JOURNAL | COVER STORY by: Brian L Steed
War is a contest for influence. This contest occurs in narrative space that contains terrain and has morphology. Organizations, nonstate actors and states operate throughout the narrative space to influence partners and opponents to accomplish their interests. The following material defines the terms associated with maneuver in the narrative space – maneuver, narrative and narrative space – and then explains the processes associated with the construction and transformation of narrative space. The primary example of this maneuver is the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Influence is combat power, or the power to achieve victory, in 21st-century conflict. This may be influence needed to convince an opponent that they are defeated, or it may be the influence essential to convincing a partner to pursue an action that is not perceived to be immediately beneficial to the actor. This also may be the influence to dissuade a potential adversary from moving toward violence. Influence comes through a variety of sources and means. In some cases, particularly when focused on the opponent, influence can come from the barrel of a gun. Influence, both with opponents and partners, can also come through relationships. In this case, the best kind of influence is that which lasts absent the influencer. The objective of competition, conflict or war is to influence the competitor, opponent or adversary to do that which is desired. The desire may be for the enemy to accept defeat, to modify behavior or to accept a subordinate market or global position. For the sake of clarity, this work uses “conflict” more than “war” because of the philosophical narrowing associated with the word “war.” Wars are often construed to imply conflict only between states or recognized political entities. Conflict is a competition of influence.
Influence occurs in narrative space
An example comes from the game of pool. This is a game played on a smooth and flat surface. A player does not intend to hit the cue ball into a pocket. The intent is to hit another ball into a pocket by using the cue ball, influencing one ball through the action and interaction with another ball. If the player wants to sink the eight ball, then the player must influence the eight ball through the cue ball – that is conflict with the opponent. Conflict that is by, with and through a partner, such as NATO forces working by, with and through local rebel forces in Libya in 2011 or the United States-led coalition working by, with and through Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria from 2014 to the present, is a combination shot. In this case, the pool player influences the eight ball into the pocket by using the cue ball to, in turn, influence the four ball to then influence the eight ball. Such a combination shot is difficult on a standard pool table with a smooth, flat surface. Narrative space is not flat or featureless. It has terrain and shape – a morphology.
Narrative space is a philosophical conceptualization of the perception environment in which conflict exists. For this discussion, the conflict environment is divided into the physical battle space, cyberspace and narrative space (see Figure 1.1).
This construct is created to assist those who plan and execute policy to visualize obstacles and opportunities in the pursuit of that policy. By understanding the narrative space morphology, it is possible to develop greater influence with respect to opponents and partners. The development and delivery of influence is done within the narrative space which contains, like the physical battle space, key and decisive terrain that was and is shaped by identity, liminal narratives and transient narratives (see Figure 1.3 later in this essay). These narratives can be detracted or amplified by the “words-deeds-images” of any of the parties involved in the conflict. Maneuver in the narrative space is facilitated by the depth of appreciation of the narrative space terrain. Unlike the physical battle space, narrative space terrain can be readily altered by conflict participants to greater benefit or detriment.
Success in 21st-century conflict requires positive maneuver in the narrative space that includes the braided interaction of “words-deeds-images.” The emphasis is on establishing a narrative that drives the actions of all participants throughout all levels of interaction and operations – from the soldier on the ground to diplomatic personnel to national policy makers.
ISIS currently maneuvers in the narrative space through the use of ideology, supported with a strategic approach that includes engagement to develop resources and a focus on exhaustion of the opponent and, finally, violence. They base their actions and existence off statements and beliefs that, by their interpretation, represent the true performance of a global faith: they are the army of righteousness supporting a state led by the legitimate successor (or caliph) of the Prophet of God. Their actions are necessary and sanctioned by the caliph, regardless of how heinous they appear to outsiders. This narrative was not constructed overnight. It was built over years, generations and centuries.
Maneuver is gaining a position of advantage. In considering maneuver, one is then forced to consider the definitions of position and advantage. Position connotes location and is often associated with physical space and specific geography: crossroad, hilltop, river crossing, etc. This may be true. A position of advantage could also be a website or IP address; a political or religious title or authority; connection to historic or mythic people, places or events; or ideological beliefs. Advantage is relative. It is a position that gives greater opportunity or power to the actor with respect to the opponent in the conflict, counterpart in the competition or partner.
