Uniqueness As Flexibility: Refining Strategic Narrative

Wars are fought twice: once on the ground and once in the mind. As spin-doctors of the past, the winners over the mind write history by establishing a narrative of past events, solidifying their version of events as much as their victory. Today, the priority of victory on the ground recedes, as victory over the mind proves (almost) sufficient to win. But strategy is still the coordination of ends, ways, and means to achieve victory, whereas strategic narrative—a subset of strategy—is the specific process used to achieve victory over the mind, which, as Emile Simpson in War from the Ground Up writes, “is simply strategy expressed in narrative form.”[1] Strategic narrative is the story of the coordination of ends, ways, and means. When expressed retrospectively, strategic narrative is characteristically historical. When used futuristically, strategic narrative tends toward the detrimentally clairvoyant. Even though Simpson is correct to note that “strategic narrative is the explanation of actions,” some caution is necessary.[2] A narrative is not merely an explanation of actions since—implicitly—there is an expected eventual coherence. This connotation is problematic for strategic narrative. Rather than reject the concept, we should refine it.

"Soft Watch at the Moment of First Explosion" by Salvador Dali

Before we embark on the reformulation of strategic narrative, we need an understanding of narrative itself, independent even of its relationship to strategy. Turning to literary theory, Peter Brooks, in Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, explains, “Narrative is one of the large categories or systems of understanding that we use in our negotiations with reality, specifically…with the problem of temporality.”[3] The narrative structure is a form to explain actions in and over time; just as historical narrative is a formal structure to understand events of the past. Nonetheless, Galen Strawson, in “Against Narrativity,” suggests “the paradigm of a narrative is….a certain sort of developmental and hence temporal unity or coherence to the things to which it is standardly applied.”[4] Again, narrative is the structure with which we can comprehend events in time—past, present, and future. Strawson continues by considering the essential notion of narrative to be what he labels as “story-telling” and “form-finding.” These mean just what one would expect: creating coherence (a story) by attempting to find an inherent pattern (a form) within the time span (temporal unity) addressed; this is “sufficient for Narrativity.”[5] Unlike Brooks, who points to narrative as a passive attempt to understand temporality, Strawson pinpoints the active expectation for unified temporality. The idea of giving meaning to actions over time is not overly problematic, nevertheless narrative tends to develop not just the quality of being consistent and logical, but also of forming a unified whole. The narrative finale develops from the once-upon-a-time beginning, turning strategy on its head when ends assume their means. This blatantly contradicts Lawrence Freedman’s recommendation in Strategy: A History that strategy be “governed by the starting point and not the end point.”[6]

Turning back to our literary theorist, Brooks continues, “Plot as I conceive it is the design and intention of narrative, what shapes a story and gives it a certain direction or intent of meaning.”[7] According to Brooks, plotting is “the activity of shaping” especially “in the unfolding of the narrative a line of intention and a portent of design that hold the promise of progress toward meaning.”[8] Therefore, within the context of ends, ways, and means, plot functions like strategy. Accordingly, a strategic narrative is strategy that promises intentions (ends) by certain designs (ways): promise of meaning without (identifiable) means. This promise is coherence: the assurance of a meaningful end state from the outset. Simpson identifies this same promise within strategy itself:  “Essentially strategy is a dialectical relationship, or the dialogue, between desire and possibility. At the core of strategy is inevitably the problem of whether desire or possibility comes first.”[9] Strategic boundaries ought to be defined by the means, but by prioritizing desire, plotting transcends the limits of means and possibility. Then, what often happens, Simpson notes, is a “lag between perception and reality [which] can be identified when the strategic narrative does not correspond to the reality on the ground.”[10] Coherence works as long as the objective physical reality (events on the ground) corresponds to the interpretation (the version in the mind). If, however, one part of the story is questioned and dislodged, the unity of the narrative brings down the whole. When the created perception does not match reality, strategic narrative becomes myth.

Former British Infantry officer Emile Simpson addresses the attendees at the 2013 Maneuver Warfighter Conference (U.S. Army)

Myth develops when perception is not coextensive with reality. Simpson notes that since “strategic narrative is permanently aspirational,” there is a greater opportunity for myths to emerge.[11] He continues, “Strategy is necessarily arrogant in the sense that it seeks to impose a permanence of meaning against the challenge of future interpretation.”[12] This desire for coherence is holistic with respect to both the story presented and its temporal permanence, historically and futuristically. Like Simpson, Freedman argues that “strategies are stories about the future, starting with imaginative fiction but with an aspiration to nonfiction.”[13] Whereas Simpson’s aspirational strategy projects onto the future, Freedman’s strategy tries to reach its aspiration in the future. Either way this is problematic; as Hannah Arendt notes, “Violence needs justification and it can be justifiable, but its justification loses in plausibility the farther away its intended end recedes into the future.”[14] Arendt’s observation accounts for the employment of strategic narrative as a way to compensate for futuristic ends; narrative attempts to shorten the time between the actions and their justifications by linguistically or literarily connecting them. Even retrospective distance, which Arendt does not comment on, is problematic. Michael Howard describes in “The Use and Abuse of History” that:

