Chapter 1 Introduction

This chapter is designed to give you a big picture overview of the course, explains the course structure, sets some expectations for behaviour, and explains how to use the handbook.

1.1 The Idea

Like it says on the tin, this module is about “dirty wars” in theory and practice. The idea for the course is to explore what can be learned about war by thinking through and examining a subset of conflicts that have been labelled “dirty wars” (or equivalent) by theorists and/or participants.

In formal terms, we will be studying the relationship between categories of political violence, normative theory, and strategy. As a subset of that, the course focuses upon the role of institutions and institutional beliefs in war and national security. In particular, how do ideas and cultural beliefs shape state institutions responsible for national security? As a counter-point to this, we will also be looking at irreducible strategic dilemmas associated with war and national security. These derive from the adversarial relationship between states and those that seek to challenge them utilising clandestine means.

In less formal terms, this course is a trawl through some of the nastiest things that human beings do to one another. It explores the logics of mass killing and political repression, alongside a range of other kinds of atrocity. We will look at states killing people and claiming they are at war, states killing people while denying they are at war, and why these claims matter. In tandem, we’ll look at the bleed-through of intelligence collection and identification processes into everyday life and the political consequences of “securing the state.” It’ll be interesting, trust me.

1.2 Course Structure

The core course has five pillars:

  • A main lecture series
  • Two research lecture series
  • Two series of seminars
  • Group research work
  • Your assessed work

Each of these are designed to work together, but also to stand independently of one another. That way, if one thing fails (a fire alarm causes a lecture cancellation, illness prevents you from meeting for group research, etc) then the rest can carry on regardless with minimal interruption.

If you are unable to make a teaching session (lecture or seminar), please complete an asynchronous learning task (detailed below). These are designed to enable students who cannot attend a teaching session in person to engage with the course material in a productive way. They should take no more than 15 minutes to complete, so should not add to your workload in a significant manner.

1.3 The Primary Lecture Series: What Makes a War a ‘Dirty’ War?

This is an 11 lecture series on the concept of “dirty war.” This series with a “toolset” for ways of thinking through what counts as a war, how people and institutions judge/justify wars and warfare in normative terms, and the connection between the two. The focus of this course will be upon the application of these themes to four case studies, readings for which are detailed in Chapter 3.

Please note that the lectures will be about two thirds lecture, and one third small group discussion/full cohort discussion.

1.4 Research Lecture Series: Counting The Dead

The first research lecture series is designed to complement and prepare you for the final evaluation for this module: writing a 5000 word research essay. In this lecture series, I will be explaining and guiding you through one of my research projects that relates to the course. However the point of the research lecture series is that you will be using a substantial portion of your time in class to discuss and debate your own research projects. Unlike lectures in the first term, we will be paying specific attention to the practicalities of designing and conducting a research project in each and every class. Roughly 50% of the readings for this section of the course will relate to research design and research methods.

This year’s research lectures analyse the debates over civilian casualties caused by the Global Coalition Against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. The lectures will explain the overall research project in tandem with discussions to enable you to design your own 5000 word research project. These lectures are designed to guide you through the topic, and to connect it to lectures in term 1. Each lecture/seminar session will include discussion designed to get you to reflect upon key problems and questions associated with the design of research projects.

1.5 Research Lecture Series: Digital Repression

This research series examines the concept of digital repression, that is, political repression as it intersects with the digital technologies and services that now sustain daily life worldwide.

The key case study for this whole series is the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. This might seem like picking on one country, but Xinjiang is an important case study for a number of reasons. First, we can contrast the prior international outrage at Chinese repression in Tibet with the relatively muted response to Xinjiang. Second, Xinjiang in many ways represents the maturation of sets of technologies, such as recognition systems, that widen the state’s capability to control a population. However third, and as important, is that we should guard against the narrative of novelty when it comes to the use of digital technologies for political repression. The artifacts and systems might be new, but the ultimate purpose and goal of repression might not have changed that much.

