Understand What Narrative Is and Does

by Scott W. Ruston

Admiral Michael Mullen’s recent essay in Joint Forces Quarterly criticizing “strategic communication” lambastes the US government for its failures of strategic communication and the growth of a bloated bureaucracy fueling an agency-funded, contractor-filled cottage industry.  We have previously flagged Admiral Mullen as someone who “gets it,”  and it is welcome news that a US government official with his level of respect and stature continues to bring attention to the myopia that pervades US strategic communication.

We agree with the Admiral’s call for better listening. We should listen to not only what the locals say, but also to what extremists say, and how they say it in a manner the locals already understand. And, we should get back to the basics, understanding what narrative is and how our opponents craft their narratives. This knowledge will help build trust and relationships.

Admiral Mullen does not dismiss strategic communication as a process, technique or as a tool for decision makers and operators. But he does critique the bloated bureaucracy that has become strategic communication within the U.S. government, with its numerous, uncoordinated efforts that are disconnected from actions on the ground (both meritorious and unfortunate).

Presumably within the field of fire of Mullen’s critique is the recent announcement of new counter-propaganda efforts by the Obama Administration in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This new initiative funds (possibly up to $150 million) new communication infrastructure investment, new programming, training and “pamphlets, posters and CDs denigrating militants”.  Admiral Mullen suggests that relationships and trust are the key, not new programs:

We need to get back to basics, and we can start by not beating ourselves up. The problem isn’t that we are bad at communicating or being outdone by men in caves. Most of them aren’t even in caves. The Taliban and al Qaeda live largely among the people. They intimidate and control and communicate from within, not from the sidelines.

Mullen advises that we refocus efforts on operating within the communities and build relationships and trust, rather than lobbing “information bombs” over the walls of a metaphorical (and literal) Green Zone. Here he is fighting an outdated view of the communication process, that is unfortunately still deeply entrenched in government and the military.

But when Admiral Mullen says the Bad Guys are operating from  “within,” it is important to recognize that this does not solely mean physically or socially within the community. It also means culturally within, another area where we need to spend time, energy and resources for listening and understanding. Admiral Mullen notes:

Only through a shared appreciation of the people’s culture, needs, and hopes for the future can we hope ourselves to supplant the extremist narrative.

Admiral Mullen’s desire to supplant the extremist narrative echoes the consternation circulating throughout the DoD, Dept. of State, and strategic communication profession, that somehow the US message machine has been outflanked by unsophisticated operators.  Mullen identifies a fundamental component largely missing from US rhetoric: Cultural understanding.

Why is the extremist narrative more successful than the American narrative?  Because our strategic communication has so far failed to listen, failed to understand that the issue is not our story but their story.  To correct this problem, significant attention needs to be paid to not only “extremist narratives”, but also the deep cultural narratives that circulate in communities and sub-cultures within which the extremist message (in narrative form) is deeply intertwined.  More on that in a moment.

Strategic communication professionals, diplomats, and warfighters need to get back to the basics and understand what a “narrative” is.  Part of the reason the extremist narratives are more successful than American narratives is that the American messages are often not narratives at all. “The Taliban have archaic values” (to paraphrase Ashley Bommer, advisor to Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke) is not a narrative. It is an opinion, forged within a particular worldview, a worldview itself shaped by certain narratives that valorize equality, a free market regulated by law rather than pecuniary circumvention, the role of women as leaders in society, etc.

What then, is this slippery term “narrative”?  A narrative is a system of stories that hang together and provide a coherent view of the world.  People use narratives to understand how their world works.  Narratives contain patterns that fit the data of everyday life (events, people, actions, sequences of actions, messages, and so on), explaining how events unfold over time and how one thing causes another.  For instance, President Obama’s speech in Cairo wove together these patterns by discussing his own biography along with a notion of mutual progress between the Western and Muslim worlds.