Military historians…create order out of chaos, and the tidy accounts they give of battles, with generals imposing their will on the battlefield, with neat little blocks and arrows moving in a rational and orderly way, with the principles of war being meticulously illustrated, are an almost blasphemous travesty of the chaotic truth.[15]

The past was not simple because the present never is and the future never will be. Nor can the chaos of wars be summed up and condensed down into a rational ordered coherence. Simpson takes the charge one step further, claiming, “The label of war, when used to package a historical, or an ongoing phenomenon, can ignore critical nuances…labels that suggest a degree of coherence to the war’s spatial and chronological boundaries which were, or are, in fact unique to each participant.”[16] When strategic narrative collapses into labels, events are placed within a preconceived context and interpretive structure that predetermines and solidifies expected ends.

Although strategic narrative is fraught with problems, the project is admirable. Asserting meaning is a strategic necessity, but narrative is not adequate. Instead, by following Simpson’s description that war’s interpretive hierarchy is represented as “a sequence of violent actions,” we find part of a solution.[17] Linking that with Freedman’s “series of episodes,” we should think of strategy as a sequence or series of episodes rather than a narrative.[18] Returning to our friendly polemicist, Galen Strawson, we find that “Ideally…one acquires an assorted basketful of understandings, not a narrative.”[19] This “basketful of understandings” is characteristic of what he calls the episodic perspective. The episodic perspective takes moments in their full uniqueness, without requiring linkage between the past, present, and future. As Freedman explains, “Each of these episodes will be self-contained and set up the subsequent episode.”[20] Therefore, a series of strategic episodes provides explanation of actions without the necessary expectation of temporal coherence, but with “self-contained” consistency. From the episodic perspective, coherence is sufficient, but not necessary, whereas for narrative, coherence is necessary and therefore problematic. What is essential is discreteness, not coherence, and by using an episodic perspective, each episode is necessarily unique. As Isaiah Berlin writes, “Obviously what matters is to understand a particular situation in its full uniqueness, the particular men and events and dangers, the particular hopes and fears which are actively at work in a particular place at a particular time.”[21] Locating events in their context is socially constructed but even more contingent.

"Free Your Mind" by Catrin Welz-Stein

Everything could be otherwise, but an episode limits the breadth of that otherwise, guarding against the production of myth. Particularities are counterintuitive to narrative, which is built from themes, conceits and tropes. Conversely, what makes something unique, an episode, is its discreteness: Berlin’s “so many individual butterflies.”[22] Just like butterflies, which come in various shapes and sizes, so too do strategic episodes. They can be short, like 9/11, or long, like the Cold War. Strategic episodes enable uniqueness to reign, since they sanction possible future revision based on changed context by anticipating the non-static nature of means and ends. Episodic interpretations allow flexibility but not fickleness. Good strategy must reassess itself not in the (Hegelian) narrative, ‘Am I approaching my pre-determined end?’ but, ‘Do my ends make sense based on the context and the means I have now?’ This flexible reassessment in a series of strategic episodes preserves choice, which is essential for strategic actions. Although it could be argued that episodes are just mini-narratives, what matters is the discrete cordoning-off of temporality—events that are individual entities unto themselves, which is not implicit within narrative. The authority on war, Carl von Clausewitz, asserts in On War the importance of uniqueness, explaining, “War in its highest aspects consists…of separate great decisive events which must be dealt with separately. It is…a group of large trees, to which the axe must be laid with judgment, according to the particular form and inclination of each separate trunk.”[23] These trunks are similarly discrete to Berlin’s butterflies or Strawson’s baskets; they are all episodes, they all must be dealt with individually, and they come in all shapes and sizes.

Carl von Clausewitz: "War in its highest aspects consists…of separate great decisive events which must be dealt with separately. It is…a group of large trees, to which the axe must be laid with judgment, according to the particular form and inclination of each separate trunk.”

