the Ukrainian national government was weak, and that the president of Ukraine held a tenuous grasp on leadership that could be broken by a large Russian invasion oriented on the Ukrainian capital. It also appears that the Russian leader perceived the West writ large, and NATO more specifically, to be weak and divided and that a strong and aggressive action, if objectives were accomplished quickly, would result in no effective action against Russia.
Putin had many reasons to believe such things. CNN provided a poll on the day before the invasion that showed responses from Russians and Ukrainians on a range of questions regarding the issues associated with the anticipated invasion:
In addition to the numbers, Ukraine was perceived by many people as a corrupt and poorly run country. Readers may recall that accusations of Ukrainian government corruption were very close to the center of the first impeachment of U.S. president Donald J. Trump. In addition to perception of Ukrainian corruption, the country had been successfully invaded with little effective resistance in 2014 and 2015, losing Crimea and portions of the Donbas region to Russian aligned or Russian forces.
In addition to perceptions of Ukrainian weakness, the world in early 2022 was just coming out of COVID lockdowns and much of the Western world was torn by political divisions within countries, regional associations like the European Union and NATO, and globally. It seemed as if every country wanted to move forward and not deal with another tragedy.
Finally, in this regard, the American and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan that concluded on 30 August 2021 tore the alliance and humiliated the superpower. Members of the British parliament called out the United States leadership for abandoning its responsibilities to the Afghan people and to the alliance and debates raged within the United States about the embarrassing images and the ineffectual response to the Taliban regaining control of the country.
I give these points of data to explain why Vladimir Putin might be excused from misreading the narrative space terrain. His reading seems to have been that Ukraine wouldn’t fight, the leadership of the country would flee, and the West would be too ineffective to stand up against his actions. Most of that turned out to be wrong. The Ukrainians have fought, the Ukrainian leadership has stood strong and gained in popularity as a result, and the West has opposed Russia’s actions, though not singularly or effectively. What did Putin miss?
I reference a poll that was published in The Kyiv Independent in December 2021; the same time as the lowest approval ratings for President Zelensky. In this poll the Ukrainian people were asked “In the event of an armed intervention by Russia in your city or village, would you take any action and if so, which ones?” The options included put up armed resistance, civil resistance, go to a safer region of Ukraine, go abroad, do nothing, do not know. More than half of the respondents said that they would resist in one form or another. Armed resistance was the single largest response for every region of the country (west, centre, south, east).
Putin failed to grasp the narrative space of his opponent. He missed the changes in Ukraine since 2015. He failed to see that Russians and Ukrainians saw the issues associated with Ukraine and NATO from radically different perspectives. This meant that his initial plan, as I understand it to have been, was doomed from the start. That said, he wasn’t all wrong, which leads to the second example.
What the United States or the West Got Wrong – Misreading the Narrative Space Terrain
It is interesting to note that both sides got the same thing wrong.
I do not have a significant social media presence. If I interact on social media, it is mostly through LinkedIn where I have a network of subject matter experts who often provide really informative material and recommendations. As Russia invaded Ukraine, I immediately started to see on LinkedIn a lot of comments on the moral outrage of such an invasion and praise for the Ukrainian defenders and the leadership of President Zelensky. Vladimir Putin was often characterized in many of these posts as a villain. In addition, there were those who characterized his acts as doomed to failure. They regularly pointed to the Russian military failures in maintenance, logistics, or tactical accomplishment covered by the media without taking the time to question media accuracy or sourcing. I warned in those initial days and weeks that it was too early to predict how this would end up. In response to one article that claimed that Putin’s actions would fail, I replied with the following:
While the author may be right, it is still possible, and maybe probable, that Putin does succeed. This campaign is just a week old and there is much of the story to be told.
My students believe that Americans are impatient for success and that they demand rapid, decisive victories. What this conflict is showing is that the media (of seemingly all nationalities) is impatient and seeking to predict final outcomes from limited data.
About three months later, I expressed the following in posting an excellent summary of the first 100 days of the fighting:
I am concerned that this war will end badly for Ukraine as it becomes the first “Virtue Signal War.” What I mean by the term virtue signal war is a war where people and states make bold pronouncements of support but do little with respect to action. I know that the United States has spent a lot of money on this war and that is a good thing, but nearly 32 years ago, we sent nearly three quarters of a million service members halfway around the world to defend and regain a small sheikhdom that few Americans had ever heard of.
The purpose of our commitment to Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm was to demonstrate to the world and global bullies that it is unacceptable for the Melian Dialogue to be enacted in the post-Cold War world.
It still amazes me that we haven’t properly stood up and committed ourselves to expelling an invader and reestablishing the borders of a state, not in the Middle East or Africa or Southeast Asia, but very much a part of Europe. This is the place about which we developed the UN charter that informs the world that aggressive war is illegal and not to be tolerated. And, here the world and the United Nations sit and tolerate it.
Russia has a narrative that includes national suffering. The Great Patriotic War (World War II in America) saw the Soviet Union lose as many as twenty-seven million people (a significant number of which were inflicted by its own government). The people in Leningrad (now St Petersburg again) were under siege for nearly two and a half years. Many starved to death, and those who lived shared stories of surviving off roots and shoe leather. Vladimir Putin was born to a family who lived through that siege.
George Kennan, a U.S. diplomat and historian who served as the deputy chief of mission in U.S. Embassy Moscow in 1947, wrote a long telegram to explain Soviet thinking that was later edited and published in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym X and with the title “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” In that article Kennan gave one of the best expressions of then Soviet narrative space. My interpretation of his writing is that the Soviet leader was paranoid because Russia, and later the Soviet Union, was always surrounded by enemies, but the Russian and Soviet people persevered through patient suffering.
My primary point is that the Russian narrative has built in a conception of the ability and need to endure suffering for the sake of the state. Russians are narratively prepared for a war of attrition. They believe they will win such wars, because they have won such wars. The Russians defeated the will and the force of the French armies of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812 through drawing him into the heartland of Russia, wearing his army down physically, and exhausting the leaders emotionally. The Soviet Union defeated the armies of the Third Reich Wehrmacht of Adolph Hitler by drawing them into the Soviet heartland, wearing the force down physically, and exhausting the leaders emotionally. By 1945 dozens of Soviet armies were breaking through German units and attacking toward Berlin.
Russians endure and Russians persevere because they must. It is a core element of their societal narrative.
The West lacks a similar societal narrative. American military doctrine calls for decisive operations. The NATO alliance is designed to deter aggression, not to stand up to a military hegemon with control of continental energy supplies and global food security. This is what the West got wrong. It misread its own narrative space as it signaled support for a war that it wasn’t willing to actually fight: only support. All of the media personalities, pundits, and early proclaimers of Putin’s folly and Russian defeat failed to understand the power of power. Military commitment means something. The willingness to inflict violence month after month and year after year means something.
If the West wants to defeat Vladimir Putin and see Ukraine as a viable and capable part of Europe, then it will require more than virtue signals. It will require troops on the ground, aircraft in the air, and ships opening and controlling the free flow of grain and energy. It will also require the disentangling of European energy resources from a single oppositional provider. Is the West actually willing to do that or will it simply continue to virtue signal its support for Ukraine until Ukraine is attritted and/or exhausted?