As this is relational, it is critical that the actor understand values placed on the various locations, whether they be fixed and physical or conceptual, by the various participants. For example, one hilltop may have value for the placement of artillery to threaten a specific village, but it may have no advantage whatsoever in terms of shaping the thoughts and behaviors of the villagers. Whereas a simple shrine may have tremendous value to the community, but have no technical or tactical military, diplomatic or political value. Another example of relative power comes from words themselves. The vocabulary in any human interaction can be used to place a person or people in a position of advantage or disadvantage. This is true of simple vocabulary, but it becomes even more powerfully relevant when the vocabulary fits within deep-flowing narratives.
Center of gravity
According to contemporary US military thought and doctrine, there is one aspect toward which maneuver should be directed, and that is the center of gravity. This is explained first and best by the 19th-century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, as he describes it as “the hub of all power” and “the point at which all our energies should be directed.” Clausewitz further explains that in an ideal world, a single center of gravity can be comprehended if one fully understands both self and the opponent. Elsewhere, Clausewitz will state and imply that there may be more than one center of gravity. He typically states the army as a center of gravity, but he also includes cities and infrastructure as possible options.
A center of gravity is that thing which, if threatened, will cause a change in the behavior of the opponent. It is the thing which the opponent cannot dare risk and will cause adjustments in the opponent’s behavior to protect. In contemporary conflict, it is questionable that such a thing exists. Despite this uncertainty, the term is regularly used in the planning and execution of conflict actions. Center of gravity most succinctly captures the ideal of maneuver – a position so vital as to lead to an overthrow of the opponent. Truly a position of advantage.
For center of gravity to be influential in maneuver a series of assumptions must be played out in full. First, we must assume (as we have) that center of gravity does in fact exist. Second, that the actor can identify the center of gravity. It isn’t enough that it exists, but the actor must also understand it well enough to know the right way to then attack or undermine it. Third, the center of gravity must be able to be targeted. In the case of a physical center of gravity, this means that the actor is able to deliver some weapon against the target. Fourth, resources targeting the center of gravity can reach the target. In World War II, this was particularly dangerous as numerous bombers were destroyed on the way to targets and the targets were often not engaged as a result. Fifth, the resources, once at the target area, can accurately engage the target. Sixth, the center of gravity can be targeted enough times to achieve the desired effect. Rarely does one blow achieve results. For this to work, sufficient blows must be delivered. Finally, the opponent cannot develop effective countermeasures.
ISIS provides an excellent example for this discussion of center of gravity. If ISIS has a center of gravity – and this is open for debate – then this center of gravity does not exist in the physical space; rather it exists in the narrative space. Thinking of it this way, what can ISIS not afford to risk or to lose? Salvation. ISIS has declared a caliphate and that caliphate must control some terrain to have validity, but in today’s world it is possible to imagine virtual terrain or small areas of a remote island in some distant archipelago. It isn’t necessarily linked to cities or deserts or mountains in Iraq or Syria. Taking away terrain may not overthrow ISIS. What happens to ISIS if one takes away their definition of salvation? If no one believes the ISIS salvation narrative, will anyone flock to their banner or conduct attacks around the globe in their name? The answer is no. Therefore, this must be their center of gravity.
For the purpose of this argument, the actor is the US government. The seven assumptions are addressed in brief. This is a linked series. If any one of the series fails, then the likelihood of achieving the success promised by Clausewitz is minimal. First, there is a center of gravity and it is the ISIS-defined notion of salvation. Second, can the US government understand this center of gravity? The answer here is problematic as few people have the training to grasp the Koranic and hadithic exegesis necessary to fully understand the argument. Third, can the US government target salvation? How could it? This isn’t something to be delivered by a bomber or a tank. Additionally, the US government is probably not deemed credible in the religious debate as it is typically seen in the Middle East, specifically, and among Muslims, in general, as either a Christian or secular nation. Fourth, assuming that the United States can target the center of gravity through messaging, how can those messages reach the target audience – those fighters who believe in the salvation message or those potential fighters inclined to believe? Will they believe the message delivered? Fifth, will the message be accurate enough to actually achieve target effects – in this case, fighters leaving the ISIS army or potential recruits who instead remain home and peaceful. The final two assumptions are linked in that it is questionable that no countermeasures will be developed to prevent the message from having effect before it can happen often enough.
This example is crucial to understanding maneuver in the narrative space. The linked series of assumptions explain the problems with understanding both the position and the relative advantage gained by holding that position. This also provides the relationship of maneuver with respect to a specific enemy. It is unlikely that Al Qaeda, for example, has the exact same center of gravity as does ISIS, and therefore it is nearly as unlikely that the position of advantage – the objective of the maneuver – is the same. Just as for each enemy on each different terrain on battlefields around the world, there is no one predesignated position of advantage. Each battlefield and opponent must be understood independent of previous battlefields and opponents.
