Strategy as Narrative

War’s Plot Line in Five Parts

Strategy is a form of communication; a message that you have the intentions and capabilities to impose your will, and the enemy cannot impose theirs. As war can be likened to two combatants trying to impose their will on the other, they must communicate their will and their intention not to abide by the will of the opponent. Since war is a human endeavor, this communication occurs in the same manner as other forms of communications. For example, the Six Phases of Joint Operations, found in JP 5-0 Planning, mirror the plot structure of theatrical drama as identified by Gustav Freytag. JP 5-0 lays out five phases for joint operations: Shaping, Deter, Seize Initiative, Dominate, Stabilize, and Enable Civil Authority. “Deter” is a throwaway; if it works, then no conflict occurs. It rightfully belongs as a subset of shaping, in my opinion, so I omit it below. The five remaining phases match up with Freytag’s plot structure: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement. Humans have been communicating using this structure for centuries and it’s no accident that a cohesive strategy would match it. This is also why it is so common for historians to point to a “decisive battle” like Gettysburg or Stalingrad where the end of the war is allegedly decided and the rest is aftermath leading to the ending at Appomattox or Berlin.

This post is a think piece: I’m exploring the concept of strategy as narrative by writing about it. I’ll do this in three different ways. First, the post itself is arranged along the five phases of joint operations (minus deter) and the five aspects of Gustav Freytag’s theatrical structure. Second, I will link concepts from strategic history to each, where appropriate. Third, I use the Pacific Theater of Operations in World War II to illustrate each stage because it is pretty familiar to most people and provides clear waypoints, from before the war even began to well after it ended. A final note — while writing this post I was made aware of a book called Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order by Charles Hill that deals with strategy and literature. I have not read it yet, but it surely does a much better job than I have. Any similarities are purely coincidental.

Exposition and Shaping: Otto von Bismarck’s Diplomacy

The first step is exposition/shaping. The author introduces his characters and his world, arranging the context and framework of his setting. The background and environment for the story is vital to the success of the plot.

So too the strategic environment. The strategist must endeavor to arrange the environment to maximize his probability of success. The master of this was Otto von Bismarck. Diplomatic offensives preceded all of the Wars of German Unification. Some of those wars even shaped the environment of subsequent wars. All as part of an overarching strategy to achieve both the unification of Germany and the assurance of its position as a force in Europe. Bismarck understood how to shape the strategic environment and how it could contribute to future success.

In the case of the Pacific Theater of Operations, the shaping phase is evident well before Pearl Harbor. During the Washington Naval Conference, called for and held by the Harding Administration in from November 1921 to February 1922, the US attempted to limit Imperial Japanese naval capabilities. Likewise, Japan attempted to maintain as much as that capability as possible. The two Pacific giants were clearly shaping the environment for a potential future conflict.

Rising Action and Seizing Initiative

In a narrative, the author leaves the exposition phase and starts to ramp up the action and move the plot forward. This has the dual effect of creating the conditions necessary for the climax as well as pulling in the audience with ever increasing drama.

In war, it is rare that one side has the ability to go for a knockout blow right off the bat. In fact, Clausewitz said that if there was such disparity in power, no war would occur. Even superpowers facing much less powerful countries require a significant build-up of force before taking action. For example, Operation Desert Shield was a necessary precursor to Operation Desert Storm. Thus, both sides jockey to gain a position that will allow them to launch a decisive offensive, and/or endeavor to prevent the other side from doing so. Think Hannibal’s Italian campaign where he sought battlefield victories over the Roman Army in order to induce Italian allies to abandon the city or the British seizure of New York in 1776 to use the city as a port of entry for reinforcements and supplies.

In a naval war, sea control is a prerequisite of any strategically decisive action. In the lead up to WWII, neither the US nor Imperial Japan could launch significant actions against the other without control of the sea. Of course, 100% control of the sea is impossible, but at least a preponderance of force on the sea is necessary. This is why the Battle of Midway is seen as the turning point in the Pacific War, even though it was not until the later battles of Leyte Gulf and Okinawa where the Imperial Navy was truly broken. The rising action of the Pacific War depended on sea control to allow ground forces to seize air bases in order to strike Japan itself, setting the stage for a decision. Additionally, this was the period where Roosevelt Administration was making decisions based on the narrative as it would be perceived by the domestic audience. Both the Dolittle Raid and the Makin Island Raid were planned with this narrative in mind even though they would do little in and of themselves to bring about any decisive effects.

The Climax and Domination: Hans Delbruck’s Strategies of Annihilation and Attrition

Every good story needs a climax, whether it’s the Battle of Endor or the Battle of Tsushima. But it doesn’t always happen in a tense clash of fleet against fleet (or fully-operational battle station). Frequently one belligerent is just crushed under the weight of successive losses. Think the Germans in both World War I and II. After the German Spring Offensive of 1918, their hopes for victory were gone but they still fought on hoping for a more advantageous defeat…until they collapsed. Even though Stalingrad was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany, the Battle of Kursk was no sure thing for the Soviets and the Wehrmacht gave the Allies in the west a great deal of trouble, especially at the Battle of the Bulge. The true climax came about through attrition and exhaustion vice annihilation.