1.6 First Seminar Series: Reciprocity and Retribution

The study of the morality/ethics of war takes three primary forms. Normative theorists discuss and seek to identify the morally permissible basis for the resort to war, and the use of force within war. Interlinked with this is the study of traditions of just war, a form of intellectual history that is closely entwined with work on just war theory. Lastly, there are a lot of people who study the ethics of war for the purposes of improving military professionalism.

We’re going to be doing something a little different.

This year’s seminar series centres upon the role of retribution in reciprocity. We typically find discussion of reciprocity in altruistic terms, whereas here we will focus primarily upon the reverse: reciprocity generated by the threat or fear of retribution. The actions and activities covered in this seminar series are, by and large, both illegal under current international law, as well as generally held to be immoral by just war theorists.

1.7 Second Seminar Series: Coercion and Contemporary COIN

This seminar series extends the course, reflecting the intersection between the course, my current research interests, and areas of contemporary interest. Term 2 seminars change each year so you will in effect be taking a unique course. As such there will be more flexibility in terms of focus of these sessions to reflect the interests of the student cohort. Feedback from term 1 will be used to align these sessions to student interests.2 Within reason, and also down to my professional judgement.

The second seminar series examines the inclusion and exclusion of normative evaluations of military strategy and operational practice. In this seminar series we will examine the relationship between counterinsurgency (COIN) and political repression in theory and practice. In particular, the series will examine how contemporary COIN as practiced by liberal democracies often shies away from explicit engagement with the repressive elements of COIN practice.

1.8 Group Research Work

The group research work consists of academic tasks that are designed to enhance your research skills and develop your ability to work as part of a team. There two cycles of group project work associated with the main lecture series, and further cycle in the full year version of the course. Each of the tasks is designed to produce a learning resource for all members of the course to use and enhance their own studies. In term 1, the first task will be to perform a literature search, the second task will be to develop a case study to the same standard/specification as those contained within this handbook. There is no group work in term 2.

1.9 Your Assessed Work

The assessments for this course are a 2500 word literature review and a 5000 word research essay on a topic of your own choosing. I am open minded about your disciplinary approach/topic for the research essay so long as you can justify a connection to the course. The course is designed to enable you to perform both tasks. The assessed literature review comes after group work on a similar task, and guidance for the 5000 word essay is built into the lectures of term 2.

1.10 Teaching Session Structure

There are two types of teaching session on this course: lectures and seminars. They will run a little different to how you may have been taught before, or may be taught in other modules. You will be discussing questions in small groups (3-5 students) throughout both sessions. I will call on groups to explain their agreement, or disagreement, over the answer to the question in a whole-class discussion after each small group discussion. I ask that a different person explains their group’s discussion each time, so that this task does not fall on one person’s shoulders.

Lectures are lecture/seminar sessions. That means that you will be engaging in small group discussion at points throughout the teaching session. The structure of each session is this:

  • Theory discussion
  • Introduction and core lecture
  • Small group discussion
  • Case studies
  • Wider context
  • Questions and answers

The theory discussion section discusses the theoretical discussion videos on KEATS. You should watch these ahead of the session, or read the transcripts. There is a question set for this discussion in each lecture, you should consider an answer to this question prior to the class. The session starts with small group discussions where you compare and contrast your answer to this question, followed by a whole of class discussion where we will compare and contrast different approaches to answering the question.

The core lecture contains the lecture detailed in the handbook. Feel free to raise your hand at any point if you have a question.

The small group discussion is a discussion related to the core lecture. Here I will usually set a question that is not available prior to the teaching session. Again you will be working in small groups at first, and then in a whole-class discussion.

In the case studies section, I will connect the core lecture to each of the five case studies detailed in this handbook. I may also point to other important instances of the lecture topic, but the point here is to connect the thematic lecture material to the case studies in a consistent manner.