Narratives consist of two components, the data (the stories, what is told) and the pattern (how they are told and what is not told).  The process of matching data to patterns happens repeatedly and continuously. People acquire the patterns through upbringing, culture, education and experience. A pattern might specify that a story includes opposing forces, that these forces cooperate (or fight), that what happens earlier always influences what happens later (or not), and so on.

As people hear stories, they acquire the data and distribute it into roles and relationships according to the narrative patterns they already know and understand.  If the story doesn’t fit the pattern, they try an an alternate pattern (or perhaps a different ordering of the pieces of data) until they can understand what is happening.  This process occurs not just in individuals, but in groups and societies too.

A quick example is 9/11, and your reaction to it.  If you are like most people, images and reports of airplanes flying into buildings made no sense to you. This probably caused much confusion and disbelief at first. But then a narrative pattern was applied (probably coming from news reports): Terrorists (antagonists) hijacked airplanes full of innocent people (victims) to use as flying bombs (tools) to attack (conflict action) U.S. society (protagonist). Suddenly it all made sense.

It made sense (to most Americans) because it tapped a narrative in which an organization and an ideology are at war with the United States–not unlike the Cold War narrative of conflict between the USSR and the US. The similar narratives of the Cold War and the Conflict Formerly Known as the Global War on Terror (now Overseas Contingency Operation, or perhaps FATAVE) explains why we have such a hard time seeing the differences between them–we are blinded by the similarities we have constructed by our method of making sense of these actions.

The critical point here is that narratives shape our understanding of the world, and recurrent patterns help make new situations familiar (despite, perhaps, some significant differences). This is why extremists routinely refer to US forces as Crusaders or liken former President Bush to the Pharaoh (not a Pharaoh, but the Pharaoh). These terms reference deep seated cultural narratives that are familiar to individuals and sub-cultures across the Muslim world.

Taliban communication also integrates deep-rooted cultural narratives to aid their audience both in understanding their message and subconsciously constructing affinity. It is widely reported that their shabnamah, or “night letters”,  contain threats warning against cooperation with US and Afghani government forces.  But what is often overlooked is their eloquence and careful crafting of a narrative that unites citizen and Taliban together.

Dr. Thomas Johnson at the Naval Postgraduate School offers an insightful analysis of the night letters.  In one of his examples, the night letter invokes hero narratives from Afghan history.  It draws on particular Ghilzai-tribe heroes thwarting incursions dating from the dawn of the second millennium all the way through the anti-Soviet jihad.  By using this narrative, the Taliban imply they are the inheritors of this Ghilzai heroism, blurring distinctions between ideological or theological affinities and tribal loyalty. Thus, in communicating to a Ghilzai (or Ghilzai-friendly) audience, the Taliban position themselves as allies of the audience. Together, they oppose Crusaders, invaders, and their tribal enemy the Durrani–who just happen to be a significant part of the base of Hamid Karzai’s government.

The tribal, cultural and political situation is far more complex than this forum can accommodate. But the point is that narrative has a common function wherever it is applied.  In the West, recasting the conflict between the US and terrorist groups as a war of Western versus hostile ideology makes the situation familiar and understandable (i.e., like the Cold War). Likewise in Afghanistan, playing on existing narratives of tribal loyalty, heroism and national origin simplifies the Taliban’s message and makes it familiar.

What to do? The strategic communication landscape, of course, cannot be abandoned, nor put on the back burner.  Rather, it needs to be foregrounded and integrated into Strategic, Tactical and Operational levels of planning and decision-making. But as Admiral Mullen said, we don’t need a branding or marketing campaign, based on a 20th Century hypodermic model of message injection. Instead strategic communication needs to focus on getting a handle on the culture of the region. It must understand the narrative patterns by which actions, messages and images will be organized and understood, and figure out which part of the extremists’ actions contradict the prevailing patterns.

No amount of new radio stations, cell phone systems or mobile trivia games will sway the Afghan populace to supporting the Karzai government and US interests until the government and US presence becomes integrated into the narratives that govern the individual, tribal, regional and national world views.

2 Responses to “Understand What Narrative Is and Does”

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  1. Juliana Geran Pilon says:

    Absolutely right.

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