Narrative is the sum total of how people interpret their environment. Narrative space is what shapes thoughts and actions, and it includes physical space and cyberspace within this conceptualization. It is also the means by which people make sense of their world – especially when their world creates cognitive dissonance. The terrain associated with narrative is a combination of the identity, the liminal narrative and the transient narrative. These terms are explained below.
Narrative, in general, is the processing mechanism by which people understand the world in which they live. It includes, as does the terrain, identity. It also includes culture and history. Narrative is “[t]he stories we tell, the identity we form, the way we understand events in our lives (the way we give them meaning) and our future actions,” according to philosopher Ajit K Maan. In this description, narrative is more than story, which is a necessary part of narrative. It is more than messages and talking points delivered by politicians, government officials and military professionals. It is not simply social media in all its forms. These platforms are important and maybe even essential to communicate the messages and stories that make up the narrative, but they are not synonymous with narrative. Social media is a tool or a medium for delivery of narrative and not the narrative itself. Narrative is not memes. Like social media, memes are critical to convey narrative, but they are not the narrative. They are also a tool or mechanism. Some have advocated for a form of memetic warfare to combat offensive or opposing narrative. That would be analogous to proposing a single weapon system warfare – tank warfare or submarine warfare or bomber warfare – to defeat the opponent. Some, notably early air power theorists, have done so in the past. Those people were wrong, just as are those who overemphasize memetic warfare miss the mark today. Physical warfare is best conducted as combined arms that utilize ground maneuver forces in concert with supporting fires and mobility and countermobility efforts. The same method of thinking is relevant to maneuver in the narrative space. It also requires a combination of “words-deeds-images” delivered through various sources and methods. In this vein, memetic warfare and social media applications are useful and may even be significant to maneuver in the narrative space, but no one method will be sufficiently decisive on its own.
Narrative is a combination of language, religion, culture, history, education and traditions that provides context to the stories created by society to assist individuals in understanding what they experience. A simple American narrative might be: America is a land of opportunity where an average person 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 tweets and posts of hard-working women and men who achieved more than their parents through dedicated commitment. Every weekend, millions of people watch sports events where stories are shared of disadvantaged youth with bad family situations who became elite stars with large salaries and lucrative product endorsements. This simple example provides some shape to the definition of the term “narrative” as well as leading in to the discussion on the construction of this narrative space.
Perspective is crucial to this discussion and not all people(s) share the same perspective. The following metaphor explains the differences in perspectives and how that applies to this discussion (see Figure 1.2). “A visual analogy of this comes through a reference to the geometric pyramid shape. Think of it in three dimensions as the accompanying illustrations try to convey. This is a shape that can be perceived from many different angles and some of the angles present radically different ways to describe or define the shape. If one looks at a pyramid precisely from the top then one will see a square with bisecting diagonals. If one looks at the pyramid from the exact opposite direction then one will see only a square. If one sees the pyramid from the side it is possible to see only a triangle. If one looks at the pyramid from another angle then it is possible to see the pyramid in its complex three-dimensional shape.
“Introspection is understanding the angle from which you are observing the pyramid. What do I see? Why does it look this way to me? These are fundamental questions for moving forward. Empathetic appreciation is recognizing the angle from which your counterpart/opponent is observing the pyramid. What does he/she see? Why does it look that way to him/her? Once these two conceptual understandings exist then, and I would argue only then, can one effectively begin to anticipate how one’s counterpart/opponent will respond to the events surrounding both of the participants in the negotiation, conflict or engagement” (“Bees and Spiders,” Steed, 2014).
This metaphor is used to convey that although people fromone culture see squares (conceptually speaking), their counterparts from other cultures see triangles. The square is no more accurate a way to envision the pyramid than is the triangle, and the triangle is no less accurate a way to describe the pyramid than is the square. Neither perspective captures the entirety of the shape and both have their accuracies and inaccuracies built into their perspective. Thus, one cannot assume that equal information conveys equal understanding, acceptance or advocacy. This is especially crucial when dealing with maneuver in the narrative space.
A different, though related metaphor is trying to catch a fish using one’s hands while standing in a body of water. When one looks down into the water and sees the fish, it is understood that the fish is not actually where it is observed. Water refracts light rays on a different angle than does air. This specific refraction angle offsets the fish. To catch the fish, one must adjust the placement of hands appropriately.
