The Use of Narrative in War
You’ve probably heard the story recounted before. It is the height of the “Hukbalahap”, or “Huk”, rebellion in Central Luzon. Defense Chief Ramon Magsaysay is tasked with fighting a growing guerilla army, but is hamstrung by the corruption scandals of the administration he serves. But among his advisers is Edward Lansdale of the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency. There is intense American interest in putting down the Communist-sympathizing rebellion, but Lansdale sees that the Philippine government will be of little help. So, how does he fight a guerilla war without an army?
He uses a weapon even older than armies.
Lansdale knows that the “Huk” live on the support and sympathy of the populations they blend in with. These rural populations retain vigorous sets of superstitions and beliefs. So, Lansdale’s covert teams wait in the mountain forests, stalking Huk patrols. They take one, usually the laggard of the group. That rebel is killed, drained of all blood, and inflicted with suspicious-looking bite wounds, before being left on the trail to be found by another patrol the next day. The “aswang”, a primordial Philippine vampire, had come to the hills of the Huk. The superstitious among the Huk refuse to go out at night. Villagers begin to whisper that the Huk have incurred the wrath of the supernatural, and that any sympathizer would be held guilty by association. Villagers who openly aid the Huk would wake up to an evil eye painted into the side of their homes as a warning. Whenever there was an “aswang” killing, the Huk decamp to other hills as the villager sympathy that was their shield evaporated. By 1954, the Philippine government was ready to fight, but the Huk were already ready to surrender.
The use of narratives in war is as old as war itself. According to Finlayson and Corman’s “The Military Interest in Narrative”, a narrative is composed of “story” and “discourse”. “Story” is composed of the abstract elements of the narrative: the characters, the conflict, the plot, the setting. The “discourse” is composed of the more concrete elements of a narrative: the expression of a story by a particular storyteller in a particular time and place using a particular medium of communication towards a particular audience. War has always had use for stories, whose particulars vary from culture to culture. What evolves is the discourse.
Where war was typically fought between peer armies engaged in formally declared hostilities, much of narrative discourse was confined to use within the forces as a defense against crumbling morale. Use of narratives against the enemy was often for purposes of deception and confusion. But as modern warfare evolves towards asymmetric engagements with non-state actors far from peer-level capacity, narrative discourse has become the main thrust of warfare. “Winning the peace” has become just as vital as winning battles.
Faced with smaller, lightly armed enemies whose chief advantage is in the religious, political or economic narrative that drove their insurgency to begin with, the modern state military must maintain a coherent narrative message of its own. This forces the modern army to communicate strategically, in order for their preferred target narratives to sync with local cultural narratives. This means that everything that can outwardly communicate something to the target audience must be aligned to a strategic narrative, from the rules of engagement to the projects undertaken for the target communities. A “Shock and Awe” narrative strategy will command a vastly different strategic communication plan than a “Hearts and Minds” strategy, for example. The US military tried both over the course of the most recent Iraq War and the troubled peace that followed, but the difficulties of implementation led to mixed results.
However, creating a narrative you cannot strategically live up to can have catastrophic results. When the Islamic State began its huge narrative push, it was selling disaffected Muslims on the narrative of a rising Islamic power that is leaping from victory to victory in order to fulfill an ancient Islamic prophecy. The narrative was particularly potent to Muslims living under non-Islamic governments in the West, where the notion of joining a victorious nation of co-religionists living a way of life that is cast as radically superior and full of purpose compared to their existentially vacant communities was so attractive, that the Islamic State managed to recruit from the affluent West in unprecedented numbers for an insurgent group. However, the narrative that was so potent in building their numbers also demanded a continuous string of victories from Islamic State. Unable to simply attempt to consolidate and defend their quick gains, the need to keep winning led to costly defeats in forced battles against a better-prepared opposition. With mounting losses in their first theater, Islamic State tried to keep the narrative of victory going by establishing proxies in vulnerable areas they can overwhelm. But when even these proxies began encountering serious opposition they cannot simply overwhelm, the quick victories dried up. When the quick victories dried up, the narrative momentum was lost. And the cost of trying to sustain that narrative meant that Islamic State was never going to have enough fighters to defend what they had initially taken.
Until the world returns to the destructive, wide scale near-peer wars of the last century, narrative is king on the asymmetric battlefield. The right narrative strategy has become the difference between a semblance of peace and wars without end. Strategic communication is a modern military’s best weapon, whether they are building schools, or summoning ghosts.