Small Wars Journal

Revising the Battle of the Narrative

Thu, 07/16/2015 - 1:51pm

Revising the Battle of the Narrative

John DeRosa

This essay was developed in collaboration with Dr. Sara Cobb, Director of the Center for Narratives and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. Any omissions or errors are the responsibility of this author alone. 

"The US was slow to recognize the importance of information and the battle for the narrative in achieving objectives at all levels; it was often ineffective in applying and aligning the narrative to goals and desired end states."[1] Since this lesson was catalogued in the Decade of War study, US military doctrine has begun to recognize the centrality of narratives to conflict. It asserts narratives define the logic of action.

“Narratives are central to representing identity, particularly the collective identity of religious sects, ethnic groupings, and tribal elements. They provide a basis for interpreting information, experiences, and the behavior and intentions of other individuals and communities. Stories about a community’s history provide models of how actions and consequences are linked. Thus, narratives shape decision making in two ways: they provide an interpretive framework for a complicated and uncertain environment and offer idealized historical analogies that can serve as the basis for strategies.”[2]

However, even as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs implored “...we actually learn the lessons from the last decade of war," the US continues to struggle with employing information as an instrument of national power.[3] After proclaiming the centrality of narratives to conflict, it relegates narratives to an ancillary messaging effort to legitimize government actions and delegitimize an adversary's.[4]  Through this approach the US concedes the primacy of narratives, and consequently the overarching logic of action, to the adversary.

Narratives are more than a messaging effort. They account for your actions, the actions of others and the consequences of those actions. More importantly, as a reflection of words and symbols, "[narratives] prove more powerful than billions of dollars in aid or bombs and bullets—at least in opening up opportunities for practical solutions."[5] To find these opportunities and leverage information as an instrument of national power, an alternative approach to narratives is necessary.

This alternative approach should improve how the military visualizes the environment and engages with relevant actors. It transitions its gaze outward, engaging not only its own interests but with how others in the conflict (allies, partners, noncombatants, and adversaries) articulate meaning to action. Inasmuch, this narrative approach introduces "...a more complex description of the history, which in turn, opens up new ways of describing present problems and future solutions.”[6]

The following vignette illustrates an alternative narrative approach. The military activities of this vignette are purely hypothetical and are intended to serve as a basis for informed discussion. The use of recent operational events merely demonstrates the practical application of this approach within extant force structure, operations, exercises, and activities. It will examine how the military would identify, understand, and influence the narratives of relevant actors. This vignette will focus on the narrative components of military operations and not expand into other potential operations that could involve the joint force.

The area of interest for this vignette falls within the US European Command (EUCOM) area of responsibility (Figure 1). This vignette conducts operations, actions and activities with a joint operational area (JOA) defined as the geographical area comprising the combination of air, land and maritime domains in the Black Sea and Eastern Balkans (Figure 2).

Figure 1 - Area of Interest; Source: Washington Post

Figure 2 - Joint Operational Area; Source: RFE/RL

With the March 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea by Russia and the subsequent separatist conflict in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine, a frozen conflict in the Republic of Moldova has begun to thaw. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the declaration of independence of the Republic of Moldova, the autonomous region of Transnistria has been subject to a tug-of-war between pro-Russian elements and Moldovan government. With the remnants of the Soviet 14th Guards Army, Transnistrian separatists augmented by Russians and Ukrainian volunteers fought the defense forces of the newly independent Moldova.[7] After two years of fighting, a cease-fire was reached between the two sides and remains today. Settlement of this conflict remains elusive despite the longstanding 5+2 negotiation framework which includes the Republic of Moldova, Transnistria (the parties), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Ukraine, Russia (intermediaries) and (as observers) the European Union (EU) and ​US.[8] Since the cease-fire, Russian forces remain in the region reportedly acting as “peacekeepers,” as well as guarding military equipment and munitions belonging to the former Soviet Army.

Currently, no United Nations member nations recognize the independence of the Transnistria. Transnistria has received diplomatic recognition from Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Following the March 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Transnistria parliament asked Russia to recognize the republic’s independence.[9]

On the economic front, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. In much the same vein as their Ukrainian neighbors, Moldova’s economic development has been tied to a path of European integration that has drawn the ire of Russia and the roughly 30 percent of Transnistria’s 500,000 residents who identify as Russian.[10] In July 2014, the Moldovan parliament ratified a EU association deal similar to the deal that sparked the crisis in neighboring Ukraine.[11] Moscow continues to increase pressure on Moldova citing the negative impact on the Confederation of Independent States free trade zone and other emerging economic blocs. Following the EU association deal, Russia and Transnistria signed a package of agreements establishing closer cooperation on the economy, trade, transport, agriculture, and science in July 2014.[12]

On the security front, Moldova cooperates with the NATO on democratic, institutional and defense reforms. Since its independence, Moldova has been increasing its cooperation with NATO culminating in an Individual Partnership Action Plan between NATO and Moldova signed in 2006. Most recently Moldova has contributed peacekeeping forces to the NATO mission in Kosovo. Since the onset of the Ukrainian Crisis, Moldova has requested the withdrawal of remaining Russian military in Transnistria and the remaining weapons stockpile of the former Soviet Army left there.