The pyramid metaphor also speaks to this refraction angle in perception and communication. As discussed in the following section, as information reaches the liminal narrative it is filtered according to acceptability. The determination of acceptance or rejection is influenced by the refraction angle. The shape of narrative space terrain differs with general and specific audiences, as there are a variety of refraction angles. Obviously, leaders and policy makers cannot account for each individual refraction angle; however, the large, societal-based refraction angles must be considered to adequately understand the terrain and its relationship to the actor’s interactions with the opponent, counterpart or partner.
Narrative is not solely a cognitive domain, which is why it is described as more than story. It is the environment, the experience and the associated cognition.
Narrative space has terrain, just as does physical space. Narrative space terrain is made up of ideas, concepts, humiliations, grievances, history, culture, language, religion, etc. that have different values in terms of shaping the thoughts and associated actions of people who reside in that narrative space. Narrative, for the purposes of this theory, includes social identity, liminal narrative and transient narrative. Figure 1.3 captures the imagery of this concept in that social identity forms the core of how the society or culture sees itself and the most deeply rooted narrative structures. It is the bedrock of the later described narrative space.
Liminal narrative is the crust that sits in between the core and the atmosphere of the transient narrative. It is so named as it is in the transition area between the daily narrative immersion and the core identity. Liminal narrative begins with the first instruction provided to a child. It includes customs, religion, culture, biases, mythology, prejudices, accepted truths and other formative-shaping means of filtering ideas and perceiving information. The transient narrative includes news, rumor, information, entertainment, conspiracy theories and other time-sensitive means of information or data flow. The transient and the liminal narrative have inverse hierarchies of components. For the transient narrative, the highest is the strategic narrative and then the story, the message and data or memes. The liminal narrative filters this hierarchy and reverses the order such that the first sorted are the data and memes and then the message, the story and finally the strategic narrative. The liminal narrative further filters messengers and storytellers for acceptability.
When a person receives new information that has a potential impact on the narrative, that information is then filtered through the liminal narrative. Does it challenge or confirm the narrative? Based on the answer, and based on the individual’s experience and the flexibility or permeability of the liminal narrative filter, the transient narrative information will either be accepted or rejected. If accepted, it may slightly adjust the narrative, and if rejected, it maintains the existing narrative’s permanence – as described later, these are personal examples of depositional or erosional events. Transient narratives are accepted when they reinforce liminal narratives or identity. They are rejected when transient information challenges the liminal narratives or identity and are then seen as subversive. This leads to the information being discarded; sometimes as impure or sinful. This is not simply an issue of truth or fiction, but more importantly about concordant or discordant transient narratives.
An example of the interplay between transient and liminal narrative is evidenced in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. The most popular narrative in Iraq in early 2015, and continuing to 2016, was that the United States (and Israel) created and is (are) supporting ISIS in combat operations. For the average American, this is ludicrous. The American identity and liminal narrative includes concepts of freedom, justice, human rights, civil liberties, separation of church and state, and humanitarian behavior. What ISIS stands for, as popularly communicated in the US media, runs counter to this American liminal narrative; thus this transient narrative is discarded because the filter does not let it through. Because the transient narrative was rejected, there was no early counter from the US government in Iraq or beyond. It was simply deemed too ludicrous to comment on. In Iraq, however, the narrative grew. Some say that the narrative started with the Iranians or other Shiite militia groups. Regardless of where it started, by January 2015 everyone was saying it or thinking it – Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Yazidis. It didn’t matter who – they all were thinking it was true. Why?
A way to look at the Iraqi liminal narrative may go as follows: the United States hates Iraq. The average Iraqi in 1990 believed they were the pinnacle of Middle East might and civilization, and because of this Israel and the United States wanted to weaken and humiliate the great ancient power. Starting in 1990, US forces began to harm their economy through sanctions. In 1991, the US-led military coalition destroyed much of their infrastructure and security forces through Operation Desert Storm. From 1991 to 2003, the United States and its coalition allies imposed one of the harshest sanctions regimes ever leveled against a country, dramatically harming not just the economy but all of Iraqi society. In 2003, President George W Bush continued what his father George HW Bush began by invading the country and destroying the government, throwing the country into chaos. Then after eight years of occupation, instability and mayhem, and just as things appeared to be stabilizing, the United States withdrew, creating another round of confusion and turmoil. Just as the prime minister was getting his hands on the problems, which a Sunni would say were the necks of the Sunnis, in comes ISIS to create more catastrophe.
