Narrative Warfare

Paul Cobaugh
4 min readJan 21, 2019
Image from the Beyond propaganda series: Information at War: From China’s Three Warfares to NATO’s Narratives, September 2015, Legatum Institute

I’d like to offer everyone a little background on a concept developed a while back by friend and CEO/ Founder of Narrative Strategies (NS), Dr. Ajit Maan. It is of critical importance to understand the distinction between what she and our colleagues at our Think/ Do Tank, NS see as Narrative Warfare (NW) and what most, especially the National Security community generically consider “Information Warfare”. Dr. Maan, who literally wrote the book on Narrative Warfare and who I had the honor to co-author, Narrative Warfare, a Primer and Study Guide not only originated the concept but continues to be on the cutting edge of its development.

Narrative Warfare, continues to come into prominence in the wake of modern Russian Active Measures styled warfare against her adversaries, both real and perceived.

During the Soviet period, Russian influence was executed primarily through a system called Active Measures. Its current version, The Gerasimov Doctrine is a modern version of its predecessor and incorporates CYBER Warfare with a strong focus on influence by way of online and social media campaigns designed to malignly influence adversarial audiences. Conventional and somewhat antiquated US and Western military doctrine still considers this “Information Operations”, though in light of modern analysis, fails to address the core issue of any such campaign, narrative.

Influence campaigns are not random attacks but are wrapped around a core narrative which “gives meaning” to the disparate actions and messages employed. Traditional Information Operations doctrine does not address this critical aspect of influence campaigns such as currently employed by Russia, China and even non-state actors such as extremist organisations. Until evolutionary thinking such as NW is addressed and incorporated into national security strategy thinking, the US and its Allies will be at a loss to mitigate the malign influence of the activities employed against us. Hence, the requirement to define and include the term “Narrative Warfare” into the lexicon of strategic planning.

In order to provide the context for adding NW into the national security lexicon we need a cursory view of a couple of terms and concepts. These are as follow:

Narrative: What is narrative?

The short answer is that narrative is a type of story that gives meaning to a series of events and occurrences. Narrative is as natural to human beings as breathing. We are meaning-seeking animals and our primary means of meaning-making is narrative. Narrative is the way we create, transmit, and in some cases, negotiate meaning. Without narrative, life would be experienced as an unconnected and overwhelming series of random events. We organize, prioritize, and order our experiences through narratives that we usually inherit. What’s more, we understand not only the world around us, but also ourselves, through the narratives we live by; our personal narratives inform our personal identities, our tribal/familial narratives inform our tribal/familial identities, and our national narratives inform our national identity.

The primary construct of narrative: NARRATIVE = Meaning + Identity + Content + Structure ©

Meaning: Narratives do not necessarily tell the truth, they give meaning to a succession of events, facts (real or otherwise). That does not necessarily imply that narratives involve patent dishonesty although they may. It does though mean that when narrative is presented based on the art and science of narrative it does not allow the audience to derive their own meaning. The narrator (s) control this.


Literally, who someone or some group is. All people and groups, families, tribes, clubs, nations, religious entities etc. have specific identities unique to them. Within a group, not all are precisely the same but have shared “layers” of identity.


The facts, pieces of information (true or not) the story/ narrative are built around. Remember, narrative gives meaning to the information included in the story.


The way the content is told is the form or structure of the narrative. The most recognized Western structure is the one outlined by Aristotle, that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not all cultures share this structure, particularly outside the Western world.

With the basics above, it is now easier to understand what NW actually is. NW in its simplest form, is the conflict between the meaning of information that an adversary wishes audiences to adopt/ internalize and the meaning, friendly forces intend.

In the case of Russian NW against the US and the West, the basic Russian narrative (paraphrased) is that” Russia, is strong, honorable and decisive. The West is divided, immoral and a threat to Russia, others and to themselves.” Therefore, any information that supports their narrative becomes the weapons they employ against us. The information, true or not is presented with the “meaning” Russian strategists deem most supportive of their intent.

In her seminal book Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Dr. Ajit Maan defines narrative as inherently strategic: “Narratives are never neutral. Their very nature is strategic. There is no narrative that is devoid of strategy. Narrative is a rendering of events, actions, and characters in a certain way for a certain purpose. The purpose is persuasion. The method is identification.”

Finally, it is a long-recognized axiom that a problem cannot be solved if you don’t understand the problem. In terms of combatting malign influence I would argue that a better understanding of narrative and narrative warfare is essential to solving the problem of bad actors employing malign influence against us. At the heart of their efforts is a narrative strategy. As it pertains to national security, until we include Narrative Warfare into our doctrine, we will remain relatively defenseless.

For additional reading on this topic, I highly recommend the books by two other esteemed Narrative Strategies colleagues; Dr. Howard Gambrill Clark and Alan Malcher.

Information Warfare: The Lost Tradecraft

Narratives: Pathways to Domestic Radicalisation and Martyrdom: International Terrorism