By John Thomas
Seeking to win the battle of the narrative in war is not new. In the past, narratives were largely government controlled, populations were less able to do their own research and ‘narratives’ were often little more than propaganda. Even today, in authoritarian states where freedom of the media is circumscribed, it is still possible for populations to be fed a diet of biased ‘facts’, as is the case in Russia concerning reports of the war (sorry, ‘special military operation’) in Ukraine.
The Anna Karenina principle, which now has a place in various fields of business and science, is derived from the first sentence of Tolstoy’s novel: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ What this means is that for families to be happy, or an endeavour to be successful, all essential aspects, such as health and wealth in the case of families, must align and make a harmonious contribution to happiness. If any aspect is deficient, the family will be unhappy.
In the case of conflict, there are almost an infinite number of aspects that could go wrong, any one of which could lead to failure. Inadequate training, poor leadership, faulty intelligence and bad weather are just some examples. The battle for the narrative is increasingly one of these key aspects.
The war in Ukraine and the current Israel/Gaza conflict both started with similar unequivocal narratives. In each case. an independent state was brutally and unjustifiably invaded and the ethical and legal cases for a response were clear. After Hamas’s raids on October 7, actions which were carefully planned, rehearsed and coordinated, Israel had the sympathy and support of many states and individuals around the world. Although the Israel/Palestine situation goes back decades and polarises opinion, in the case of the Hamas raids, there was no room for equivocation. Hamas had transgressed almost every tenet of law and ethics; Israel was without doubt the victim.
So what has happened since then to turn Israel in the eyes of many from victim to aggressor? We cannot of course discount prejudice and preconception. There are those whose anti-Israel bias could not be shaken by the biggest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. There were no mass demonstrations in London in support of Israel after October 7, even before Israel’s counter offensive in Gaza. In contrast, there have been several mass demonstrations in support of Palestine, a cause which has but rarely excited mass interest in the UK and never before on this scale.
Given that none of those in these demonstrations are directly affected by a conflict over 2,000 miles away and only a relatively small percentage are indirectly affected, perhaps with family in Gaza, this suggests that Israel is losing the battle of the narrative. Perhaps the Israeli government did not place sufficient weight on the battle for the narrative before launching its military response, or perhaps it thought that the atrocities of October 7 gave it almost unlimited latitude to seek out and destroy Hamas? Or perhaps it had already given up on world opinion, believing that it would be condemned whatever action it took?
Much of the narrative is of course driven by the facts on the ground. But there are several key new forces at play compared with decades ago. The first of these is the immediacy of the 24 hour news cycle. In the battle for airtime, yesterday’s news loses out to today’s. This includes Hamas’s construction over decades of what was little better than an underground military city dedicated to its aim of the eradication of the state of Israel. The war in Ukraine is just as bloody today as it was 2 months ago, but it has almost disappeared from the news, displaced by Israel/Gaza or even the latest domestic political scandal. The second factor is the power of the image. Even when news organisations take the trouble to be even handed (and some don’t) it is inevitable that daily images of Palestinians injured by Israeli action being transported to hospitals unable to treat them, through streets of collapsed buildings will begin to have an effect on public opinion. The dignified grief of the families of the hostages is profoundly moving, but has a tough time competing on the world stage with images of a Palestinian boy taking his last breath. Thirdly, we should not forget that Hamas controls everything in Gaza and is tailoring its own output of facts and figures (frequently unverifiable) to its own ends.
And another new critical factor is the role that social media plays. Social media has no remit to be unbiased, or to enforce editorial standards. Social media algorithms feed people ‘news’ based on their preferences, not unbiased for and against analysis of the true facts. Social media can also be a vehicle for the rapid global transmission of disinformation. Images from Syria, Tajikistan and a refugee camp in Greece (for example) have all been used to supposedly depict the suffering in Gaza.
So is winning the battle of the narrative less important than winning the war on the ground? I fear that’s the wrong question. Is it possible to win the war strategically, both politically and militarily, if you lose the battle of the narrative? I don’t want to ascribe motivation to Hamas’s actions, but if their intention was to sow division between Israel and its allies, to disrupt any burgeoning relationships between Israel and Arab states and to feed anti-Israeli sentiment across the world, then they are, by accident or design, in the process of achieving all these things.
Maybe the Israeli government are not big fans of Tolstoy. He did write long books and they are busy people after all. But if the Anna Karenina principle has any validity, then a failure to conclusively plan to win the narrative might well make the family of Israeli unhappy for some time to come.
About the author: Air Commodore (retd.) John Thomas served for over 30 years in the UK Royal Air Force, specialising in international relations at the political/military level. His main military ethics interests are the impact of good leadership on ethical behaviour and ethical decision making at the strategic level.