Narrative Warfare


Vasiliy Surikov

Originally posted in Real Clear Defense

“…the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.” — Sun Tzu (544-496 BC)

While the art of non-kinetic warfare is as old as the hills, the alacrity and multi-dimensional strategy of the attacks generated by adversaries of the U.S. and her allies to create psychological susceptibility to narratives that have been weaponized is new.

Our superior conventional kinetic capacity has promoted the recourse of our adversaries to irregular, often indirect, forms of conflict. And while our superior military can, in some cases, prevent the escalation of hostilities to direct modes of confrontation, it may be counter-productive in the influence wars we are in now if the kinetics do not serve a narrative strategy.

Warfare is taking place in multi-level threat environments, ranging from heavily kinetic to subliminal fear-inducing strategies, in which state actors and non-state actors compete to extend their influence. Both exploit localized events to fuel civil wars, provoke desired changes in broader geopolitical environments, leverage pre-existing hostilities, to manufacture conflict when they can, and foster ideological shifts in civilian populations.

State sponsorship of information operations, psychological operations, cyber attacks, and indirect sponsorship of terrorist attacks to maintain spatial displacement from lethal activity are outpacing us. A recent Department of Defense risk assessment suggests the hyperconnectivity and weaponization of information are, in part, responsible for the post-primacy status of liberal democratic systems. The commitment of liberal democratic societies to free speech and open information exchange has been turned against us by societies that don’t value or practice the same ideals themselves.

Even non-state actors with economic restraints and poor conventional military capacity have enacted narratives that in some cases have rendered our own narrative a weapon in their arsenal. For example, the conflation between the war on terror and a war on Islam perpetuated even further by the perception of a ban on Muslim immigrants may feed the Islamic State narrative that Islam itself is under attack. These circumstances have led to a call for cognitive security. Cognitive security addresses a very different threat from physical threats, and drones and bullets cannot protect us against them.

Narrative is central to cognition. Weaponized narrative represents a deep threat to national and international security and cooperation—a threat that our advanced kinetic capacity, and those of our partner nations, cannot address alone. When narratives are weaponized, they can undermine homeland security by shaking the faith of citizens in democratic institutions and the rule of law causing civil unrest. Weaponized narratives on social media are the extremist recruiter’s favorite tool. To stem the rise of extremism, eliminating extremists themselves is a temporary fix. The comprehensive long-term fix is to render extremist narratives obsolete.

This form of warfare is all about influence. But this is not information warfare; this is warfare over the meaning of the information. Information consists of facts—raw data. Narratives do not tell the facts. Narratives tell the meaning of the facts. This is narrative warfare, and our adversaries are beating our brawn with their brains. That is why the Islamic State is able to draw recruits from around the world to travel to conflict zones to fight, and that is how they can encourage homegrown terrorists to take lethal action without physical coercion.

We do not have an influence containment strategy; we need one. However, containment of adversarial influence is not the best we can do. We can do better than that through our improved capacities to influence the domestic populations of our adversaries and the opinions of the international community represented by organizations such as the United Nations.

Narrative is the power shifter. Those who understand narrative and how to employ it need to be invited into this fight and to lead it. The military has been receptive to anthropological studies of specific conflict zones which is, of course, crucial but now more than ever we need people who understand how brains work—not just the brains of our adversaries but also our own. This is not just a fight between truth and lies. It is a fight over meaning and identity—the meaning of the truth and the meaning of the lies. We need to focus on what kinds of identities layers (personal through national) are being constructed by both and which identities are being undermined.

Lies are intended to serve the meaning and identity goals of a hostile power, and we defeat that power, not by recourse to the truth (a natural human inclination but not helpful in this fight). To the extent that truth-telling is part of our strategy, it cannot be reactive; we cannot chase our adversaries around matching their lies with the truth, because, as cognitive science has demonstrated, countering lies by repeating them with the word “no” (or some other negative) actually has the opposite effect. That strengthens the false statement in the mind of the audience. Truth and facts should be a part of our narrative, but it is the meaning of the truth and lies that the narrative must tell. We need to go after adversarial attempts to project meaning and undermine it with our own narrative.

Consider the case of Russia, an adversary whose weaknesses should factor heavily into our strategic narrative: