The #FutureOfWar and the Fight for the Strategic Narrative

The Proprietor of ‘Carl’s Cantina’ is an Australian military officer who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Proprietor is an Associate Member of the Military Writers Guild and is currently writing a thesis on Australian civil-military relations. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Australian Defence Force.

Stories or narratives are an important construct that unite and sustain human communities. These narratives are a fire around which individuals, nations, and peoples gather. Based on them we celebrate a common history, language, or culture and they have the power to inspire a sense of meaning for life — they provide hope for the future.

Stories provide ideas which Kennedy referred to as “endurance without death.” For as long as narratives form the fabric of human existence, and for as long as war remains a human endeavor, the fight for the strategic narrative during times of conflict becomes imperative. Consequently, any discussion of the future of war must include consideration of how the battleground for ideas can be won through a persuasive story that can inspire action in people and government and thus the military.

‘A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death’.
John F. Kennedy

Strategic narratives also help develop the rationale for war efforts. Without them nothing rallies or binds people to a common cause. More importantly, without a strategic narrative, there is no story that provides an alternative voice to those whom we fight. This is evident in the fight against extremist organisations such as ISIL, who has developed a glossy and sensational communications product that creates emotional connections with people and has proven to be a highly effective recruitment tool.

The Importance of the Narrative to Human Existence

When I think of the word “narrative,” I immediately think of those various human civilizations that have passed on their language and culture through storytelling. Australian Aborigines make reference to “The Dreaming” or “Dreamtime,” which has various meanings within different Aboriginal groups. However, it can be summarized as “a complex network of knowledge, faith and practices that derive from stories of creation, and it dominates all spiritual and physical aspects of Aboriginal life.”[1] This network of knowledge has been passed on over thousands of years through generations sharing stories. Or simply through oral histories.

1915, Landing at Gallipoli, ‘ANZAC’

According to one Marine Corps officer, LtCol John M. Sullivan, in an article called ‘Why Gallipoli Matters: Interpreting Different Lessons from History’, “[t]he very word ‘Gallipoli’ conjures up visions of amphibious assault and failure of what might have been.” Gallipoli was indeed a military failure, but that aspect of its narrative has become subsumed by a stronger story about the birth of the Australian nation, an idea that was borne out of the work of Australia’s official war correspondent, C.E.W Bean. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings and hence the spiritual birth of Australia, and the dominant narrative will take on an irresistible force with celebrations across the country, which will be spread over the next four years [2]. The facts of the military campaign occupy only a marginal part of the celebrations, reserved only for the military historians or those with a passing curiosity. The details surrounding the events of the 25th April 1915 have been overborne by a greater need for a nation to express its sense of national identity. This highlights that the dry facts are sometimes not as important as the story and the emotions that the narrative conjures in those who engage with it [3].

I wanted to share these examples to highlight the primal nature of stories and their link to human emotion rather than rational human cognition. According to Cody C. Deistraty in ‘The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling’:

‘[s]tories can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world. They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness. Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives a form existential problem solving.’

Stories also enable an understanding of others and drawing connections with seemingly distant issues.

The Importance of the Strategic Narrative to the Future of War

The importance of narrative, how it powers human emotion, and its relationship to war becomes evident when considered through the frame of Clausewitz’ theory about human emotion within the construct of the ‘paradoxical trinity’. He said:

“War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity — composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which is to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.
The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone.
These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep-rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another. A theory that ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless” (emphasis added) [4].

In his book, The Direction of War, Sir Hew Strachan considers that strategy formation in the 21st century neglects the people, which is a significant oversight because “[t]he people are the audience for war” and they must be factored into strategy formulation and operational planning. Strategic narrative is vital in engaging the people — in persuading the adversary’s potential recruits/supporters to either stay out of the fight or to support our efforts; as well as convincing our own populations to support our military endeavors in pursuit of key national interests [5]. For this reason, a strategic narrative is a means to ensuring that the people, military and government “become three in one in reality as well as in Clausewitzian theory” [6].

Poster for the 1935 film Triumph des Willens, 1935

The battle between competing narratives is not new. A battle for ideologies underscored the Second World War. Hitler’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and territorial ambitions were delivered with the pomp and ceremony of rallies and associated symbology. Nazi propaganda films, such as Triumph of Will were aimed at stirring emotion and hitting the German population in the collective ‘feels.’

…they used emotion to convey a message and obtain understanding, rather than dry statistical and bureaucratic language to convince the respective populations of the need to go to war.
“Why We Fight” from a series of films by Frank Capra

On the Allied side of the fight was the seven-part film Why We Fight, which was aimed at emphasising to US servicemen the reasons for US involvement in the war against Germany and Japan, and to unite the nation behind a common cause [7]. These films were effective in that they used emotion to convey a message and obtain understanding, rather than dry statistical and bureaucratic language to convince the respective populations of the need to go to war.

Arguably, it is easier to have a strategic narrative in a total war where there is a clear existential threat to a nation. Limited wars conducted on distant shores are a relatively more difficult to “sell.” For this reason, a strategic narrative is vital in a limited war because there is an ongoing need to keep the people appraised of how the war is unfolding and to maintain their support for the often protracted conflicts that we have so far experienced in the first decade of the 21st century.

A strategic narrative also plays a vital role in providing a protective function (or ‘counter-narrative’) against the story conveyed by the adversary. The large numbers of citizens from many nations, including Australia and the US, going to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside ISIS provides an ongoing reminder of the need to have a ‘counter-narrative’. The difficulties in countering ISIS in this regard is covered off by Simon Cottee’s article in The Atlantic posted here.

A few considerations for how to build an effective strategic narrative, particularly in a counter-insurgency setting, have been discussed by Col. Stephen Liszewski USMC here. Jason Logue, in a previous post on The Bridge also provided a detailed discussion on how to constructively engage in the fight for the dominant and more persuasive story through the use of appropriate language and having a nested approach to strategic communications.

Preparing Future Leaders

The preparation of future leaders for future warfare that will inevitably involve the fight for the dominant narrative is difficult and will require breaking existing cultural norms. This can be achieved through including the strategic narrative in professional military education; and reacquainting ourselves with strategy formulation.

Professional military education and strategic narratives. When someone mentions the strategic environment, the instant reaction is to start thinking about things like regional military spending, socio-economic and environmental pressures that can widen fissures in the security setting, and pre-existing tensions between countries based on history, etc. However, there is little discussion about the “information environment,” as a subset of the “strategic environment,” wherein competing narratives reside.

This is particularly important when it comes to ‘whole of government’ efforts that direct many elements of national power to a common cause. The fight against ISIL is an example where various elements of national power are engaged, and where a unifying strategic narrative that offers an alternative is imperative. Preparing future leaders to engage in this fight for the dominant narrative is challenging as it requires a change in culture and a broadening of the collective perspective. Perhaps a relatively useful starting point is in professional military education — through war colleges and staff colleges as part of studying strategy; and using a historical study of strategic narratives in past conflicts using Sir Michael Howard’s approach of studying depth, breadth and context.

Reacquainting Ourselves with Strategy

Before an effective and unified strategic narrative can be constructed and deployed as a credible and viable alternative to that offered by the adversary, there is a need to have a strategy that forms the foundation of the narrative. In the fight against ISIL, this seems to be missing. Much of the political oratory regarding actions to be taken against ISIL revolves around mission verbs: “degrade” and “deny” [8]. Arguably, this is not a strategy as it fails to link how military force is to be used to achieve political objectives and is merely declaratory of actions that should be expected in war (i.e., to degrade or deny the enemy). Sir Hew Strachan, in The Direction of War, examined a number of recent conflicts and strongly criticizes national leaders in the United States and Britain for entering into conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan without a clear strategy.

…it is clear that strategic acquaintance must begin with senior military leadership, who are expected to provide advice on the use of military force to civilian leaders…

Sir Hew discusses the impact of the Cold War in diminishing the capacity for strategic thought and strategic formulation caused by the conflation of strategy with policy due to the specific existential threat that nuclear war posed [9]. Ensuring that future leaders reacquaint themselves with strategy and its formulation is a significant challenge due largely to the need for a cultural shift. It is not for me to detail how this is to be done, but it is clear that strategic acquaintance must begin with senior military leadership, who are expected to provide advice on the use of military force to civilian leaders in nations where civil control of the military is a fundamental tenet of liberal democracy. It will require a serious, objective consideration of recent conflicts and an examination of where we were found wanting in terms of strategy. This may require the help of experts in strategy (such as Sir Hew) to guide military leaders on this path to strategic re-acquaintance.

The current fight for the strategic narrative is not in our favour; as shown by the multitude of willing volunteers answering ISIL’s call. While a topic such as the future of war evokes mental images of technologically advanced platforms, cyber capabilities, and omniscient battlespace awareness, we cannot forget about the enduring human aspect of war. While war remains a human endeavor, and stories/narratives are a way for humans to use emotion to understand complex phenomenon, the battle for the strategic narrative remains vital. If we fail to engage in this fight, the future of war will look very much like the recent past where we win the tactical engagements but lose the war.


[1] See Australian Museum:

[2] For a sense of the scale of ‘Gallipoli: 100 Years On’ celebrations, see

[3] See Dr Peter Stanley, ‘Why does Gallipoli mean so much?’ ABC News Online, 25 Apr 08: (accessed 03 March 2015).

[4] Carl von Clausewitz, On War. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 1984, 89.

[5] Hew Strachan, The Direction of War (New York: Cambridge University Press) 2013, 278–281.

[6] Strachan, 281.

[7] Charles Silver, ‘Why We Fight: Frank Capra’s WWII Propaganda Films, MOMA (accessed 03 March 2015).

[8] See Obama speech: (accesed 04 March 2015).

[9] Strachan, 16.

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