U.S. strategic objectives include ensuring the stability of regional allies and partners, dissuading Russian provocation of this conflict and annexation of Transnistria, and building capacity of the Moldovan Armed Forces to sustain control over their territory. As part of its theater campaign plan, EUCOM begins a coordinated application of a narrative approach to military operations identifying, understanding, and influencing relevant actors and continuing to support and advance a comprehensive settlement protecting Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, while providing a special status for Transnistria.

As part of the ongoing theater campaign, the EUCOM staff provides the commander a variety of assessments and estimates that facilitate understanding the operational environment. Utilizing narrative analysis, the staff amasses critical information of the landscape of core narratives and the actors who tell these stories begins to map the geography that the commander needs to navigate. The critical information needed to support these narrative assessments and estimates are gathered through a variety of means. Narratives derived within the discourse of politics, religion, education, or popular cultures are extensive but a few dominate with their simplicity and their applicability to this conflict.

Examining social communication of publicly available sources provides a clustering of important conversations. Within which are dominant narratives promoting meaning for actions and allowing actors to make sense of the world around them. Traditional print, radio, television, social media, and public speeches and interviews of influential actors all provide access to stories shaping the narrative landscape. EUCOM implements this approach leveraging its Strategic Foresight program that uses “...advanced software to systematically locate and use unclassified materials from verified sources such as scholars, think tanks, foreign governments and proven reputable commercial information sources.”[13]

An understanding of the stories, roles, and personalities reveals relevant actors and an understanding of who they are, what threatens them and why, and what their hopes are for the future. One such narrative dominating political discourse is the "Fortress Russia" narrative.[14] The narrative of "Fortress Russia" is framed in the belief that Russia has historically been under siege from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This narrative has most recently been told as states strive to accede to NATO. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov reinforced this narrative by calling NATO expansion provocations undermining the commitment to build a system of equal and even-handed security in Europe.[15]

Additionally, as a tool of predictive intelligence, understanding narrative frameworks reveals the logics of action for a given community. As an example, a strategic narrative of Vladimir Putin foretold Russia’s action in Crimea in 2014. In his annual presidential address in December 2013, he shared a vision of an “active foreign policy” in adjacent territories striving to respect people’s independence and identity supported by Russia’s history, culture, and spirituality. “[We]we will strive to be leaders, defending international law, striving for respect and national sovereignty and peoples’ independence and identitywe will strive to be leaders, defending international law, striving for respect and national sovereignty and peoples’ independence and identitywe will strive to be leaders, defending international law, striving for respect and national sovereignty and peoples’ independence and identity  will strive to be leaders, defending international law, striving for respect and national sovereignty and peoples’ independence and identity.”[16]

Due to the muting nature of dominant discourse, it will be necessary to access other stories being told on the ground to compose a fuller accounting of the narrative landscape. These other stories can be accessed through the normal course of engagement of US government representatives in the region. Engagements through the diplomatic, economic, and security cooperation activities are ready opportunities to uncover other stories being told. For example, since 1999, the North Carolina National Guard’s State Partnership program has been providing business engagement opportunities nested within broader defense and security cooperation activities.[17] Additionally, other muted stories often include that of women involved in this conflict. To reach these stories, NATO’s implementation plan for the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security includes Partnership for Peace engagement opportunities for workshops, projects and initiatives allowing for deeper elaboration and understanding of women’s narratives.[18] These engagements provide additional opportunities to elaborate other stories.

EUCOM’s (hypothetical) mapping of the narrative landscape begins to form constellations of conversations (see Figure 3). Visualizing the narrative landscape as a constellation of conversations reveals the weight and breadth of dominant narratives, the existence of complementary and counter narratives, and the points of intersection between these conversations. The points of intersection reveal possible engagement opportunities to begin interacting the narratives and having conversations that matter.