Narrative isn’t just about words and stories. It is about understanding the narrative space terrain on which one operates. Who are we and who is our opponent? What is our narrative regarding war? How much are we willing to suffer for what we say we want? Understanding yourself and your opponent is why narrative matters. If narrative space terrain is understood, it can inform us how we will behave and how our opponents will behave.
Narrative war is about shaping and changing the narrative space terrain. China and Russia have waged a seventy- and hundred-year war, respectively, to change the American narrative space terrain. They have been successful in achieving some significant gains. I cite two different Quinnipiac polls. One that showed shortly after the beginning of the invasion that only 70% of Americans said that U.S. troops should get involved if Russia invaded a NATO country. While that number may seem high, it should be much closer to 100% given that this is a treaty obligation. The other poll, taken more than a week later, showed that number had risen to 80% when the question reminded participants of NATO obligations, but it also showed that 38% of the American respondents would leave the country rather than stay and fight if the United States were invaded. It is important to compare that with the fact that two-thirds of the U.S. military in the Vietnam War era (1964-1973) were volunteers and only one third were conscripts which often contradicts what most people think about the military draft during the Vietnam War. The questioning of defending an allied country or fighting for one’s own country shows the success of transforming the American narrative space terrain.
A proper understanding of narrative space terrain is crucial for any conflict that will involve suffering whether that suffering is economic, emotional, or physical. This is why a proper understanding of one’s own society matters. Who are we? The answer to that question matters. If you believe that your country is corrupt and systemically flawed, then why would you be willing to suffer for it? On the other hand, if you believe that your country is the bastion of freedom, the arsenal of democracy, the shining city on a hill, then you will probably be willing to make those sacrifices.
Vladimir Putin didn’t understand his opponent’s narrative, but he did understand his own. Volodymyr Zelensky’s popularity has risen, but so has Putin’s. Can Zelensky rely on a Ukrainian narrative of long-term suffering for success? Putin knows that he can rely on Russia’s narrative of stolid perseverance.
Ruminations on Combined Arms Maneuver as I watch training battles in the Mojave Desert and read about real battles in Ukraine.
I am writing this while I sit in a hotel room at Fort Irwin, California in the middle of the high-altitude Mojave Desert. I have had the privilege to regain an appreciation of the power and challenges of combined arms maneuver while I watch dedicated American soldiers fight each other with an expensive form of laser tag. I, like many others, have also been consuming information on what is happening in Ukraine as these simulated battles occur. Some of what I have heard from Ukraine includes the importance and value of infantry carried antitank weapons, the need to protect ground forces and civilians against attack from the air, and the ever present need to support and sustain combat forces for day after day fighting (what we often simply call logistics). Interestingly, these same imperatives or problems play out in the Mojave Desert. Logistics and maintenance matter, ground forces have to be protected against air attack, and anti-tank missiles are powerful killers of armored systems.
None of these systems are crucial on their own. They matter most as part of a combination of the various types of capabilities present on a battlefield. This combination of a variety of forces with different strengths and weaknesses is what we call combined arms. It is an old concept. Alexander the Great combined his cavalry with the relentless advance of his infantry phalanx. As we learn when we read about Alexander, or any of the great commanders of the past, it isn’t about the capabilities as much as the timing of their use. What made the cavalry charge of Alexander so effective was its connection to opportunities created by the relentless effort of the heavy infantry. Timing, or synchronization, makes all the difference. An unsupported cavalry charge is just a slaughter of men and horses – see the charge of the Light Brigade from the Crimean War for such an example. The best armies combine the effects in time and space to create opportunities where each arm can then maximize the advantages they possess.
Alexander’s infantry advance forced the enemy to use their shields against the sarissa (sixteen-foot-long spear) points which then opened the enemy up to arrows and sling bullets coming down from above. Adjustments to the line to compensate for fallen fighters created gaps in the line that allowed an opportunity for a rapid advance of the cavalry.
This is the power of combined arms. A modern battlefield is this simplified version plus a lot more. The modern mounted force requires tens of thousands of gallons of fuel a day, repair parts, food and water, and ammunition. There are also attacks on communication networks, indirect fire that ranges tens of kilometers, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). All of these more recent capabilities add to the complexity of creating synchronization – a word that means to make things happen at the same time. Maybe not at the exact time, but in such a way as to create the benefits of the combined capabilities in near simultaneity.
This explanation is offered to address a problem that is being expressed in assessments of the incomplete data coming out of the fighting in Ukraine. The problem is that the main battle tank is being made obsolete by individual shoulder fired anti-tank missiles. The Javelin missile has become quite a popular brand of these missiles in this current war. A similar thought was expressed in 1973 when Israeli tanks were stopped by AT-3 Sagger missiles carried by Egyptian infantry. The thought came back in 2020 as reports came out of the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting. On that occasion, the primary culprits were UAVs that dropped charges onto the top of tanks. As I watch battles at Fort Irwin, I also note that the anti-tank systems, whether mounted on a HUMMWV or carried by infantry, are also some of the biggest killers on the battlefield. Is the tank dead?
No. In each of these examples predicting the death of the tank, the simple reason for anti-armor success was poor combined arms on the part of the side who lost all the tanks. This isn’t a defense of the tank. It is a weapon system that may no longer be as effective as it once was, but much as horse mounted cavalry was effective well past the introduction of gunpowder weapons, the tank still has a purpose on a modern battlefield. Again, I am not writing this to defend the tank. It is too heavy, drinks too much fuel, and requires too much support, but the immediate solution isn’t a better tank.
The solution is better combined arms. The best way to defeat infantry with anti-tank guided missiles is the use of mortars or other forms of indirect fire. The best way to defeat UAVs is with competent air defense. The infantry carried anti-tank missile is a combined arms solution to the problem of the tank. The protection of the tank requires a combined arms solution.
Everyone knows this. Every competent military officer in every competent military (state and non-state) knows what I am saying is true. The challenge isn’t in the knowing, the challenge is in the doing. This is hard. It is hard to conceptualize. It is hard to manage.
There is no such thing as multi-tasking. There is only task switching. A modern artillery officer thinks about artillery or indirect fire all the time when in combat. That officer is seeking to perform all of the needed tasks as efficiently and effectively as possible. It is unnatural for that officer to be thinking about the maneuver force, the enemy, the air defense systems, and logistics as well. This is why armies train: to make the soldier and officer into an unnatural performer of combined arms.
George S. Patton Jr., of World War II fame, had an expression that he called the Musicians of Mars. He talked about this in an 8 July 1941 speech to the 2nd Armored Division included in The Patton Papers, Volume II.