Americans may say this doesn’t make sense because we are providing support for the Iraqi government. Why would the United States support both? The Iraqi liminal narrative about America includes US Congressional testimony in 1987 where it was revealed that the American government sold arms and equipment to both Iraq and Iran at the same time during the Iran-Iraq War as part of the Iran-Contra affair. Therefore, the United States has a history of double-dealing when it comes to Iraq. When one sees images of ISIS fighters, they are typically wearing American-made gear and driving US-made vehicles. The United States must be equipping them. This is photographic evidence of support to ISIS. American officials say that ISIS got this equipment when they captured it from Iraqi security forces. There are videos showing Iraqi soldiers or militia members holding up American meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs, that they say they found in ISIS positions. This will be excused by saying the MREs may have come from airdropped pallets blown off course and intended for the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar or Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. When Tikrit was retaken in May 2015, The New York Times interviewed a Shiite militia fighter who said he saw the United States support ISIS fighters during the battle with his own eyes.
Iraqis glean further support for their narrative from political speeches such as those made during the 2016 US presidential primary and general election campaigns. Democratic candidates said that the Islamic State was created through the actions of George W Bush and the invasion and occupation of Iraq (2003-11). In contrast, Republican candidates and pundits on the right blamed the creation of the Islamic State on the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in 2011 by President Barack Obama. In either case, all sides of the American political spectrum feed into the narrative that the United States, one way or the other, created ISIS.
In sum, the liminal Iraqi narrative is that the United States and its coalition allies have a singular purpose of making the people of Iraq suffer. Additionally, the United States wants to protect Israel, and keeping Iraq weak and divided by Shiite and Sunni killing each other serves that purpose. The Iraqi people have seen what the United States does when it is serious about a problem: it deploys tens of thousands of forces and mountains of gear and material. That is not what the United States did in the fight against ISIS. The United States, through its technology, can control all of its actions and sees and knows what is happening throughout Iraq – or so the narrative goes – and thus nothing happens by accident. Therefore, if bad things happen, the United States knows it and can do something about it, if so desired. Because ISIS continued to exist for years after Obama called for its destruction, then the United States must not want to defeat them as it claimed.
In summing up this discussion on the construct of narrative, this is about the way humans process information and make decisions. The stories are the real world and they matter. The structure and organization of stories is based off the narrative morphology. It gives shape to the stories and purpose and direction to the characters in those stories.
Where one stands determines what one sees. The location of an observer is further impeded by the morphology of the surrounding terrain. If one is at the bottom of a valley then it is clear that visibility will be more limited than if one stood high on a hilltop. The area that one cannot see or that a weapon system cannot engage from a given position is called dead space, as it affords opportunities for opponents to move unobserved and/or unengaged.
The shape of the physical landscape creates dead space. In cyberspace, there is an entire portion of the web referred to as the “dark web.” This includes domains that are discreet and not included on web browsers and which one must know the specific address to access. There are also applications that only allow entry to those with invitations from existing members and include highly secure forms of communication. Both of these types of sites create dead space for governments and security professionals. The nature of Bitcoin as a currency that is only available through online commerce also presents an effective dead space currency – a means to conduct business transactions that are both unobservable and untraceable.
Narrative space also includes dead space. Some of this is determined by decisions of the observer, just as is true for the physical space. Where one stands determines the observable world. In discussions of narrative, there tends to be a lot of emphasis on social media. This may be, in part, because there are existing tools that can track and map social networks, thereby making it easier to understand the terrain. The problem with this emphasis is that so focusing creates tremendous dead space for those groups or organizations that do not rely on social media to promote or promulgate their narrative. ISIS uses Twitter, YouTube posts and numerous other online media to promote their narrative and to develop narrative space terrain. Al Qaeda and their affiliates do not rely as much on these same tools. There are online publications from Al Qaeda, but most of their engagement is focused in region rather than extraregional. That means that discussions in mosques, actions in villages and conspiracy theories on the street are more important to Al Qaeda. Current tools do not capture this, as it requires people present in the environment to understand what is happening – hence dead space.
The narrative space has terrain including key and decisive terrain – “words, images, ideas” – that have greater value than others. Narrative space is not truly a separate space despite the depiction in Figure 1.1. Rather, it includes cyberspace and physical space, as they are all interrelated (see Figure 1.4). The figures show narrative space separate to communicate that it is a domain that requires a different way of thinking. Narrative space terrain pre-exists maneuver by any party in the conflict and denotes the inherent value within the community in which the competitors seek to attain a position of advantage.
