The Narrative Dimension of #Humans

As expected in a paper of this nature, The Human Dimension White Paper is embedded with buzzwords and code words supported by superlatives. While I’ll let my colleagues in this forum describe the details of the ills and glories of The Human Dimension, I will offer one observation associated with its foundational premise. The Human Dimension is the next iteration of a counter-narrative aimed at seizing the discourse of force modernization away from the air and sea domains. While this white paper offers meek support to the requirements for technical overmatch demanded by the competing domains, it merely intends to support technical advancement in the land domain.

The reflections here, however, will not tread into the rushing currents of the dominating domains discourse. The story will be a simple one: there is power in the narrative dimension of humans. What if I told you the Army’s “Framework for Optimizing Human Performance” merely repeats the adage of transformation tied to bureaucracies without the discourse needed to explore and construct meaning around how humans understand and influence behavior?

The Human Dimension supposes a strategic environment fraught with complexity and uncertainty. What if I told you the narratives that drive conflict and influence behavior are deceptively simple? The narrative of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is simple: “I am the caliph; pledge yourself to me or pick up arms against me.” What if I told you there were narratives that prefaced the conflicts we find ourselves challenged with today? The strategic narrative of Vladimir Putin foretold Russia’s action in Crimea. In his annual presidential address in December 2013, he shared a vision of an “active foreign policy” in the eastern territories striving to respect people’s independence and identity supported by Russia’s history, culture, and spirituality.

The Human Dimension requires Army leaders to achieve cognitive dominance and cultural understanding. What if I told you Soldiers will be confronted with violent narratives anchored by hatred and fear that defy intellectual agility and are protected by moral and physical threats regarding noncompliance? In Rwanda, genocidal narratives told by the Hutu about the Tutsi increasingly became closed to negotiation and demanded on-the-spot violent compliance paralyzing peacekeepers relying on the logic of an ineffective United Nations mandate. What if I told you conflict is not merely a feature of the cultural context where it occurs but that narratives account for your actions, the actions of others and the consequences of those actions? Influenced by stories of religious and Slavic solidarity, Serbian Chetnik volunteers are fighting in eastern Ukraine to preserve a shared heritage that harkens to the 18th-century.

The power of the narrative dimension is found in the sense of coherence they provide of how the world is, how people are, and how to respond to disruptions of that worldview.

The Human Dimension requires Army professionals practicing mission command be capable of adapting to ambiguous situations while operating within the parameters of the commander’s intent and makes institutional agility an imperative. What if I told you creating shared understanding to elicit trust and commitment to the commander’s intent is crafted in narratives? General Petraeus noted that essential to creating a common vision is for leaders “…to try to get the big ideas right; then it’s to communicate those big ideas to subordinate leaders and hopefully be so persuasive that they embrace them.”[1] What if I told you discourse is at the core of institutional change? Noted organizational change master Jack Welch of General Electric relied on dialogue as a critical element to alter organizational assumptions and create a shared meaning about the corporate mission.

The Human Dimension requires holistic health and fitness. What if I told you that narratives can’t help you with that? We’ll leave optimizing sleep, leisure activity, general nutrition, and total fitness to the Master Fitness Trainers. However, narrative-based interventions provide space to negotiate new understandings and build resiliency for those suffering from post-traumatic stress and moral injury.

The power of the narrative dimension is found in the sense of coherence they provide of how the world is, how people are, and how to respond to disruptions of that worldview. The Human Dimension fails to account for their organizing functions to elicit support for a vision of the future, promote clarity of the discourse between people of different social groupings, or unpack the factors influencing human behavior. What if I told you the strength of our Army is in how our Soldiers understand conflicts and adapt to challenges through the stories they share?

John DeRosa, a Joint Warfighting Capabilities Branch Chief on the Joint Staff and former Strategic Analyst on the Army Staff. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the Joint Staff or the Department of Defense.

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[1] Petraeus, D. (2008). “Getting the Big Ideas Right: The Strategic Concepts that Helped Achieve Substantial Progress in Iraq.” Heritage Foundation Lecture No. 1101, October 8, 2008.


Barrett, F. J., Thomas, G. F., & Hocevar, S. P. (1995). The central role of discourse in large-scale change: A social construction perspective. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 31(3), 352–372.

Cobb, S. (2013). Speaking of violence: The politics and poetics of narrative in conflict resolution. Oxford University Press.