There is still a tendency in each separate unit…to be a one-handed puncher. By that I mean that the rifleman wants to shoot, the tanker to charge, the artilleryman to fire…That is not the way to win battles. If the band played a piece first with the piccolo, then with the brass horn, then with the clarinet, and then with the trumpet, there would be a hell of a lot of noise but no music. To get the harmony in music each instrument must support the others. To get harmony in battle, each weapon must support the other. Team play wins. You musicians of Mars must not wait for the band leader to signal you…You must each of your own volition see to it that you come into this concert at the proper place and at the proper time…
What we seem to be seeing and hearing and reading about coming from Ukraine is that the Russian army is making a lot of noise, but not the music of synchronized and harmonious battle. There is no simple solution to this process, it must be trained.
This brings me back to the Mojave Desert where US Army brigades come to train and learn how to become musicians and not just masters of an instrument. I have been having a running discussion and debate with the commander of the National Training Center (NTC) Opposing Force (OPFOR) about the word lethality. For him, the word is centralized on weapon system proficiency. For me the word implies individual, crew, and organizational effectiveness. He is probably right, but I am going to stick with my definition here as it applies to combined arms.
A unit is not lethal if it cannot get its weapons systems to the fight to use its specific capabilities at the right time and place. That means that lethality includes maintenance, logistics, and the ability to administratively and tactically move. If any of those elements fail, then it doesn’t matter if the crew can effectively fire their weapon system or not. Lethality, then, as I think about it, is a form of crew or even individual level combined arms. To be ready and capable means that a person or small group of people must combine lots of things to be in the right place at the right time.
Now we return to synchronization. Timing is everything. Just as is true with musicians, the artillery needs to suppress the enemy as maneuver forces advance, and then the artillery needs to shift its focus from fires to protection of the maneuver force once it is on the objective. Throughout the movement, the air defense system needs to protect against attack. Similarly, logistics need to be available in a protected environment as they are needed to allow the force to continue to move to the next objective assigned.
This requires training opportunity after training opportunity. This is why the NTC OPFOR is the best combined arms force in the world. They get to execute a defense or attack four to six times a month and do so as part of a training rotation anywhere from six to ten times a year. That means a soldier, commander, or staff officer has an opportunity to think and do combined arms anywhere from 24 to 60 times a year.
War is Darwinian. If you do not learn and adapt, then you die. What turns training into education is the thoughtful feedback, criticism, and reflection that allows a person and organization the opportunity to identify the correct adaptations. What should have been the right trigger? How fast or patient should I have been? Then it is exercised again. If you apply the lessons and thoughtful feedback properly then you are more proficient and you have learned. Then it is on to the next lesson. Adaptation takes time and opportunity and resources. NTC provides that, in brief for training units and over an expanse of time for the OPFOR.
Before you believe any report coming out of Ukraine, recognize that the certain problem is bad combined arms maneuver and not a bad weapon system. The tank, as we know it, will eventually die, but that shouldn’t be as a result of inaccurate reporting about bad combined arms conducted by a poorly trained and educated army.
When I teach military officers, I lay all of the blame for the conduct of the Global War on Terrorism at their feet. They do not like this. We often agree that we didn’t win in Iraq or Afghanistan, but when I ask why, the answer usually includes accusations of blame leveled against politicians, the White House, the Pentagon, or the US Department of State. I tell them, that they are responsible for everything.
I also take my share of the blame. The failures in Iraq and Afghanistan are my fault. I trained and taught many officers who have led from the platoon to the battalion level, over the last 20 years, in either Afghanistan or Iraq. I spent more than a year in Iraq and more than eight and a half years in the Middle East. It is my fault.
I also tell the officers that they are right in that there is blame enough to go around. Everyone that they list is also to blame, but because I am not talking to those audiences, my focus is on the audience to whom I am speaking. I quote a line from one of my favorite movies – Miracle (2004) – “You worry about your own game. Plenty there to keep you busy.”
I am writing this post in a state of disgusted anger and frustration. The events of the weekend of 14 and 15 August 2021 in Afghanistan have been the reason for anger at the waste and failure and disgust at the mismanagement and misrepresentation of the facts on the ground. In part, this post is part of my personal emotional therapy. Thank you for indulging me.
On Friday, 13 August 2021, my wife and I interviewed an Afghan military officer as part of a reference book we are writing/editing on the war in Afghanistan. This officer is an ethnic Tajik and he gave tremendous insight into the challenges associated with present Afghanistan. In our discussion, I asked him about his family and their safety as they reside in Kabul. He said that he was not concerned as Kabul was secure. That was 24-36 hours before news of the resignation and flight of the Afghan president and images of Taliban commanders walking into the presidential palace and Afghan civilians clinging helplessly onto the outside of U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft as they taxied and took off from the airport outside Kabul.
Throughout the images and news of this sad weekend I thought of the line from Jean-Paul Sartre, in his book Being and Nothingness (page 555): “we have the war we deserve.” The depressing and disgusting images and news reports combined with a set of statements make true this assertion.
Both of these senior U.S. government leaders express either ignorance or a lack of truth telling or some combination regarding Afghanistan that bring to mind the words of John Sopko (the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction or SIGAR) from a 28 July 2021 Defense Writers Group as he explained his summary of the U.S. struggles in Afghanistan: hubris and mendacity. If by hubris one means ignorant arrogance then I am 100% behind the use of that word.
Sartre’s point of having the war we deserve has been painfully demonstrated by the Global War on Terrorism. Meaning that the choices made by the United States government, by those responsible for directing action, for committing resources, and for establishing strategy have resulted in exactly the sort of mess that anyone could have predicted knowing the lack of skills, abilities, and knowledge on the part of those responsible. Indifference to the environment, to the suffering, and to the conduct of the war has led to this foolish expression of will. We have wasted tens of thousands of lives (not just those killed, but those wounded and debilitated by mental and physical injury) and trillions of dollars in a form of spasmodic expression of ignorant savagery. Such behavior deserves inconclusive, wasteful, and ignominious defeat. We have had the war that we deserved.
I want to do that which I deny my students. I want to blame someone for what happened in Afghanistan. The problem is that everyone is at fault. I mean everyone. I divide everyone into four categories in order of deserved blame:
One of my colleagues has stated that the problem in Afghanistan is that not enough American people died there. By that he means that not enough people died to generate the attention necessary for citizens to demand accountability. This is sadly true. While we had military personnel in Afghanistan for nearly twenty years, the American populace probably only paid attention to the war for less than one year spread out over that twenty years in the form of a few weeks here and a few days there. We cared about special forces riding with Northern Alliance fighters on horses, we cared about the toppling of the Taliban, the fighting around Tora Bora, the friendly fire that killed former NFL player and US Army Ranger Pat Tillman, we cared about the story of Marcus Luttrell especially when the movie Lone Survivor was released in theaters, we cared about the killing of Osama bin Laden, and we cared about the collapse of the Afghan national government in July and early August of 2021. That was it. Thus, we deserve the war we have.
Remember, that I blame myself. I advised generals, I briefed political appointees, I spoke with and wrote to media, and I am a citizen. This is my fault.