Figure 3 – Constellations of Conversations; Source: Dr. Sara Cobb

With the narrative landscape mapped and relevant actors identified, the EUCOM team extends their regional and country engagement by opening conversations with local leaders, listening, and asking questions designed to elaborate on the core stories they discovered. The US Office for Defense Cooperation in Moldova is a key site for ongoing engagement with local leaders embedded in a larger operational strategy developed by the U.S. Embassy country team. The Defense Attaché’s development of bilateral cooperation activities provide a regular venue for listening and asking questions with senior leadership in the Moldovan Ministry of Defense about the stories found in the narrative assessments. Additionally, US Special Operations Command deploys Civil-Military Support Elements to support US and Moldovan defense, diplomacy, and development objectives. These small-footprint organizations provide the US Country Team an opportunity to engage relevant Transnistria actors and their stories where the Moldovan authorities or US interagency team may lack the capability or capacity to operate.[19] Marines and Sailors of the Black Sea Rotational Force, from a US Army Europe base in Romania’s Mihail Kogălniceanu International Airport, engage the broader stories exchanged during training and exercises with twenty-one partner nations throughout the Black Sea, Balkan and Caucasus regions including Moldova, Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria. The Marines and Sailors also conduct community relations and civic action projects improving schools and hospitals opening opportunities to listen to the narratives at the community level.[20] Other narrative engagement opportunities include Moldovan and other regional military officers and civilian government official participation in resident and non-resident education programs at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

EUCOM and the Country Team, in cooperation with other regional diplomatic, defense, and development partner institutions (NATO, OSCE, EU, etc.) begin the process of enacting narrative understanding fostered over the course of its various engagements with relevant actors. Narrative understanding is enacted through the elaboration of new subordinate storylines that add complexity to the very simplistic conflict narratives. This approach recognizes the fundamental conflict dynamic of simplifying and condensing narratives in a process of “mutual de-legitimation.”[21] De-legitimation exacerbates conflict by marginalizing parties to the conflict, reducing the ability to negotiate divisions within society, and rationalizing their withdrawal and/or violence.[22] Instead, in this alternative approach, narratives promote the capacity to deliberate, engaging in conversations clarifying the discourse between different groups, and ultimately eliciting support for a vision of the future.

In an opportunity to the elaborate new subordinate storylines, at the 2015 Munich Security Conference Russian President expressed a belief that Russia has historically been under siege, and NATO was a manifestation of medieval siege engines. The Russian President claimed that NATO “...has put its frontline forces on our borders,” and NATO expansion “...represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trusts.”[23] As opposed to retorting with a defensive criticism of the Russian President, EUCOM Commander, in a subsequent question-and-answer session with several regional military chiefs, commends Russia’s collaborative relationship with NATO. This collaboration could resolve some of the pressing security challenges related to terrorism, the Islamic State, and weapons of mass destruction. The EUCOM Commander subsequently extends an invitation for Russia’s Chief of the General Staff to participate in a Partnership for Peace planning commission prior to the 2016 NATO summit.[24]

At the local level, following the conclusion of EUCOM’s Rapid Trident 15, a multinational exercise designed to promote regional stability and security, the US Navy engaged to develop more complex narratives in the region through community relations (COMREL) projects. Twenty-three sailors from the USS Whidbey Island (LSD-41) volunteered their time and efforts during a 10-day COMREL project in Tiraspol, Moldova in the Transnistria region. The sailors’ work in the community helped create new subordinate storylines of cooperation and goodwill in the Tiraspol community.[25] Additionally, US Air Force combat aviation advisors deployed at the conclusion of Rapid Trident to train and advise the Moldovan Air Force in preparation for their support of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. These advisors will provide rotary-wing aircrew training and offer operational advice to promote safety and interoperability between coalition partners.[26] In a complementary effort to the US Navy’s COMREL project, the US Air Force’s advisors also facilitate creating new subordinate storylines of cooperation and goodwill between the NATO alliance and Moldova.

Now, with narrative landscape mapped, relevant actors identified, and an understanding of narratives through a variety of engagements, EUCOM has laid the groundwork to influence behavior through relational development. In this vignette, we hypothetically see EUCOM and the Country team engaging in the narratives of Moldova and Transnistria through exercises, COMRELs, and civil affairs actions approved by the government of Moldova. Transnistrian and Moldovan interests begin to be heard and elaborated by both parties as facilitated by asking questions and reflecting on the respective narratives in a non-coercive manner with relevant actors from both sides of the conflict. It is when one party of the conflict believes its' interest are heard by other because other has elaborated it as part of their own narrative, and vice versa, we begin to see a relationship change that allows for collaborative problem solving.

Once parties begin to acknowledge the possibility of legitimacy of others through elaboration, the narrative space opens to writing new stories of interdependence.[27] This interdependence destabilizes dominant conflict narratives and introduces complexity to narratives with the addition of new plot events, new logics, new themes, and new character roles.[28] These now more complex narratives ultimately provide new logics for action and expand the opportunity for collective learning and problem solving.[29] EUCOM and their partners develop these more complex narratives through face-to-face conversations, in dialogues, in policy negotiations, and in planning meetings with community leaders.