Terrain, in the narrative space, is dynamic and may be altered by the “words-deeds-images” of any of the conflict participants. In general, the terrain is primarily formed by the construct of societal identity and the liminal narrative. Identity-related terrain is the least likely to change, as this is created over generations and sometimes centuries of beliefs and common references and values. Liminal narrative and the terrain derived therefrom have a greater potential to change. Those conducting maneuver in the narrative space often seek to use the existing key and decisive terrain to their advantage and may also seek to adjust that terrain through the transient narrative data/memes, messages, stories and the linked “words-deeds-images” associated with their maneuver.
Narrative space terrain is constructed in much the same way as is physical terrain through basic processes of deposition, erosion and tectonic forces (see Figure 1.5), which creates a narrative landscape or narrative morphology. These processes, as with their physical counterparts, happen over long periods of time or can happen in violent episodic events. The primary shapers of this space are events, ideas (people-thinkers) and actions (people-doers).
Deposition is reinforcement of the pre-existing narrative structure. This is an additive process that is building, sometimes for generations, the landscape. Every time a parent tells a child a story or points to a specific event with the same conceptual moral note that proves the story true is a depositional event. Each subsequent event or story deposits a new layer of narrative sediment upon the pre-existing landscape, reinforcing the morphology.
Erosion is changing the pre-existing narrative structure. As with deposition, this can occur over a long time, although this tends to be more episodic than does deposition. The comparison of deposition and erosion does not necessarily mean that deposition is good and erosion is bad. One is reinforcing and the other is changing. For example, when a child arrives at school for the first time, they may be challenged with new ideas, new social norms and different information than what they learned at home. All of this is erosional, as it reshapes interpretations of the world. This is a natural part of growth and development. However, depending on the nature of the erosional event, this can also be traumatic. Violent crime challenges personal safety. Religious missionaries can change definitions of salvation. Invasion, whether physical or cultural, can reshape values and aesthetics.
The final process is tectonic in that, like physical tectonic forces, it can be abrupt and significantly transformative in a single event. Also, like the physical counterpart, narrative tectonic events tend to work off generations of pre-existing stress that can be released in a single event. The single events are not transformative in and of themselves, but they are transformative, and sometimes radically so, because of the pre-existing conditions inclining the landscape toward change.
In each category, there are examples of people who are thinkers or doers who provide depositional, erosional or tectonic effects. There are also events, some natural and many man-made, that can provide the same variety of effects. The difference is in the speed of the effect. Depositional is the slowest and most consistent. Erosional can be either slow or fast, though it tends toward an opposingly similar consistent approach, as does depositional. The speed and drama of change comes from the tectonic people and events.
Iraq, during the US-led invasion known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, serves as an example of this construction of narrative space. Iraq is used here because earlier the basic narrative for Iraq was laid out with respect to why Iraqis believe that the United States created and operationally supported ISIS. As previously noted, the primary narrative with which American forces dealt in Iraq was negative. Even though the invading force removed an unpopular leader, Saddam Hussein, it was still an invading force and the very act of invasion was depositional as it demonstrated US desire to weaken Iraq.
A brief history of Operation Iraqi Freedom is that the US government, along with other coalition partners, invaded Iraq in 2003, overthrew the government of Hussein and created the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), with the intent of granting sovereignty to an amenable Iraqi government as soon as possible. The CPA issued two orders in quick succession that removed all Ba’ath Party members from current and future government service and disbanded the Iraqi military. The US military, instead of handing things off in less than a year, remained in Iraq for more than eight and a half years, only leaving at the end of 2011.
Depositional actions included the following issues. Removing the Iraqi security forces and denying them and all Ba’athists access to government pensions created both an unemployed and disgruntled force, expressing both a lack of concern for the stability and security of Iraq, as well as disrespect to hundreds of thousands of families placed in serious financial hardship. No active weapons of mass destruction program was found. As this became clearer for Iraqis, the pretense for the American invasion seemed to be solely a power grab to weaken Iraq or seize its oil. The ever-increasing violence in Iraq, with death squads roaming neighborhoods at night, further communicated a willingness on the part of the occupying power for Iraq to be in chaos or an inability to control the environment. Finally, the most powerful and successful nation on earth could not meet the basic needs of the Iraqi people, such as electricity.
Erosional events include the following issues. (Note: Not all erosional events are negative.) American forces did move to have open elections. This was a first in Iraqi history. The events of the 2007 “surge” of American troops demonstrated both commitment and competence at a time when both of those components were challenged. America’s presumed dominance was challenged by the ongoing insurgency and inability to provide basic security.