More specifically, what is required is a strategy that is necessary and contingent. Freedman elaborates,“The strategist knows that there will be events which were never part of the plot and which disrupt its logic but cannot be sure when, where, and how.”[24] The coordination of ends, ways, and means is necessary until some contingent event—often jarring and unexpected like the introduction of the atomic bomb or the fall of the Berlin Wall—requires us to revise. Slavoj Žižek, in Event: Philosophy in Transit, explains this paradox of “the dialectical reversal of contingency into necessity, i.e., the way the outcome of a contingent process is the appearance of necessity: things retroactively ‘will have been’ necessary.”[25] Individual episodes are bounded by contingent moments that destroy the necessity of the foregoing strategic coordination of ends, ways, and means. Consider how the strategy for the invasion of Iraq was initially well received and successful to the point that on 1 May 2003 President Bush proclaimed, “Mission Accomplished.” Once, however, invasion turned to occupation and the insurgency emerged, the formerly necessary and lauded strategy was fundamentally erroneous. As a narrative, the evolution from invasion to occupation to insurgency to “the surge” and beyond betrays the reality on the ground and focuses in on how we should have predicted or known about the future. Conceiving of events episodically relieves strategists of the need for fortune telling, but requires more vigilance.

President Bush and "Mission Accomplished" (Larry Downing, Reuters)

Here self-contained, discrete alignments of ends, ways, and means are necessary until they are not, until something sticks out and demonstrates change, like the bombing of Al-Askari Mosque. What matters, strategically, from the episodic perspective is recognition and reaction: recognizing the context is now different, but more importantly, reacting by refiguring ends, ways, and means.[26] Considering strategic episodes tackles events unto themselves, enabling flexibility, specifically the possibility to adapt, improvise and overcome based on the opponent at that time and that place. Moreover, strategic episodes live up to the ideal of commander’s intent rather than a step-by-step ordered plan (narrative) that necessarily dissolves when it contacts the enemy. This is, as Freedman explains, a “strategy [that] is about getting to the next stage rather than some ultimate destination.”[27] In this next stage, new strategies—new coordination of ends, ways and means—emerge that seem to have always been necessary, even though it was only through the contingent event that they developed. While strategic narrative asks (or attempts to justify) why we didn’t use counterinsurgency tactics earlier or better, strategic episodes accept the contingency and look toward what we can do better here and now.

Perhaps this seems like clever wordplay, but there is a fundamental difference in connotation between strategic episodes and strategic narrative. Although both are mechanisms to give meaning to actions in attempts to win the mind, only strategic episodes truly answer the question for strategy Simpson lays out: “How do we combine actions with the perception of those actions in order to persuade an audience over a period of time?”[28] Only strategic episodes retain this possibility. Jürgen Habermas, in his essay “The Unity of Reason and the Diversity of Its Voices,” explains, “A history with an established past, a predecided future, and a condemned present, is no longer history.”[29] To augment Habermas, a strategic narrative with an established past, a predecided future and a condemned present is no longer strategy, but myth. Not only that, but as Freedman suggests, “These flawed stories of the past shape our predictions of the future.”[30] Only strategic episodes preserve the uniqueness of each event; allowing choice and control for strategy in the future, protecting the event from falling into myth as it recedes into history or predicts into the future. We must remember, however, with Clausewitz “that in War the sum total of single results decides more than the form or method in which they are connected.”[31] Clausewitz never forgets that wars are fought both physically and morally—what we consider in the mind. While, today, winning over the mind is nonnegotiable, real physical force can never be forgotten.

Olivia A. Garard is an officer in the US Marine Corps. She has an MA in War Studies from King's College London. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U. S. Government. 

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Header Image: "The Storyteller" by Anker Grossvater (Wikimedia)


[1] Emile Simpson, War From the Ground Up, (London: Hurst & Company, 2012): 184.

[2] Ibid., 179.

[3] Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1984): xi.

[4] Galen Strawson, "Against Narrativity," Ratio XVII (4 December 2004): 439. [Italics original].

[5] Ibid., 443.

[6] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013): xi.

[7] Brooks, xi.

[8] Ibid., xiii.

[9] Simpson, 116.

[10] Simpson, 125. Today this is the ‘say-do gap.’

[11] Ibid., 210.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Freedman, 621.

[14] Hannah Arendt, "A Special Supplement: Reflections on Violence," The New York Review of Books, 16.

[15] Michael Howard, "The Use and Abuse of Military History," (Lecture, from Royal United Service Institution, London, February 1, 1962): 6.

[16] Simpson, 34.

[17] Ibid., 30.

[18] Freedman, 628.

[19] Strawson, 448.

[20] Freedman, 628.

[21] Isaiah Berlin, “On Political Judgment,” The New York Review of Books, 5.

[22] Ibid., 6.

[23] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Colonel J. J. Graham (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2004): 101.

[24] Freedman, 628.

[25] Slavoj Žižek, Event: Philosophy in Transit, (London: Penguin Books, 2014): 146.

[26] This is like Boyd’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop.

[27] Freedman, 628.

[28] Simpson, 222.

[29] Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays, trans. William Mark Hohengarten, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1992): 130.

[30] Freedman, 617.

[31] Clausewitz, 361.