DARPA, STORyNet and the Fate of the War by J. Scott Shipman

[Cross-posted from zenpundit.com]

J. Scott Shipman, the owner of a boutique consulting firm in the Metro DC area that is putting Col. John Boyd’s ideas into action, is a longtime friend of zenpundit.com and Chicago Boyz and an occasional guest-poster. Scott has an important report regarding the “war of ideas” against the Islamist-Takfirist enemy in Afghanistan after attending a workshop hosted by DARPA.

DARPA, STORyNet and the Fate of the War

by J. Scott Shipman

I had the opportunity to attend a DARPA workshop yesterday called STORyNet. The purpose was to survey narrative theories, to better understand the role of narrative in security contexts, and to survey the state of the art in narrative analysis and decomposition tools (see below):

This STORyNET workshop has three goals:

1. To survey narrative theories.

These empirically informed theories should tell us something about the nature of stories: what is a story? What are its moving parts? Is there a list of necessary and sufficient conditions it takes for a stimulus to be considered a story instead of something else? Does the structure and function of stories vary considerably across cultural contexts or is there a universal theory of story?

2. To better understand the role of narrative in security contexts.

What role do stories play in influencing political violence and to what extent? What function do narratives serve in the process of political radicalization and how do theyinfluence a person or group’s choice of means (such as violence) to achieve political ends? How do stories influence bystanders’ response to conflict? Is it possible to measure how attitudes salient to security issues are shaped by stories?

3. To survey the state of the art in narrative analysis and decomposition tools.

How can we take stories and make them quantitatively analyzable in a rigorous, transparent and repeatable fashion? What analytic approaches or tools best establish a framework for the scientific study of the psychological and neurobiological impact of stories on people? Are particular approaches or tools better than others for understanding how stories propagate in a system so as to influence behavior?

I was alerted to the meeting by a member at one of my “groups” at LinkedIn and just barely made the registration cut-off. It was a good meeting, but not reassuring on our situation in Afghanistan—you’ll see why below.

As a “hobby” I’ve been tinkering with the implications of patterns with respect to language and communications. Just about every presumption I have articulated over the last several months is being pursued in one way or another—which is good news for our guys. While the on-going research is good, I do believe there is room for better and more imaginative thinking, although I didn’t say anything during the meeting for once, I kept my mouth shut and just listened.

This is exceptionally brief and decidedly non-techincal. Here are some observations of interest:

  • In Afghanistan, stories (those who tell them and those who believe) are central to our geopolitical strategy and policies.
  • There is underway, a “battle of the narratives,” where any “counter” narrative developed by the US must have credibility. This seems obvious, but the speaker observed the “story telling” was more important than the story. Given the high illiteracy rate, this makes sense.
  • We [DARPA] are reviewing chants (which are wildly popular), video, magazines, poetry, the Internet, and sermons as thematic vehicles for analysis.
  • The language of the Taliban is not secular, and not the language of the insurgency—for the Taliban everything hangs on the legacy of jihad and religious struggle.
  • The Taliban not willing to negotiate on matters of jihad. They are using a unified vision of Islam giving their struggle a noble foundation against the corruption of outsiders who want to “Christianize” the nation.
  • The Taliban uses symbology to portray the struggle as a cosmic conflict against Christian invaders and US puppets (those cooperating with the US). Framing this symbology to communicate clearly the frame of the righteous vs. the infidels.
  • The Taliban manipulates the language to connect the current struggle to previous struggles of “warrior poets.” There is hope a “discourse” can be created that will counter this framing [personal note: I’m not optimistic]. The Taliban uses different language to subjugate rural and urban dwellers, and actually have standard operating procedures for dealing with villages that resist.
  • The cognitive patterns of rural Afghanistan are “foreign” to most Westerners and they use alien methods of knowledge transfer (chants, often under the influence of hashish).
  • We are adding a geospatial element to our analysis of local and personal narratives (which includes subject, verb, object) with respect to identified “master narratives.”
  • Internet data is indexed, with an eye toward predictive analysis and situational awareness (and interestingly, “sentiment” analysis). We are finding predictive power from the topology of “networks” used in models.
  • From a neuroscience perspective, there was an amazing talk on empathy. It turns out, based on fMRI testing that empathy is quite predictable across subjects. Research indicates people “care more” about an “in-group” to which they belong more than an “out group.” The speaker defined the brain as a “parliament” of competing parties and nuanced spectrums [personal note: this elegant description tracks with everything I’ve read on the topic.].
  • One presenter observed that after 10 years of war, we’re finally “getting” the importance of Pashtun culture and language. This presenter also noted US is still in need of people with language skills sufficient to adequately support the effort.

– End


Zen here:

First, I’d like to cordially thank Scott for letting me share his insights gleaned from the workshop here with ZP readers. This is one of those fascinating events largely unavailable to those folks residing outside a reasonable driving distance from the Beltway.

Secondly, I am heartened that the brilliant folks at DARPA are taking the theological-ideological discourse of the enemy seriously in analyzing the power of narrative. Charles Cameron makes that point here with regularity. Michael Scheuer, Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy did so even before 9/11. Our political appointees and policy makers remain steadfastly allergic to this reality, unable to process or discuss in public with coherence how religious ideas are a root for political extremism. Col. David Kilcullen, who certainly understands political Islam better than most and whose creative and analytical acheivements in structuring a framework for countering insurgency are second to none, eschews dealing with the topic in his theoretical writings on COIN where it can be avoided. That is the cost imposed by the political correctness to which our ruling elite are psychologically welded.

It comes as no surprise to me that only after “10 years of war” are we finally “getting the importance of Pashtun culture”.

Maybe at the dawn of the 22nd century we will be “old hands”.

