The Power of the Narrative – The Need for a New War Doctrine
This week’s blog post was contributed by Shoham Adizes, Director of Training and Certification at the Adizes Institute. I hope you enjoy it.
-Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes
A war doctrine provides a common frame of reference which defines, among other things, who the enemy is and what general strategy will be used to deal with that enemy.
There is a need for a new war doctrine to deal with the current war we are, and have been engaged in, as most recently demonstrated in the attacks in Paris. To win this war we must reframe the way we look at the war including our understanding of who the enemy is and what strategy we should be using.
The most powerful weapon in the world is not the nuclear bomb. The most powerful weapon in the world is the narrative. The narrative is the “the story” that is presented to the public. The narrative is powerful because people tend to believe what they are told if they are told it enough times. If people believe the narrative, and beliefs drive behavior, then it is the narrative that wins or loses hearts and minds, the very hearts and minds that would legitimize the use of violence, perhaps even the use of a nuclear weapon.
Thus to win this war we must win the war over the narrative. We must promote an alternative narrative to the narrative of our enemies. We must pay very close attention to how we frame the war in the media and in the minds of all involved.
What is terrorism?
The term terrorist has been thrown around as in “the war on terrorism.” But what is terrorism? Merriam-Webster’s defines terrorism as “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.” I suggest that this definition is far too general. This definition fits any military action since the beginning of time. When US troops engaged with the Vietcong in the Vietnam War, were they not using violent acts to frighten the enemy as a way to try and achieve a political goal? Can’t the same be said about any other military engagement since the beginning of time, including the storming of the beaches of Normandy on D-Day during the Second World War? I apologize to Merriam-Webster, but I refuse to equate the actions of the allies during the Second World War with the atrocities that recently took place in Paris. Clearly there is a difference between the two. Thus we need a new definition for the word terrorism.
I submit the following definition: terrorism is a strategy for war. It is a strategy that moves away from traditional set-piece military against military to a non-military (civilian) against non-military (civilian) configuration. To put it another way, terrorism focuses on killing innocent non-combatants.
To declare war on terrorism is to declare war on a strategy. How and why would you declare war on a strategy? By doing so we are only denying reality and inhibiting our own ability to adapt to a new format of war. The enemy is not the strategy being used but rather the enemy is the enemy no matter what strategy it uses.
One of the reasons we are not equipped to fight terrorism is that our traditional war doctrine does not allow us to attack civilian targets. The people who commit terrorist acts do not do so in uniform. Terrorists are civilians. We can see this issue arise in the news when they say that a drone killed X number of civilians. OK, but if that drone only killed those people actively involved with terrorist activities, would they not also be killing civilians?
In the new war doctrine we must forego the Golden Rule in favor of the Platinum Rule. The Golden Rule says, “treat others the way you would like to be treated.” The problem with this is that it assumes all people want to be treated the same. In the field of Spiral Dynamics1, which provides a model for the evolution of human value systems, we learn that people with different value systems want to be treated in different ways. So trying to treat everyone the same way you want to be treated is assuming everyone has the same value system you have.
The Platinum Rule is different. The Platinum Rule is “treat others the way THEY want to be treated.” The Platinum Rule takes into account that different people with different value systems want to be treated in different ways. The limitation of the Platinum Rule is how do we know how others want to be treated? My answer to that is, assume they are following the Golden Rule. So assume they are treating you the way they want to be treated.
So where does this take us? If the enemy attacks us using terrorist tactics then we can use the same military vigor with them. It is OK according to their value system.
It is important to remember that we are talking about the narrative. In no way do I suggest we should target innocents the way terrorists do but we need to change the narrative.
Drones kill innocents. War kills innocents. While we should never target innocents, we should never apologize for how we wage this war. That only makes us look weak in the eyes of our enemies within the framework of their value systems. Rather we should explain that we will treat our enemies the same way they treat us. We should legitimize, for the sake of the narrative, what we are doing. Without this alteration to our war doctrine we seem like hypocrites who, on one hand are outraged at the killing of civilians, and at the same time kill terrorists who are, de facto, civilians. No wonder we are losing the war over the narrative.
Next, if terrorism is not the enemy but just a strategy being used by the enemy, then who is the enemy?
Whom exactly are we fighting in this war?
The current narrative, as defined by many in the media, present the enemy as Muslims or the Muslim religion of hate, but this framing of the narrative does more harm than good. A better way to frame this issue would be as an extremist problem rather than a Muslim problem. The war that we are engaged in is not a war between religions but rather a war between those who accept that it is OK for people to be different, with different beliefs and different ways of life, and those people who do not accept this (extremists). Again, the enemy is not a set of people, it is not a religion, rather it is the belief that if you are not like me, if you do not believe what I believe, then I have the right to kill you. That is what I call extremism, and do not kid yourself there are extremists on all sides, not just in the Muslim religion.
– In 1995, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building killing 168 people and injured 754 others because he disagreed with the federal government.
– In 2011 Anders Breivik slaughtered 77 people in Norway to further his anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and pro-“Christian Europe” agenda stated in his manifesto.
– Joseph Kony, a radical Christian, founded the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda in 1987 and has called for the establishment of a severe Christian fundamentalist government in that country. The LRA, according to Human Rights Watch, has committed thousand of killings and kidnappings.
And the list goes on…
Extremism begets extremism. It is like there is a natural balance. Look at France. The far right Front National political party just dominated the recent elections. This is a political party that wants to secede from the European Union, stop immigration and repatriate non-ethnic French. Having been attacked by extremists, France is moving closer to the extreme itself.
To rein in extremism we must rein it in from all directions, not just the Muslim direction even if they are currently the most active and extreme. By painting all Muslims with the same brush we only create more extremists on both sides: obviously, when people feel attacked they will defend themselves. Thus if we paint all Muslims with the same brush, those who are not extreme in their views will be easy recruits for anyone able to tell the narrative that “our religion is under attack.” If we can change the narrative from religion to extremism, we can stop alienating secular Muslims and stop pushing non-Muslims to be extreme in their way of thinking against the Muslims. Changing the framework of who is the enemy is the first step to winning this war over the narrative.
Compare this to the current narrative. The Muslim extremists are bad (which implies that that non-Muslim extremists are not bad), and terrorism is the enemy (which means any time the West attacks a terrorist target, which is de facto civilian, the West is using terrorism, which means it is hypocritical).
Now that we understand who the enemy is let’s talk strategy. If we accept the power of the narrative as a tool, then our strategy must include the creation and propagation of our own narrative. Thus we should be seeking out those who are familiar and disenchanted with the organizations we are at war with, like ISIS. We should be encouraging and even funding the creation of a counter narrative in the language that our enemies speak and investing heavily in platforms to spread that narrative.
By clarifying that it is the ideology of extremism (not the religion of Islam) that is the enemy and by legitimizing our actions, sending the message that we will treat our enemies the way they treat us, we can change the narrative creating a new war doctrine that will be the first step to win this war. For he who controls the narrative controls the future.
About the Author: Shoham Adizes is the Director of Training and Certification at the Adizes Institute and co-author of the book Empowering Meetings.
1Beck, D. (1996) “Spiral Dynamics, Mastering Values, Leadership and Change,” Blackwell Publishing.