Grounded in a more complex narrative, Moldovan and Transnistrian leaders are able to transform their conflict story to generate sustainable relations, creating legitimacy for all parties and ultimately supporting the emergence of new histories and new futures. Defense and Security Cooperation activities are expanded to include collaborative planning forums and scenario building workshops that, utilizing the transformed conflict story, allows Moldovans and Transnistrians to own their problems and work collaborative to find new solutions.

End Notes

[1] Department of Defense (June 2012). "Decade of War, Volume I:  Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations." Suffolk, Virginia: Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis, p. 2. Available at:

[2] Department of Defense (November 2013). “Joint Publication (JP) 3–24: Counterinsurgency.” Washington, D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, p. II-9.

[3] “Decade of War.” p. v.

[4] JP 3–24, p. II-4.

[5] Atran, S. (2010). Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists. Ecco Press / HarperCollins, pp. 401.Bacevich, A. (2008). The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. New York: Metropolitan Books, p. 401.

[6] Cobb, S. (2013). “Narrative ‘Braiding’ and the Role of Public Officials in Transforming the Public’s Conflicts.” Conflict and Narrative: Explorations in Theory and Practice, 1(1), p. 21. Available at:

[7] Bobick, M. S. (2014). “Separatism Redux: Crimea, Transnistria, and Eurasia's de facto States.” Anthropology Today, 30(3), 3-8.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kolstø, P. (June 2014). “Transnistria is a bridge too far for Russia.” Open Democracy

[10] Bobick.

[11] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, (November 13, 2014) “EU Parliament Ratifies Political, Trade Agreement with Moldova.” Accessed at:

[12] Reuters (July 3, 2014). “Russia defies Moldova’s EU pact by boosting Transnistria trade.” Accessed at:

[13] Busch, W. (2013). “What's Strategic Foresight?” U.S. European Command. Available at:

[14] Wood, A. (February, 26, 2015). “After Putin.” The American Interest; Cohen, A. (October 18, 2012) "Putin’s New ‘Fortress Russia." New York Times; and Bershidsky, L (August, 4, 2014). “Russia's Siege Mentality.” Bloomberg View, Available at:

[15] Lavrov, S. (September 2014). “Remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and answers to questions from the media during a press conference on the sidelines of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly, New York, 26 September 2014.”  Available at:

[16] Putin, V. (December 2013). “Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly.” Available at:

[17] “North Carolina - Moldova Partnership.” Available at:

[18] North Atlantic Treaty Organization (2014). “NATO/EAPC Action Plan for the Implementation Of The NATO/EAPC Policy On Women, Peace And Security.” Available at:

[19] Han, J.S. and Youtz, B.D. (2012). “Grains of Truth: The Role of Civil-Military Support Elements in Special Operations.” Special Warfare, 25:3, 40.

[20] Clark, P. (2013). “Black Sea Rotational Force 13 deploys.” Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System. and Perkins, D. (2015). “Marines train in anti-armor tactics alongside Moldovan troops.” Marine Corps Times.

[21] Cobb, S. (2013). “Narrative ‘Braiding”.” p. 24 

[22] Ibid,.

[23] Putin, V. (2007). Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy.

[24] Russia joined the NATO Partnership for Peace program June 20, 1994.

[25] USS Abraham Lincoln Public Affairs (2013). “USS Abraham Lincoln Officer Volunteers in Moldova.” and U.S. Army Europe (2012). “Rapid Trident 2012 begins in Ukraine.”

[26] Vick, A. J. (2006). Air Power in the New Counterinsurgency Era. Washington, DC: RAND.

[27] Cobb, S. (2012). “Narratives and Conflict Transformation: Building Community, Building “Better-formed” Stories.” Center for Narratives and Conflict Resolution. Accessed at:

[28] Davies, B. and Harré, R., “Positioning and Personhood,” in Harré, R., & Van Langenhove, L. (Eds.). (1999). Positioning theory: Moral contexts of intentional action. Oxford: Blackwell.

[29] Cobb, S. (2013). Speaking of Violence: The Politics and Poetics of Narrative In Conflict Resolution. Oxford University Press, p. 271.


About the Author(s)

John DeRosa continues to serve over twenty years as a soldier, officer, and civilian in the U.S. Department of Defense. Concurrently, he is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Government and Politics Department of the University of Maryland University College and a Fellow with the Center on Global Interests. He received a MSc in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University, a M.A in National Security Studies, and a B.A. in Economics from California State University, San Bernardino. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Follow John on twitter @jpderosa (