As much as I am mad at these four groups for their individual and collective dereliction of duty, I am more disgusted at the current military, political, and media organizations and institutions that are failing to learn from what is happening. We are failing to try to know why the most powerful military force spent twenty years in a country to have that country’s military – that we built – apparently collapse in six weeks. I say apparently because the Afghan National Army has been fighting, bleeding, and dying with little support for months before the seemingly rapid disintegration of will that so many are pointing to. We are almost racistly blaming the Afghan people themselves for our ignorance, arrogance, and mendacity as I read or hear the phrase “graveyard of empires” expressed over and over again. As if to say it is the fault of the Afghan people that they couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to our demands, dance to our tune, or play the roles that we prescribed.
It was our ignorant arrogance that allowed us to roll in without studying the country. We continued to fight in Afghanistan without thinking that we needed to change our professional military education system to teach and train our leaders to understand the environment in which we were operating. Even in the last couple of years, we had our eyes on some magical Large Scale Combat Operation like some sports car that we hoped to buy while ignoring the rusted and broken down heap in our front yard. Maybe Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires because every empire has been hubristically ignorant enough to believe that it did not need to change to understand and work with Afghanistan rather than against it. Maybe every empire has believed that it could be mendacious with itself that success was happening or just around a corner or that the corner had just been turned.
Afghanistan should be teaching us. We need to humbly start from the beginning with everything. We need to change our professional military education, our political science and international relations curricula, and we need to change our economic development paradigms based on what we learn from Afghanistan. We are wrong when we think that money buys better governance. We are wrong when we act as if equipment and training equal capability. We are wrong when we ignore our own history and act as if the American Founding Fathers did not understand about governance and that their model isn’t worth seeking to pattern. We are wrong when we think that working from the top down builds a country. We need to start with an honest, rather than mendacious, appreciation of what happened and try to appreciate why it happened so that we can promise ourselves, our citizens, and our children that this will never happen again.
Lots of people know this and knew this. I have read and listened articles, blogs, texts, posts, podcasts, and comments from very smart and experienced people who have been saying this for years. We need to listen to these men and women and stop listening to those who have failed us for twenty years. Here is the litmus test for who to listen to or read: if they fail to take ownership for this failure then don’t listen to them. The group that we should avoid must include military leaders, political leaders, reporters, and common citizens so long as they cannot be honest about their culpability in the failure.
We need to hold accountable those who have failed. I include myself. I am studying, interviewing, writing, and teaching to try to understand this environment as it is, as it was, and I am trying to understand what it will become.
Until we do this the war that we deserve will never be a war that we want.
My recommendations for where to start to understand what happened:
Podcast: Generation Jihad by The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Long War Journal.
I love the United States of America. For almost all of my adult life I have lived under an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” I begin with this because I believe what follows fits squarely within that oath.
On 6 January 2021 a meme was generated that I expect will last for many years if not generations. A meme is a form of mental virus that is presented to a host through symbols. As with a biologic virus, memes propagate and move from host to host infecting greater portions of a population. A meme can be text or image. The strongest memes are those which connect most effectively to existing stories present within a society and the meme that lasts longest is one that has powerful connection to the societal narrative itself. As I have previously discussed, I believe there are multiple significant societal narratives operative in the United States of America. Each of these narratives have associated stories and storytellers. Each storyteller, I expect, is a sincere believer of that story and how it explains the dissonance or resonance of events with their accepted narrative. I give the benefit of the doubt and assume genuine belief on the part of storytellers. I do not think that the mouthpieces or storytellers for the 1619, I Have a Dream, or the America is Awesome narratives are snake oil salespersons. They are interpreting events in accordance with their believed stories and their narrative.
The meme to which I refer is the bare-chested Viking-like figure in the United States Capitol building during the violent events of 6 January. Who he is or what he actually believes he represented is irrelevant to his status as a meme and the effectiveness of that meme. The actions associated with the meme connect through stories to each of the three societal narratives. For those who are of the 1619 or I Have a Dream narratives that meme represented an assault on American democracy. For those of the America is Awesome narrative, the meme may have been an expression of frustration against perceived injustice or tyranny.
In response to the Viking-man meme, unprecedented events happened and associated with those events have come a variety of calls for silencing certain forms of speech or certain speakers.
I don’t say this to justify actions or interpretations. I am trying to offer some thoughts to those who I hope wish to have one indivisible nation.
One of my favorite movies of all time and one that I would take with me if I could only take ten movies to a desert island is A Man for All Seasons (1966). It tells a story about Sir Thomas More who, at the point of the story that I will relate, was the Chancellor of England to King Henry VIII. At this point, a friend of Sir Thomas’ has just left his house under some suspicion. The characters in this scene are Thomas, his wife Alice, his daughter Margaret, and her husband, Will Roper. The dialogue goes as follows.
Alice More: Arrest him.
Sir Thomas More: For what?
Alice More: That man’s dangerous.
William Roper: That man’s a spy.
Margaret More: Father, that man's bad.
Sir Thomas More: There's no law against that.
William Roper: There is: God's law.
Sir Thomas More: Then God can arrest him.
Alice More: While you talk, he’s gone
Sir Thomas More: And go he should were he the devil himself until he broke the law.
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!
Here, one of the greatest thinkers in the English language expresses (granted, in a fictional rendition) a utilitarian ethic for granting the devil the benefit of law – such benefit would also be best for Sir Thomas. In addition to this well considered reason I offer that one should also grant the devil the benefit of law because it is right to do so. It is the purpose of law. To protect each in their life, liberty, and property. The liberty of each individual, even the devil’s, is critical to maintain a proper and neutral conception of law.
Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (affiliate link) might assert that the discussion among the extended family of Sir Thomas More reflects what happens when one believes that he or she is righteous. I want to emphasize that this is also what can happen when one perceives another as the devil. For most people, it is okay to do anything in opposition to the devil as expressed by Will Roper in the dialogue above. Will Roper was not an unintelligent character. In fact, the opposite was true. He was intelligent, well read, and a successful and respected lawyer. He should have understood the purpose and value of law, but in his zeal to pursue a perceived devil he was willing to abandon the law.
I fear that many people are entering or are present in such a state of mind in America as I write this in early 2021. Many people who are smart, informed, and should know better are expressing a need to jettison the law or previously accepted and embraced principles to ‘get after the devil.’ Note that none refer to the intended target as the devil. Instead, such people use other words like rioters, terrorists, extremists, fascists, etc. The devil has many names in 2021.
In some efforts, there are people who have called for the limitation of speech in some fashion or another or the limitation of some other liberty. I expect that those who are making such a call believe that this is necessary because the ideas of ‘the devil’ are so vile and dangerous that they must be stopped, prevented, and even erased.
I want to give three reasons why I believe, along with Sir Thomas More, how dangerous this is.
I caveat all of these with the phrase ‘in all its forms’ because in 2021 there is a wide variety of means of speech. There is the speech uttered in a public gathering that comes from a person’s mouth. There is the speech of a private correspondence through electronic or written form. There is the speech of written and spoken public discourse that has a massive variety of means or methods from tweets to posts to publication and beyond. All of these forms ought to be protected for the reasons I list above and will illuminate below.