8 thoughts on “DARPA, STORyNet and the Fate of the War by J. Scott Shipman”

  1. In response to Zen, who wrote: “Our political appointees and policy makers remain steadfastly allergic to this reality, unable to process or discuss in public with coherence how religious ideas are a root for political extremism.”

    I suspect the problem is much worse than an allergic reaction. Our current “Ruling” class is in the grip of its own narrative. In their world view, the Western Civilization in general, and the United States in particular, is the root of all that is wrong with the world. The specifics of this Western “evil” are tied to the twin demons of Judeo-Christianity and market based economics (which they invariably refer to as capitalism).

    Because of that, the anti-Western rhetoric of groups like the Taliban strikes a resonant chord: it matches exactly their world view, which asserts that throwing off Western values (Christianity, markets primacy, etc.) will usher in a new era of peace, plenty and equality. If recognized or in any way acknowledged, the primacy that groups like the Taliban give to their religion, and especially their stated goal of establishing Shariah based states, would force the “Ruling” class to reconsider their premise that Western civilization is irrevocably and irredeemably evil.

    The result is their complete denial of any of the realities of the Taliban in particular, and “fundamentalist” Islam in general. As evidence, examine the contortions they’ve gone through over the past few weeks to convince themselves that the Muslim Brotherhood is just another political group.

  2. hi John,

    I agree with you that some of the ruling class holds a more hostile view, a cultural self-loathing and doubt regarding the legitimacy of the US, liberal capitalism and democratic values. You see it at places like Columbia U. where wealthy students jeer at and insult a wheelchair bound war veteran at a campus debate about ROTC.

    Others, I guess you would call them “the technocrats” never internalized this kind of overt hostility and consider it politically foolish but are “neutral” or “agnostic” on the subject of America tend to avoid making any active defense of the US. They are the ones most uncomfortable by bringing up the religious variables in Islamist terrorism (the ardent leftists will decry you as “racist” for doing it but they think everyone who disagrees with them are all racists anyway)because they usually take their jobs seriously and don’t see themselves as putting ideology before competence.

    So pointing out that they are doing exactly that, whether they know it or not, tends to make them very defensive and eager to cut such dissenting opinions out of analytical and policy loops. Which is why I was glad to see DARPA breaking through this unwritten taboo.

  3. Hi Zen,

    Thanks for the response. I actually do know better than to buy into single factor explanations of behavior. You point out an additional explanation I hadn’t considered.


  4. The use of narrative as a weapon has been particularly effective in the war against Middle America. I’m sure most of you have wondered why Hollywood overwhelmingly turns out films that portray Europeans and European Americans as the mythological enemy of humanity. Think about how much more money could be made producing films that glorified the West, Europeans, and/or white people? Instead we see the “whites as oppressor” narrative throughout Hollywood, TV, and the education system.

    The reason for this is quite simple. If you want to build a global government (with the generation of vipers at the top of the pyramid) you have to neutralize the American and European middle and working classes. WWII did a number on the European masses, so the post war would concentrate on the American masses (and finish off what was left in Europe). The basic strategy against Middle America would be destruction by forced assimilation with the developing world.

    Of course, no people in the history of world have ever allowed themselves to be displaced in their own homelands. So to help achieve this displacement, a narrative had to be created that portrayed European derived people as the enemy of humanity. The masses were programmed that anything “White” was evil, boring, hateful, and ugly while everything non-white was vibrant, loving, hip, wise, and beautiful.

    The power of this narrative is unquestionable, as the masses have internalized it to the point of cultural and biological suicide. Not only do the masses of the West accept genocide by forced assimilation, they actually celebrate it while it occurs (“Diversity is strength!!!”).

    Narrative is ultimate weapon.

  5. Rumsfeld (Sorry but I’m on a Rumsfeld kick for a while) and Doug Feith tried to establish an office of counter narrative and, what for lack of a better term could be called psyops, in the DoD. It was to try to counter the jihadi’s attacks on America and modernity by appealing to themes that Afghans and Iraqis could understand. The discussion in Feith’s book is more lengthy and thorough than that in Rumsfeld’s.

    They were besieged by leaks and hostile media accounts. Feith was even referred to as running a “Gestapo office” in the Pentagon, by Powell of all people. Feith’s parents were Holocaust survivors so he did not appreciate this.

    There is a real hostility to the sort of thing that Voice of America did in the 50s. The source of the leaks was probably Armitage, who is the only real target of Rumsfeld’s hostility in the book. State might be understood as resenting such turf grabbing if State had made any efforts in this area. They did not.

    Empathy is a very interesting subject on its own. It is probably chemically mediated in mammals by several small molecule hormones, one of which is Oxytocin. That hormone makes the breasts begin to make milk and makes mothers bond to their children. When it is missing, autism may result. That may not help with jihadis but it is still interesting. Why do people become jihadis ? Maybe we should issue dart guns loaded with Oxytocin darts.

  6. MK,

    Rummy’s book is on the way!

    Armitage and the utter nonsense of the Plame affair: there is something more to all this than has been articulated in the press. There are too many inexplicable events—like “why” Bush the younger didn’t pardon Libby…I’m guessing “scores” were settled–way above the pay-grade of the odious, publicity seeking Plame & Co.

    Thinking out loud here, so feel free to smack me if I’m off my rocker: aren’t the best narratives the ones which self generate? I see the Tea Party movement as a symptom of the narratives that have been “untold” for far too long. Nixon called these folks the “silent majority”—but these people have a story that has been mocked and vilified for the last 40 years. In the TP movement, these narratives have found a vehicle for articulation. I don’t know what to make of Beck (I don’t watch television and when I have seen him, I find him tedious.), but Lex’s assessment may have touch on how Beck’s rally typified the “found voice” that the TP represents. All that said, I’m not sure there is enough natural speed in the Tea Party alone.

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