Tectonic events associated with Iraq tend toward violence. The toppling of Saddam Hussein was tectonic in that it created a new landscape on which all other events transpired. The bombing of the United Nations headquarters and Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad in 2003 drove off the international community and institutions and left the United States as the primary guarantor of Iraqi liberties. The 2006 bombing of the Al Askari Shrine in Samarra started a sectarian civil war within Baghdad, if not the entire country. Each of these events shook the world of Iraq’s population and significantly reformed the narrative landscape.
The interaction between these forces, events, thinkers and doers shape the world each and every day, and create a dynamic and constantly reforming narrative space. Understanding narrative space terrain means understanding not just its current morphology, but also the history of that morphology. How recent are the features present? What are the fault lines and the stresses currently existing in the terrain?
The bombing of the Al Askari Shrine initiated a bloody civil war between Sunni and Shiite throughout Iraq, but primarily in Baghdad. Prior to the US invasion and the insurgency that rose in opposition to it, Iraq was relatively nonsectarian and certainly did not include the torture and slaughter of members of other sects by private citizens – torture was reserved for Saddam’s regime. Many Iraqis were married across sectarian lines and most Iraqi tribes included families from both Sunni and Shiite sects. The transformation of this stable environment to one of bloody sectarian violence took only a matter of months. Comments by Iraqis in 2016 that they could not trust members of other sects as ISIS governed large portions of the country were relatively new and unique in Iraqi history. Iraqis had not been killing each other for hundreds or thousands of years. This sectarian murder started in 2003 and grew rapidly over time due to “words-deeds-images” in the narrative space that both erupted and shook the existing societal norms, eroded old nonsectarian attitudes and then deposited notions of fear and loathing, sowing distrust between the communities. This all happened within months and years. Narrative space terrain can change and evolve rapidly. Iraq provides a sad example of such transformation.
From 2006 to 2011, the US government, through investment of personnel, equipment and money, also changed the Iraqi security forces and the trust with the populace for the better. The events and attitudes associated with the “surge” is an example of positive change through hard work to first erode the negative narrative landscape and then deposit along favorable lines for the United States, coalition forces and Iraqi security forces. Although there are critics of this example, it is difficult to argue that violence was not reduced and trust not increased between the Iraqi people and their security forces. Narrative terrain can be shaped and changed by both indigenous and foreign thinkers, doers and events. And it doesn’t always take decades.
Maneuver in the narrative space
Narrative morphology assists an actor to understand not just the nature of the influence environment, but also the inclination of individuals within the environment to receive the “words-deeds-images” delivered. Maneuver in the narrative space is about weaving together a coherently consistent message of “words-deeds-images” sufficient to influence opponents and partners toward the desired end. The maneuver in the narrative space theory advocates for a deeper understanding of the narrative space to more effectively engage and influence both opponents and partners. The better one understands narrative space, in both its construct and historicity, then the more effectively one can function within it, use it or shape it.
ISIS serves as the exemplar actor for demonstrating what is meant by maneuver in the narrative space. There is not space here to explain their conduct in detail, so what follows is a brief summary. ISIS conducts their maneuver in the narrative space by placing the greatest emphasis on ideology. All of their “words-deeds-images” support their position as the caliphate and as the army of the righteous in this great battle of the ages. They support this ideological main effort with what is termed a strategic approach. This combines a broad-based engagement effort that includes a spectrum of personal interaction, recruitment and seduction all the way to broadcast images and videos and online magazines targeting specific cultures and communities. This is wrapped in an opponent-oriented strategy of exhaustion. ISIS does not seek military victory. Instead, it seeks societal and economic exhaustion: to make the enemy invest so many resources into security as to induce economic collapse. Finally, there is the supporting effort of violence. The graphic violence garners media attention, providing resources to the engagement effort, and it also serves to communicate the narrative of an inexhaustible (remaining and expanding) foe that will do whatever is necessary to win. What is necessary is always supportive of the ideology.
Conflict is a competition for influence, and that influence is achieved through a variety of tools. Strategic narrative is a tool that explains the overarching purpose of operations in “words-deeds-images.” Strategic narrative provides guidance with parameters for communicating stories through various means. These stories both express intent and weaken cognitive dissonance. Successful narrative requires full comprehension of the narrative space landscape and empowers the use of all capabilities.