These two concepts, a strategy of annihilation and a strategy of attrition, were explained by Hans Delbruck and are distinguished based on the temporal conception of when the climax occurs. In a strategy of attrition, the cumulative effect of tactics will at some point (the climax) become too much for the enemy, causing strategic effect (a decisive turn for the winning side). In a strategy of annihilation, tactics will occur in such close proximity that strategic effect will be recognizable immediately. But even strategies of annihilation require shaping and preparation. Both strategies involve a build up and development that lead to a climax. Human proclivity for thinking in narratives may explain why so many want to point to the decisive battle that marked the beginning of the end for the “bad guys”. When, in actuality, the probability and chance inherent in war means that the tables can be turned at any moment. This is where the “decisive” action (because it is not necessarily a battle) takes place. But it is not decisive in the sense that it determines the final result, but rather it allows one side freedom of action to enter the next phase: exploitation. This is what US joint doctrine is going for by naming this phase “Dominate”; US forces will achieve indisputable dominance over the adversary in theater. The decisive effect of the climax means that one side now has the clear upper hand, but the story is by no means over.

The climax in the Pacific occurred after the Battle of Okinawa, both the naval actions and the seizure of the island, strategically important because it was considered Japanese soil and thus told an unmistakable tale that the end was nigh for Imperial Japan. At this point, it was clear that the US could invade Japan itself as well as control the waters around it. This was the actual turning point that Midway supposedly was, the point where Japan could not even entirely convince themselves that victory was still possible.

Falling Action: Exploitation/Stabilization and Clausewitz

In Principles of War, Clausewitz wrote that “next to victory, the act of pursuit is the most important.” In modern terms, Clausewitz is talking about exploitation. Tactically, the exploitation phase yields more decisive effects than the victory itself. More casualties are typically caused by the victor’s exploitation as broken or dislocated troops fall easy prey to further attacks by the victorious troops. While the action is falling, the story continues as the victor takes full advantage of an achieved tactical victory. US doctrine titles this phase “Stabilize” but this reflects recent US desires to maintain stability at all costs. But the ability to stabilize an area after “domination” is just one type of exploitation and may not be the desired course of action.

Once Japan was at the mercy of the US forces, the US still needed to exploit the victory gained to affect Japan’s will. There needed to be a coup de grace. In the darkest timeline (for both Japan and the US), it would have been an amphibious invasion of Japan itself, possibly involving the Red Army as well. Instead, the shock of the two nuclear strikes drove home the will of the Allies to both the Imperial Japanese government and the Japanese people.

Denouement and War Termination/Enabling Civil Authority

During the denouement, the writer leaves the audience with a description of how the narrative has changed the situation presented in the exposition. The situation produced by the falling action after the climax is explained or at least hinted at.

In the strategic narrative, the will of the victor is now imposed and solidified. This could take many forms: regime change, the extraction of reparations or resources, the installation of puppet regimes, or the creation of a new, independent state.

In our WWII case study, the denouement of the war in the Pacific was the occupation of Japan by the United States and the creation of a new state, shepherded by General Douglas MacArthur. War termination in this case was surely one of the most successful of all time. Regime change was accomplished and a democratic Japanese nation created from the ruins of the war. The Japanese economy was nurtured until it became one of the strongest in the world. Through the limitations imposed by the constitution on the Japanese Defense Force, Japan was left able to defend itself but fears of any renewed conflict was assuaged. All of this was accomplished while building one of the strongest alliances enjoyed by the United States; one that is still bearing fruit today. All in the space of a lifetime as many veterans of the war remain with us.

Concluding Thoughts

A good strategy, like any other form of communication (including this post), will follow a coherent and logical path. In strategy, it proceeds through the preparation for hostilities, the introduction of force, the decisive actions of one combatant over the other, the exploitation of those victories, and the final execution of the victorious combatant’s will over the defeated. War and strategy has its own grammar — violence and shock, victory and defeat, destruction and creation — but not its own logic. The strategic communication that expresses your will must be arranged in a logical manner to the enemy combatant and, perhaps more importantly, for your own forces. Troops in a conflict that do not understand the big picture, or where the strategy is supposed to be headed, cannot make tactical decisions that fit in with the desired policy.

This points to a major problem in the national security community: our fascination with the concept du jour. Concepts like AirSea Battle, offshore control, or strategic landpower are comforting and may provide a plot point in some future strategic narrative. But, on their own, they fall away as disconnected pieces that cannot be contextualized. Strategy does not work like a police procedure or medical show where each episode exists as a stand alone story. Rather, it must be conceptualized as a story with a long, but complex story arc. These concepts provide tools for the strategic author’s use, which may be appropriate for a future narrative and may not. Operational concepts do not win wars by themselves, and neither do individual services. Strategy must be a joint effort, tailored to the situation in accordance with the policy.

In The Strategy Bridge, from which the name of this blog was inspired, Colin S. Gray calls strategy a product of “an iterative process of dialogue and negotiation” between military leaders and policymakers. Communication, however, is not one sided. As one side communicates its will and attempts to create a situation where it can be imposed, the other side does as well. Communication is a conversation, and strategy must simultaneously make its own plot while trying to derail the plot of the opponent in an environment where it is subject to the inherent probability and chance of war. Thinking about strategy as a narrative can help the strategist conceptualize the course he intends to take and can even help him communicate it to those who must decide to pursue it and those who must do the hard work of executing it.

Captain B. A. Friedman, USMC is a field artillery officer and author of 21st Century Ellis, as well as numerous articles and posts. He is also a founding member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the policy or position of any official organization.

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Header image: The proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles | Painting by Anton von Werner