The wider context section is more free-form. The topics covered by this course, and the way they are dealt with here, are often in the news. This section is reserved time to discuss current events, feel free to butt-in if you’ve seen/read something related to the core lecture (or raised in class discussions) here.

If there’s time, I’ll run a questions & answers session at the end.

The other type of teaching session is the seminar. These run as small group discussions, leading to a class discussion. There are two questions each week. One is about the readings, the second is designed to connect the theory discussions to a case study. Again, please read the questions ahead of the session and consider your answer to them prior to the class.

1.11 Asynchronous Learning Tasks

Asynchronous Learning Tasks are small tasks that are designed to enable students not physically present in teaching sessions to engage with the course. If you know that you will not be able to attend a teaching session, please complete one ahead of the session. If you are unable to make a teaching session at short notice, please complete one within 2 working days.3 I have to write this guide prior to knowing the day/time of teaching sessions, but I’m not going to ask you to work weekends. If you are ill for an extended period, please complete the task within 2 working days of being healthy. There will be a post on the News forum on KEATS for each week of the class. Please reply to it to complete your Asynchronous Learning Task. Please keep posts short (150 words maximum) as this isn’t intended to add significantly to your workload.

Asynchronous Learning Tasks:

  • Read the assigned readings for the session, and explain the relevance of one of them to a particular event in one of the case studies in Chapter 3. Provide a link to a digital resource that provides background information about the event.
  • Identify a relationship between one of the readings for this session and one from a prior teaching session that you find interesting. Explain the reason for your interest.
  • Identify and explain a key argument in one of the readings from the session that you disagree with. Explain your disagreement. If possible, provide a link to a piece of academic work that supports your disagreement.
  • Respond to one of the discussion questions (found in the lecture slides, or the set questions for the seminar). Remember to identify the question you’re responding to!
  • Identify a connection between the lecture or seminar theme and a contemporary conflict. Explain the connection and provide a link to a digital resource that enables the reader to understand the theme in the context of the conflict.

1.12 Course Expectations

Here is where I read you the riot act ahead of schedule. Just kidding. There is one hard and fast rule for this course: Stay in contact. I aim to be available via email Monday - Friday during normal work hours.4 That’s 0900-1800. Generally speaking I process my inbox once a day. I may answer emails at other times, but please do not expect immediate replies at weekends. Please also be considerate of your fellow students when working together on group projects and don’t expect them to be available outside normal working hours.5 That’s 0900-1800, Monday to Friday.

As you may have noticed, this course places a heavy emphasis on group learning (small group discussions, seminars, small group projects). My starting assumption is that everyone is an adult, and is here to learn. I therefore expect that people will approach discussions and group work with respect for each other. In particular, please be aware that other students may have to balance their studies with work or care commitments. If you are unable to devise a way of working around such issues, please contact me.

The core reading for this module is intentionally short (4-5 articles/chapters total per week), and this is the amount of reading that will enable you to engage with the course. I understand that not all students are able to dedicate 100% of their time during their MA to learning, so don’t worry if circumstances mean you can’t do the reading for a week. Try to catch up if you can, and email me if you get into trouble. That said, reading one article is better than nothing.

1.13 Attendance and Asynchronous Learning Tasks

All elements of this course are compulsory (including attendance at teaching sessions). However, I understand that students balancing significant outside commitments may on occasion be forced to miss sessions. If you are unable to make a session, please keep up with the reading, and please keep in contact with group members for research projects.

If you have to miss a session, please let me know, and complete an Asynchronous Learning Task, detailed above.

1.14 How To Use This Course Handbook

Chapters 2 - 8 contain guides to the course readings, case studies, lectures and seminars. Chapter 9 provides a guide to developing your skills over the course of this module, including a basic guide to producing academic work. Chapters 10 and 11 are guides to the assessments for the course, and group project work. Chapter 12 provides extension material, and there is a bibliography for all work cited in this handbook.