Only the rarest of intellects can generate profound thought internal to his or her own mind. In almost all cases, it is necessary to articulate the original thinking, have that thinking challenged, and then reassess, reconsider, reformulate, and then express the adjusted idea. Real thinking comes from having ideas challenged and then developing and strengthening those ideas into better and stronger ideas. Only the rarest of people can achieve this dialectic development internal to their own mind. People must be allowed to express ideas, even dumb ideas (and I submit that at least 90% of everyone’s, especially my own, ideas are dumb prior to improvement) or no person will be able to develop smart ideas. If people are afraid of uttering their dumb ideas because of a perception of public criticism or censure then all will be forced to carry around a host of foolishly simple and undeveloped ideas in their own heads or be limited to only those ideas deemed to be acceptably communicated and broadcast by approved sources. That is truly dangerous.
As each person moves through life, he or she only becomes aware of flaws in other thought as they encounter it. Absent that encounter each person is ignorant of the perceptions of the surrounding populace. Imagine a world where we move through it in silence. On one hand, we are free to imagine that everyone thinks exactly as we do and perceives the world exactly as we do. I hope that sounds as absurd to you as it does to me. Such a world would retard each person’s intellectual growth and empathy and sympathy for the experiences and suffering of others. Such an environment fosters a form of solipsistic egocentrism rather than anything like genius. The communication of others helps to guide our thinking and helps us to inform and assist others. Just as our ability to speak allows for others to challenge and correct our thinking, the speech of other people allows us to challenge and correct their thinking.
On one of my office shelves, I have a 1939 unabridged English translation of Mein Kampf. At the beginning of the book is an inserted preface of sorts that was signed by a variety of scholars, public intellectuals, and some German exiles; Albert Einstein among them. In this preface, the signatories advocate for such an unabridged English version of the book because they believed that it was critical for people in America, in particular, to be aware of what Adolph Hitler actually thought in its totality. I regularly read, study, and teach about violent extremist groups. I am grateful for the freedom of speech that allows me to read and listen to their words because it allows me to understand their perspective and intent. As I come to better understand them, I am better able to advise and recommend ways to correct, oppose, or destroy them as necessitated by the ideas and actions they espouse and demonstrate.
I do not advocate for an extreme version of the liberty of speech because I think all speech is equally beneficial or valuable. I advocate for this extreme version of free speech because it is only in such a world that we can each grow and develop and understand and challenge each other. It is neither possible nor preferrable for a person to go through life in isolation. Human beings are social creatures. For us to form societies we must have some level of common values and norms – a common narrative root.
In the United States of America, what are the common narrative roots? They are found in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The beauty of the Constitution is that if society changes to such a degree that values have changed then the Constitution can be amended therefore it can and should be a living document. However, for the changes to be enacted, there must be a form of consensus within states and across states. Such a consensus is gained through speech. In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson expressed a fundamental vision statement for the united colonies in opposition to Great Britain. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” John Locke (1632-1704) as well as the 5th and 14th amendments of the US Constitution expressed the three elements as life, liberty, and property.
Our narrative roots begin with the idea that it is socially unacceptable to harm anyone’s life, their liberty, or their property. All such actions should be condemned whether they come in the form of protest or promotion of things we approve of or not. They should be condemned when they take place on the steps and in the halls of the US Capitol building and when they take place in the streets and against the structure of a federal courthouse or a private store or restaurant. Liberty begins with the ability to express through speech. I hope and pray that we can all agree on such a narrative root as speech improves us, allows us to instruct and be instructed, and informs us of opportunities and dangers.
If we are to heal our narrative divide as a nation, we have to be able to speak and we need to listen. Speaking what we think and listening to others is one way to improve our ideas and come to a level of tolerance, if not acceptance, of differing speech and ideas.
The belief in the essential respect for life, liberty, and property should not be jettisoned to ‘get after the devil,’ ever. It doesn’t matter what or who the particular devil is. When we jettison such belief such adherence and respect then we ourselves become devils against whom others may be inclined to also justify the jettisoning of such respect. Freedom of speech must be sacrosanct even if that speech literally or figuratively comes from Adolph Hitler.
The year 2020 has been a great year for me personally and professionally, but it has also been a tremendously disappointing and frustrating year for me as a citizen of the United States of America. I have been studying ISIS and related extremist ideologies for many years now. I recently completed a doctoral dissertation on how weaker actors like ISIS use narrative to achieve their objectives: narrative war. As I have watched the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests and riots associated with controversial police actions, and the presidential campaign, I have been both shocked and profoundly disappointed by the obvious presence of narrative war actions in all of these events and I have been a bit taken aback by the lack of understanding of these very techniques by many of the smartest commentators on news and politics. Each of these people use the word narrative a lot and they talk about “the narrative” or “a narrative” and yet like in the movie The Princess Bride, I cannot help but say to myself, “You use that word a lot. I do not think it means what you think it means.” I want to provide my observations of how narrative war is playing out in America in 2020 and how we should expect to see it play out in the future.
I truly hate that I have to say this, but I believe that I do have to say this. I am not making a political statement in favor of one narrative or another. I hope that I am conveying the nature of each narrative honestly and openly and doing so without putting my finger too heavily on the scale. I clearly have an opinion and bias. I know the narrative to which I adhere; however, I am still trying to present each narrative so that people who ascribe to the other two can better understand what they are hearing and seeing. More importantly, I want people to know why we cannot seem to talk across these narratives and why each group sees the others as either stupid or evil.
I will briefly describe narrative and story and then I will discuss how various parties use story and narrative to move toward their intended objectives.
The U.S. Military describes narrative in its manual titled Joint Publication 3-24: Counterinsurgency (2018) as “an organizing framework expressed in story-like form. Narratives are central to representing identity, particularly the collective identity of religious sects, ethnic groupings, and tribal elements. They provide a basis for interpreting information, experiences, and the behavior and intentions of other individuals and communities.” In essence, a narrative is how a person or group interprets events: it is the filter through which we see or understand the world. Dr Ajit Maan regularly emphasizes that narratives are not about facts or truths, but about how we interpret those facts and truths.
Most people intuitively grasp the meaning of the word story. We have heard, read, and seen them portrayed our entire lives. We regularly tell ourselves stories inside our own minds. The five parts of story come from Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motives (1969): actor, action, goal or intention, scene, and instrument. We use stories to make sense of the world and most importantly they are used to solve for problems of dissonance between what we expect from the world and what actually happens. Some people call versions of these stories excuses and maybe they are, but they are also our internal means of solving for dissonance.
Each society has a narrative. As I will explain in a few paragraphs, the United States of America has three such dominant narratives in 2020. The expansion of important narratives contributes to the problems we see on our streets. Each governing person, party, or ideology offers a story for how that person, party or ideology will solve the dissonance for the various voters, citizens, or subjects and help them to achieve what seems to be the objective of the societal narrative.
In narrative war, a narrative entrepreneur also recognizes the dissonance that exists between the societal narrative and the governing story and seeks to further disrupt that story and by so doing weaken the connection between governor and governed. An objective of such disruption is displacement – moving the governing entity from a given place, service, or function.
