The Best Defense

Simpson’s 'WFTGU' (IV and last): What a strategic narrative is -- and how to use it

The last two chapters of Emile Simpson's War From the Ground Up offer some of the best things I have read on strategic narrative. They also may be the most significant part of the book, because I think he breaks some new trail here.

His point of departure, as you might have noticed in his piece for Best Defense on Friday, is that narrative is a key element of strategy. "Strategy does not merely need to orchestrate tactical actions (the use of force), but also construct the interpretive structure which gives them meaning and links them to the end of policy." (P. 28) That is, it offers a framework into which participants and observers can fit the facts before them. "Strategic narrative expresses strategy as a story, to explain one's actions." (P. 233)

This aspect of strategy is both more important and more difficult now than in the past, he argues, because of the global information revolution, which means more audiences must be involved in one's strategic deliberations. When military action not only serves political ends (as in classic war) but must be judged in political terms to determine who is prevailing (as in our current wars), he argues, constructing a persuasive narrative becomes key to success.

You run into trouble when your "strategic narrative does not correspond to the reality on the ground," he warns. (P. 125) That phrase evoked for me the Bush administration's rhetoric about Iraq in 2003-05 -- first insisting that there was no insurgency, then claiming it was "a few dead enders" and that steady progress was being made.

It also made me think about the fundamental contradiction of the Bush administration embracing torture as part of an effort to defend rights and freedoms it held to be universal. As Simpson warns, "The moral high ground, once evacuated, is very hard to regain." (P. 209) That admonition should be remembered by anyone devising a strategy in the 21st century.

So, he advises, "The key in counterinsurgency is to match actions and words so as to influence target audiences to subscribe to a given narrative." (P. 154)

Strategic narrative must not only be rational but also have an emotional component, he says. "War is as much a test of emotional resistance as a rational execution of policy." (P. 193) Nor does the need for it go away. "The requirement is to maintain the narrative -- perpetually to win the argument -- is enduring, not finite." (P. 210)

Helpfully, he cites the Gettysburg Address as an example of the presentation of a strategic narrative. I think he is correct in that insight. He also invokes Kennedy's inaugural address. I think he is correct that it indeed was a presentation of a narrative -- but I think that JFK's "bear any burden" narrative was incorrect, and would be proven so a few years later in the jungles and villages of Vietnam.

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