Maneuver in the narrative space is the execution of the strategic narrative through the braided cord of “words-deeds-images.” This occurs most effectively when the narrative space is fully understood from the perspective of the opponent or counterpart. In the case of Iraq, the United States could only conduct effective maneuver in the narrative space if American leaders understood the Iraqi narrative space terrain morphology in terms of basic shape, as well as the key and decisive terrain. Then it is possible to construct an interwoven or braided cord of “words-deeds-images” that support the strategic narrative and enable the actor to gain a position of advantage or strike at the center of gravity. Maneuver happens through a combined campaign that includes effective use of memes and data, along with messages, stories, imagery and actions or deeds. The deeds are critical in that people will tend to evaluate actions as more important than words. Most critical is that to effectively transform the narrative morphology, one must maintain a tight braid of “words-deeds-images” such that the intended audience cannot see a disparity between what is said, what is done and what is shown.
Actions in the physical space have influence and impact on the narrative space terrain (see Figure 1.7). These actions can be violent or nonviolent. The plan associated with such maneuver needs to recognize the intent of the “words-deeds-images” such that one knows whether they are depositional, erosional or tectonic. The specific challenge with tectonic events is that it is hard to predict the resulting narrative terrain morphology following a tectonic episode.
Additionally, it requires that one have a deeper understanding of the narrative space terrain in terms of historicity, such that the tensions and stress are comprehended. Carl von Clausewitz wrote about grammar in the communication of warfare. Warfare is a tool of communication that includes violence as a subcomponent of narrative. Often, following specific military strikes, one can hear reporters and experts use the phrase “send a message” when explaining the purpose for a strike. Historian Wayne Lee wrote that war “is violence perpetrated by humans with the intent to communicate with other humans. … [R]arely has that message been merely ‘die.’ As an act of communication, it has its own structures, patterns and internally consistent logic, a ‘grammar,’ in which violent acts carry meaning and convey intention.”
Understanding the grammar of conflict means understanding not simply the narrative space morphology, but also the historicity of that morphology. It is recognizing how that morphology changes the perception of “words-deeds-images” said, done and broadcast.
The phrase “words-deeds-images” is essential to this discussion. Words are often characterized as part of narrative. Since narrative space is a holistic environment of all aspects that influence thought and action, and it includes the physical environment, then actions or deeds are narrative. All things that are observed and experienced are narrative.
Understanding narrative space morphology is not simply academic – it is crucial to achieving effective maneuver in the narrative space. ISIS achieves this effectiveness through a near-intuitive grasp of the narrative space morphology in which they operate. They understand the religious, cultural, linguistic and historical narratives present in their areas of operation. They know what motivates their followers, because it is their narrative. It is intuitive. For those nonnative practitioners of maneuver in the narrative space, we must recognize that we function in this space as an expeditionary force – foreigners, even if we are from the region wherein the conflict is waged. Acting in the role of an expeditionary force means that such an actor is seen as an invader.
Almost by definition, any invading force will approach the narrative space terrain at a disadvantage, fighting uphill, if you will. What is being advocated here is the importance of understanding just how much uphill the struggle will be. Is this a gentle slope, a steep mountain ascent or a vertical cliff? “Words-deeds-images” before and during the conflict can influence the morphology of the terrain. It is possible to erode and create advantageous or, at least, less disadvantageous terrain.
Conclusion: Implications for conflict
The center of gravity for opponents in 21st-century conflict lies within the narrative space. For groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, that center of gravity lies in the specific belief that salvation may be obtained through martyrdom while battling infidels and apostates. This belief can only be engaged, and effectively countered, through maneuver in the narrative space.
Global leaders, policy makers and military officials need to recognize the vital role that influence plays in virtually all contemporary conflicts. Those who seek to prevail would benefit from acknowledging the need to maneuver within narrative space, to acquire the desired influence. For to triumph, they must understand the morphology of any contested narrative space and master the history of this morphology. This knowledge provides contestants with an understanding of the refraction angle for any given engagement and the attendant perceptions. Successful maneuver in the narrative space thus requires an effective combination of ideology, strategy and tactical execution (ie, specific actions) in order to achieve the desired results. State and nonstate actors around the globe are constantly engaged in such maneuver. For example, Russian actions in Syria, Crimea and eastern Ukraine perfectly illustrate maneuver in the physical and narrative space. China’s conduct in regard to the South China Sea also provides a textbook example of combined maneuver in the physical and narrative space.
The following essay in this edition’s cover package, “Lessons from Islam Nusantara,” describes how inhabitants of the Malay archipelago have successfully maneuvered in the narrative space for more than 500 years, to produce one of the most pluralistic and tolerant Islamic societies in the world today.
Brian L Steed is an assistant professor of military history at the United States Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. This essay reflects his own thoughts and is not representative of the US Army or US government.