What about America? An American narrative might be the American Dream. That narrative could be simply defined as America is a land of opportunity where average people can make of themselves whatever they want through hard work and great ideas. This is a narrative that has been created over generations with numerous stories and experiences as support. It is promulgated with millions of testimonials of hardworking women and men who achieved more than their parents through dedicated commitment. Every weekend, millions of people watch sports events where they hear stories of disadvantaged youth with bad family situations whom they watch as elite stars with large salaries and lucrative product endorsements. Every political candidate in America, either through a personal story, or by attacking the story of the opposing candidate seeks to connect with this narrative. I think there are currently three powerful versions of this American Dream narrative: America is Awesome, I Have a Dream, and 1619.
I will explain each of these narratives, but first I want to address the meaning of powerful or dominant narrative. Every country, nation, or state has multiple societal narratives. Like in linguistics where every language is made up of multiple dialects; however, there is usually a dominant or standard dialect that the majority or plurality of speakers use, the same is true of narratives. Every society has a dominant or standard narrative that seems to be common. For most of American history there tended to be a dominant and subordinate narrative. In 2020, I believe there are three narratives that have some level of equal significance.
America is Awesome is a play on the song title from The Lego Movie, but I also think it captures the meaning of the narrative. The narrative is based on a premise of opportunity. This is the belief of America’s divine founding, inspiration, and destiny. Phrases like manifest destiny, a city on a hill, the indispensable nation, an arsenal of democracy, and others capture the gist of this narrative. America is blessed. People come from all over the world and in America these people can achieve and enjoy their greatest possibilities.
I Have a Dream comes from the famous speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr on 28 August 1963. This speech captures the heart of the narrative which is a vision yet unfulfilled. The foundations of America are good, but the realization of that original vision is yet to be. The foundations may need some repair or amendment and the structure needs to be made true, plumb, and square and then that dream may be realized. It is the dream of achieving America is Awesome for all Americans, because if America is Awesome, it hasn’t yet been awesome for everyone, but it can be.
1619 comes from the name of the 1619 Project of The New York Times that began publication in August 2019. The root of this narrative is that the founding of America was flawed. This is an argument of power relationships. White European settlers and colonists established a system where non-white, non-European, and non-Protestant Christians were at a disadvantage. The very systems established are flawed and need correction. Every person, organization, and institution attached to such systems are corrupted by association. To move forward, the structure must be remade with a complete and proper foundation otherwise whatever structure built on such a foundation is flawed.
I want to emphasize that I am not explaining these narratives to express why people are different, but why for each person his or her narrative is right. She is correct for her. It is only once we realize this that some level of productive discourse can begin. A person who holds that America is Awesome needs to see that a 1619 person is right and try to see the world from that perspective. The 1619 person is not being cynical and manipulative when he says that there is systemic injustice. He really believes it to be true and from the 1619 perspective, he is right. The same holds true for the 1619 person looking at the America is Awesome person. She is also right. Now to use politics as an explanation of what happened this year.
I believe that most presidential campaigns prior to 2008 were discussions over which candidate’s story best solved for the America is Awesome narrative. Even the 1860 campaign was about who could best solve for the greatness of America and make sure most Americans could enjoy that greatness. We could debate president for president, but most presidential candidates held to the greatness of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and then later Abraham Lincoln. In 2008 and 2012, I believe the narrative shifted, but it shifted for both candidates. Both candidates crafted stories of how they could solve the dissonance between experience and the I Have a Dream narrative. Maybe this was primarily generated by the candidacy of Barack Obama, but I believe that many Americans, and especially the media and academic institutions, came to believe that there were numerous flaws in the America is Awesome narrative.
The 2016 campaign was probably the first campaign where the two presidential candidates had stories solving for dissonance in two different narratives. Donald Trump returned to the America is Awesome narrative with his catchy Make America Great Again slogan. It was simple and attractive to many who still believe in the America is Awesome narrative. Hillary Clinton sought to develop a story that connected to the I Have a Dream narrative as did Barack Obama. The attempt to solve for two different narratives is part of the tremendous division following the 2016 election. Because the two different camps addressed two different narratives neither side believed the other’s explanations for events. The two groups are not from two different worlds, they were and are from two different narrative worlds. This is like the 6 October 1967 Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” where the Enterprise crew interacts with a parallel universe. Neither side fully understands the other.
The 2020 campaign has faced an even greater divide. If seen on a spectrum, America is Awesome is on one side and 1619 is on the other with I Have A Dream in the middle. Though I don’t believe that Joe Biden fully embraces the 1619 narrative, many of his surrogates do and many of the various media outlets do. In this sense, the narrative divide in this current election is even greater and the cognitive dissonance following the election will be more significant as a result.
What does this have to do with narrative war? As the year unfolded, each side sought to disrupt the story-narrative resonance of the other. 1619 sought to disrupt the America is Awesome story-narrative resonance by expressing loudly and clearly the problems with America as various police events unfolded. In most cases, these efforts were peaceful; however, more aggressive elements expanded the disruption into literal displacement through acts of aggression that led to the actual displacement of police precincts or police action in some cities or parts of cities. 1619 adherents displaced certain article, voices, and organizations from social media platforms. America is Awesome adherents sought to disrupt the 1619 story-narrative resonance by implying or stating that such acts made the individuals involved outside the definition of Americans and thereby displacing them from conversations.
My concern is that neither side effectively accomplished their goals as neither side actually understands the other. The efforts at the disruptions and displacements worked primarily from the perspective of the actor and not the audience. People who rioted did not displace those who believed America is Awesome and those who chastised and called out looters did not actually reach those who believe that the entire system is corrupt. At best, these actions served to polarize those of the I Have a Dream narrative and further separate the two camps.
Regardless of who wins on 3 November 2020, the incredulity of the other side will be greater than in 2016. Both sides will claim that the winning side cheated, was corrupt, manipulated the process, etc. Both sides will continue to seek to disrupt the story-narrative resonance and there may be greater efforts at displacement whether that is through social media, mainstream media, protests, riots, or worse.
I believe that for America to become one country we need to have a single dominant narrative, one that both parties agree to solve for. I believe that the effort to reclaim such a position must begin with every person seeking to understand the correctness of the narrative of others.
Recent interactions between the US and Iran have driven Syria from the primary news cycles. Such absence from our thinking will come back to bite all of us. Syria is the center of most of the issues and problems in the Middle East and those problems have connections globally.
Owen Wilson famously tells Billy Bob Thornton in the movie Armageddon, “okay, so the scariest environment imaginable. Thanks. That’s all you have to say, the scariest environment imaginable,” in response to Thornton’s explanation of what it will be like on the asteroid to which they are being sent. In thinking about Syria, one can start with a similar line: the most complex environment imaginable.
The Assad regime is seriously weakened. It no longer governs the country in anything approaching its entirety. The country is now the center of global great power competition with the participation of Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and the United States along with other European countries in a lesser role. A large percentage of the population is displaced either internally or externally. It is also the nexus of regional sectarian and ethnic competitions and complexities.
