Narrative Warfare (part 1)

September 11, 2014

Charleston, SC is really a beautiful place to visit.  From ornate houses on the coast to beautiful beaches, it really feels like you are transported into another time.  It’s easy to see why at one point in history it was considered the richest of the 13 original colonies.

At the same time, despite its external beauty, there has always been a historical shadow looming over its cobblestone streets.  One of those downtown streets runs in front of the former slave market where people were bought and sold for decades.  Not too far away from there in Charleston Harbor overlooking the city is Fort Sumter where around 4am on April 12, 1861, the first shot was fired which would trigger the American Civil War, the bloodiest war our country has ever endured.

The Civil War especially is a fascinating point in the study of culture because it is a great example for another conflict that happens all around us all the time.  It’s an intellectual, emotional, and existential conflict known as Narrative Warfare.

What is Narrative Warfare?  Like the individual words that make up its meaning imply, it is conflict that revolves around a story.  It is the war that is fought every day and at all times.  It is the very thing that divides people, churches, even entire nations from each other!

Let’s go back to the term “Civil War.”  Did you know that some people prefer to call it “The War Between the States?”  You may wonder, “What does that even matter?”  Well, everything, when you think of the story.  The term “Civil War” is actually offensive to some Southerners and sympathizers of the Confederacy.  Take, for example, this quote by one Confederate Veteran:

“A civil war is a war between citizens of the same state contending for control of the same government. The war between the North and South was the war of the North against a separate government, that as long as it lasted was a de facto nation, exercising all the powers of an independent government.

The term “civil war” concedes all that the North ever claimed, makes [the South] guilty of treason, and is untrue to the facts in the case. [The] term “civil war,” while incorrect as a simple definition of the struggle, does a gross injustice to the South by degrading her struggle for a national existence into a partisan conflict. I never use it and mark it out of every book where I find it. Let history tell the truth.” -Rev. S.A. Steel, Jackson, Tenn.
(“The Phrase “Civil War,” Confederate Veteran, July 1912, pg. 347)

Side note, you will no doubt notice that he was a Reverend.  Yes, there were many Southern ministers who supported the Southern states’ effort from the pulpit (more on that later).

So, some prefer to call it the “War between the States” because this better fits the idea that the Southern States simply wanted to opt out of the Union and form their own independent, sovereign nation.  Narrative Warfare is the lens through which you look at a given situation.  As we’ll soon see, it reaches far and wide.

Let’s take another example from the Civil War.  How did slavery fit into the conflict?  Was the war fought to free the slaves, or was it to protect state’s rights and to uphold the freedom of individuals to govern their property (i.e. slaves) as they saw fit?  Now, I know that any reputable historian will agree that the answer to this particular question is not as clear cut as I’m asking it.  But the point is, depending on the kind of Narrative you present, your interpretation of a given event or circumstance will vary.

What developed during the course of the war was an interesting phenomenon.  In the North, abolitionist ministers who were opposed to slavery preached compelling messages to their parishioners about the evils of treating fellow human beings as somehow intrinsically inferior because they simply looked different.

In the South, pastors like Rev. Steel would preach messages from scripture to imply that God not only condoned slavery, but that it was a “divine order” for Whites to be separate from Blacks.

Following the Civil War, in 1873 Harpers Weekly published an article noting that Richmond, VA’s Christian Herald, called “The organ of the White Baptists,” had given the following reasons for not receiving their “colored brethren” into White churches: “God has made the two races widely different not only in complexion, but in their instincts and social qualities.  We take it for granted it was not the purpose of the Creator that they should be blended.  Nature abhors the union,” (Almighty God Created the Races: Christianity, Interracial Marriage, & American Law by Fay Bothham, pg. 103).

So depending on your view of if, you could say “the Civil War was fought to free the slaves” or “the War/Conflict between the states was regarding states rights.”  Each of these viewpoints has a nugget of truth in it, yet the story or Narrative of the event is completely different between them.

Next Week: Narrative Warfare in Modern Times