What is going to happen in Syria? The simple answer is I don’t know. I will try to provide some thoughts regarding this complexity.
Russia and China are also deeply involved for separate and complicated reasons. Russia is seeking a warm water port, expanded influence outside its borders, combat experience, and a way to weaken and complicate the NATO relationships. China is likewise interested in expanding its influence and developing an understanding of the 21st century combat environment.
One theory of the future might be the following. At some point Syria will gain sufficient control of its internal dynamics such that it can get the Kurds to agree to some form of semi-autonomy. The Kurds will do so to avoid domination of their territory by Turkey. Syria will owe its continued existence to Iran. As such, it will have to follow Iran’s guidance. Syria will continue to be a conduit for arms to Hezbollah. It will also become more and more co-dependent on Hezbollah as Syria could not have survived without Hezbollah’s military support. This will place Hezbollah in a near-peer bargaining position with the government of Syria. Once Syria has control of its internal dynamics it will be inclined to reestablish a stronger regional position and exert influence over Lebanon and intimidate Israel. The Syria-Lebanon struggle will be interesting as Syria will have lost most of its dominance. I am unsure that it can regain the prior position absent some significant change in the Allawite-Kurdish relationship within Syria. Syria needs to return to a combative relationship with Israel as that will be the only way, in their perspective, to regain regional posture. This may take years, unless Syria directs some of its many proxies against Israel or Syria becomes Lebanonized by Iran such that some of the Syrian militias become within Syria as Hezbollah is within Lebanon.
Is a zebra white with black stripes or is it black with white stripes? That is the zebra question. What does it matter how people answer?
I have recently asked this question to groups of military professionals. It started as something of a whimsical question, but it has had my mind reeling with possible meanings. The way I phrased the zebra question was is the normal state of the world peace punctuated by war (white with black stripes) or is it war punctuated by peace (black with white stripes).
How does it shape your thinking if you believe that the world is normally peace or normally war? Years ago I gave a presentation to a think tank associated with the United States Special Operations Command. Following the presentation I was challenged that my approach fell into the "good war" camp. By this, my challenger meant that I was suggesting that there was a good war to be had and if we had only adjusted our behavior than we would have had that good war. This accusation not only implied that I was looking for a good war, but that I was also naïve enough to believe that such wars exist. In this case, a good war could be construed as a war that we would have won and achieved a clear and final victory. Someone who sees the zebra as white with black stripes probably does believe that wars can achieve better endstates that might be some level of final and achieve some level of resolution.
On the other hand, how might the black with white stripes view shape your thinking? I lived and worked in Israel for a couple of years. I was present in the country during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in 2009-2010. I regularly spoke with Israeli military personnel and national security professionals who expressed the need to go back into Gaza every few years to "mow (or cut) the grass." The phrase expressed the idea that the problems in Gaza would never really go away. Like grass, the forces opposed to Israel in Gaza would always grow back necessitating a military intervention sooner or later to cut the grass back down to an acceptable level. I was assigned next to Iraq and while serving there I met numerous US military officers who expressed a similar set of ideas. ISIS (then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq or AQI) would never be finally dealt with and we simply needed to have a plan to come back in every few years to "mow the grass." This sentiment was even stronger in 2014 and 2015 as I returned to Iraq again.
I wish that I had asked the zebra question for years. I haven't. I have taught US military officers over the span of more than twenty years and I believe that twenty years ago officers saw the world differently than today. As I trained officers at the US Army Armor School in 2001 to 2003 and sent many directly to Afghanistan or Iraq I know that I thought we were going to fight so that we could win and then resolve problems so that we wouldn’t have to return (white with black stripes). As I have recently asked this question, more than 75% of those present have characterized the world as being black with white stripes – war is the normal condition and peace is the punctuated exception. I found it depressingly interesting that the more junior the officers the higher the percentage who had the pessimistic view.
The good news is that this has not been a scientific poll. It is simply anecdotal. Only about 100 people have been asked the question so far.
It is fascinating that when I have discussed the question in greater depth people start to see things differently. Most human beings (the vast majority) around the world are not in a war environment and most will never be in their entire life time. Most of the timeline of human history, if taking into account geographic dispersion and global population, is peace. There may always (or something close) be some war going on somewhere, but that war usually doesn’t affect most people anywhere else. The US is a great example of this. The US has not really been at war for the past nearly twenty years. Very few Americans have seen any violence associated with the Global War on Terrorism. Very few Americans have had a friend or loved one die in this war, yet we regularly characterize the entire country as participating in the war.
Is the world really black with white stripes? The true answer (assuming that there is such a thing) doesn’t matter. What matters is that a person is conscious of how his or her own answer shapes his or her thinking. Am I looking for the right way to fight this war to achieve a desired end – the good war – or am I expecting that whatever I do I will just be coming back again in a couple of years to do it again – mowing the grass? The answer matters as one tries to come to grips with national security policy implementation.
The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass is the single most important manual for understanding the transformation of global terrorists like al-Qaeda and ISIS. It was published in 2004 by Abu Bakr Naji (a pseudonym for an individual about whom we know nothing). The document was translated from Arabic to English by William McCants under funding provided by the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University. This is a 268-page book in its English translation and one of the most important documents for students of al-Qaeda and ISIS to read. The Management of Savagery gives a strategic and operational vision and plan of action for achieving exhaustion against the West, in general, and the United States of America, in specific.
Recently (April and May 2019), ISIS published a series of online articles collectively referred to as "ISIS Insurgent Tactics" that describes the tactical conduct in the current operational environment. These articles provide a tactical update to the earlier Management of Savagery and also give specific tactics, techniques, and procedures for actions in areas where ISIS does not govern nor have the ability to consolidate gains sufficient to achieve governance. It is recommended that readers combine both The Management of Savagery and the "ISIS Insurgent Tactics" in order to gain a total picture of how the group intends to behave depending on the potential for governance.
ISIS and like-minded groups have regularly informed the public on their intended behavior. Those who have read their words know their intent. It is in this spirit, that the summary and synthesis of the two sets of material is included below.
Al-Qaeda and ISIS see the West as operating with technological advantages in addition to a having a deceptive media halo or protection from the global media environment. Both groups also see the West as fundamentally weak with respect to will and economic capacity. These assessments drive the approach used. Abu Bakr Naji, lays out the road to victory – it is a road of economic and societal exhaustion. The West cannot be always vigilant. Hyper-vigilance will cause exhaustion in the societies just as it does in a person. Additionally, the objective is to create conditions such that the West will collapse under the weight of their own security apparatus.
The Management of Savagery is organized into a preface and five topics. The preface lays out the basic argument against the world as it was in 2004. This includes criticisms of the post-World War I borders imposed on the Middle East and the European or Western imposed standards. The first topic is the definition of the management of savagery. The second topic is the path for establishing an Islamic state. Note that this was published online two years before the Islamic State of Iraq declared itself and a decade before the declaration of the caliphate. The third topic includes ten sections that lay out the principles and policies for fulfilling the vision of the Islamic state. The fourth topic addresses six problems and obstacles the state will face. The fifth topic is the conclusion which also includes seven articles that explain a variety of challenges facing the endeavor.
The progress through the various phases, as envisioned by Naji, is clearly explained as a struggle and not a singular progression. The author accepts regression as a possibility. Regression through failure will mean an increase in savagery.
Abu Bakr Naji recognizes that there is a battle of narrative happening. He terms it “the illusion of the deceptive power” by which he means the U.S. He suggests that the submission to such illusions begins the downfall. He further states that it is the will of the society that makes weapons effective, not the weapons themselves. Thus the focus on the attacks on society to weaken the will. He further explains the narrative power as a media halo that is essentially a mirage that once stripped away can weaken the power of the opponent. He specifically takes aim at the economy of the U.S. as the fatal weakness. By destroying the economic power, this will strip the media halo and the deceptive power. Abu Bakr Naji uses the Soviet Union as an example of victory against this media halo, and he chastises those who doubt the ummah can succeed against the U.S. He acknowledges the U.S. as having a more powerful media halo, but views it as significantly weaker than was the Soviet Union. He concludes the preface by providing three goals that he claims began with the bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es-Salam. They are one, to destroy the respect for the U.S. by revealing its deceptive media and forcing it to abandon the war against the Muslims. Two, provide humanitarian aid to those who have suffered from the savagery present in the conflict between Islam and the West. The author imagines the money for this aid will flow in once the people of the world see the revealed truth of those who oppose Islam. Three, force the U.S. to fight directly and not through the media and through proxies.
The management of savagery is the management of savage chaos. Abu Bakr Naji acknowledges that this is not about creating chaos, but about creating an environment of struggling people who will turn to the Islamic state for assistance and guidance rather than to those who cannot control the savagery. This management of savagery is a period of management. It is not the state even though the state may be declared during it. It is the transition from simple terrorist acts toward actual uncontested rule. This is similar to the phases of revolutionary war described by Mao Tzedong. Too often in the discussion of management of savagery, readers place emphasis on savagery and not on management. In this discussion Abu Bakr Naji states the importance of selecting the right people to administer and acknowledges that not all people are fit for these roles. The author notes the value of using jihad in combat as a means for avoiding corruption and keeping people focused on the purpose. He emphasizes the importance of wave of attackers in that this creates the idea in the minds of the opponents that these attacks will never end. Violence is a tool to be used to cause the enemy to be thoughtful before acting. To a degree this violence feeds into his definition of power and the use of power. Power is essentially the fear in the mind of the enemy that action against the state will result in an unacceptable response. This is a battle where all tools are used to educate the masses to the reality that the author is preaching.
The document deserves to be digested in some detail. It was explained here only in brief as it relates to the transformation of the strategic approach and the forming and evolution of narrative space terrain. One of the most important elements identified by Abu Bakr Naji is that the focus of the effort must be on small attacks and not on the large attacks of the earlier era or cycle. This expresses the end of trying to duplicate another 9/11-style attack. I place that emphasis here as so many pundits and even some specialists in terrorism emphasize that no more 9/11 attacks have happened as if the enemy is still seeking to perform such attacks. They aren’t, and they haven’t been since 2004 and the publishing of this work.
Doctrine usually follows behavior. In 2019, ISIS provided what could be termed doctrinal guidance to its adherents through something akin to an online newspaper. There are four articles, and they come across as a how-to manual with respect to operations in areas where the governance of the caliphate no longer exists. The documents regularly use an Arabic word tamkin which can be translated as consolidation of gains. The author is very practical. He knows that ISIS does not govern and cannot govern now. He warns fighters to avoid taking control of areas when they cannot consolidate the gains into governance.
Operating in this environment, the author explains the purposes for operations - drain the resources of the state, weaken the will and resolve of local commanders, and make soldiers and police feel as if they are all alone. By doing this, the defense will be less resolute, the response will take longer, and operations will be more likely to be successful if conducted rapidly.
The mujahidin need to operate as did their predecessors centuries ago - keep the desert to their back and melt into it if they receive a response stronger than anticipated. It is better to survive to fight again than to sacrifice oneself for something that cannot be consolidated into a larger governed area.
Throughout the "ISIS Insurgent Tactics" local commanders are given tremendous autonomy and responsibility. They need to plan, gather intelligence, and conduct operations mindful of survival as the highest priority and still be able and willing to take advantage of opportunities that are present.
Another Arabic term of note is nikaya. The word can be translated as damage, but this is damage with a purpose. The idea being to weaken the opponent. This is not wonton destruction. The author talks about destruction of court related documents to keep captured fighters from the death penalty as one example. The idea is to create an environment wherein ISIS can return and govern.
Both The Management of Savagery and "ISIS Insurgent Tactics" are important documents to understand how and why various non-state actors conduct operations as they do. They have a strategy - exhaustion - and tactics - nikaya and tamkin to destroy such that they can return to governance. The more familiar we are with their words and approach, the less surprised we will be by their actions.
I first read “Without Sky” nearly a year and a half ago. I was directed to the short story through several different articles dealing with the Russian conceptualization of modern warfare. I found the story online. The first reading was confusing: What is this “without sky” concept and how can it actually work? On a second reading, I began to see tremendous insight into Russian thought on conflict.
For me, the story’s value was well beyond the science fiction. Part of the value is in the commentary on the nature of war. The connection of the author, Natan Dubovitsky (real name: Vladislav Surkov) and Russian President Vladimir Putin was important as well; Surkov is reportedly a close advisor.
For the last two class years, I have asked my U.S. Army Command and General Staff College students to read “Without Sky,” and we have discussed possible meanings and interpretations. The discussion has proven to be illuminating. What follows is an adaptation of that discussion. I am including the text of the story with my commentary interspersed.
There was no sky over our village. That’s why we went to the city to watch the moon and birds, on the other side of the river. The people in the city were not thrilled to have us, but they did not try to stop us. On one of the hills, where the brick church stood, they even built an observation platform. Since for some reason they considered us drinkers, in addition to benches and a pay telescope, they built a small tavern by the observation deck, and a police post.The early paragraphs set the stage for the main character. He is the voice of a broader community of people who are left without sky. Later on, the author explains that these victims can see only in two dimensions. Something about the nature of the fighting and the weapons used have created this transformation in perspective in those who lived beneath the sky in which the massive battle took place.
The two-dimensional perspective is also expressed in terms of yes and no, a sort of conceptual black or white appreciation of the world rather than simply a spatial limitation. I believe that the author is making a statement about the Russians’ being “without sky” — the simple people who are being kept out, and the West being the city — the civilization to which those without sky are being denied entry.
In this science fiction oddity, it is easy to miss the comment on current and future evolving conflict: it is all aerial. This comment is reminiscent of theories developed and promulgated by thinkers like Giulio Douhet, Hugh Trenchard, and Billy Mitchell during the 1920s and 1930s. They proposed that the development of aircraft capability would make armies and navies irrelevant. In a world where all combat is in the air, then the air quality matters as the author notes.