Chapter 1 Introduction

This chapter is designed to give you a big picture overview of the course, and a guide to using this 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 order, political violence, normative theory, and strategy. As a subset of that, the course focuses upon the role of institutions, organisations, and organisational perspectives in war and national security. In particular, how do ideas and cultural beliefs shape state bureaucracies 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.

The Course

This course is divided into a main lecture series, two series of research lectures, and 3 seminar series that run independent of the lectures. The lectures are designed to give the broad overview of the concepts and methods related to the study of dirty wars. The seminars focus upon particular topics taught as specialist subjects by the academic leading the seminar. For the structure of the teaching sessions see chapter 2, for the content of each teaching session see chapter 6.

Project Work

There are a range of projects that complement the course. These are designed to develop your individual research skills, as well as your group working skills. There are two major group projects which are designed so that the course produces learning resources that support the entire group. These are explained in chapter 7.


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. Full details of the assessments can be found in chapter 8.

1.2 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.1 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.2

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.

As noted above, 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.

You are expected to attend all teaching sessions. In the event that you are unable to attend a class, you must email the class convener, and complete an asynchronous learning task.3

1.3 Privacy

Please respect the privacy of your classmates and do not make private recordings of lectures or seminars without my permission, either offline or online.4 If there is a need for recording, and you wish to make a point either off the record or under the Chatham House Rule, please indicate to the lecturer who will stop the recording for the duration of the contribution. Any chat and video recordings will be wiped at the end of the academic year.5 If you would like to opt out of all recording, please notify Dr McDonald and we can discuss this.

Some definitions:

Off the record - a point or contribution that should not be repeated outside the classroom, nor should it ever be attributed to the person who made it.6

Chatham House Rule - As Chatham House put it:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

So if someone draws upon their experience working as a human rights investigator and discusses their experience under the Chatham House rule, you are allowed to discuss what they say with other people, but you are not allowed to say who they are, who they worked for, or that you heard it in my classroom.7

1.4 Learning Resources


  • KEATS: A Moodle platform that acts as a central hub for accessing learning resources, as well as essay submissions. Access using your KCL email address and password:
  • MS Teams: Used to schedule online meetings, access learning resources, and chat (for real-time project work and Q&A during online teaching). You will be signed up to the course’s team by me, and you can download the app from Microsoft: Download here
  • TALIS: KCL’s host for online reading lists. Here you will find links to the digital copies of readings used for the course. The structure mirrors the course outline in chapter 6 of this handbook.
  • MS OneNote: A project folder to enable group projects. There are links to the OneNote notebook in KEATS and Teams.
  • Padlet: A website that enables individuals to add/view material in real time. All you will need from this is to be able to open a web browser while using MS Teams for small group discussions.

Accessing Learning Resources

KEATS and MS Teams are the hubs of this course. You will be added to KEATS automatically, I will add students to MS Teams upon enrollment into the course. You will find links to all the material for the course on both KEATS and MS Teams, however the MS Teams page has much better integrations with a number of the course elements, meaning it is easier to navigate.

There are a couple of important differences between KEATS and MS Teams:

  • You can only submit assessments on KEATS
  • MS Teams has chat functions that do not transfer to KEATS

For your convenience, there is a static website featuring links to the important everyday material for the course here: site Bookmark the page and you’ll be able to access everything you need to study.8 Lecture slides are in HTML, so no need for powerpoint on your chosen device.

1.5 How To Use This Course Handbook

This handbook consists of four sections: Course Outline, Course Guide, Assessments & Projects, and Further Material.

The course outline consists of this chapter, plus the following chapter detailing the teaching arrangements for the course. These should give you everything that you need to know about how the course is structured and run, as well as outlining expectations about your preparation for teaching sessions and engagement with the course.

The course guide consists of an introduction to the teaching staff, a course outline, and a (long) chapter that gives week by week breakdowns of the teaching session topics, discussion questions, and readings for each teaching session. Together with the course outline, this should be all you need to get started on the course.

The assessments and group work section consists of two chapters: skills assessments, and group work.

The further material section contains optional extras to aid your independent study: skills development, further reading, case studies, and details of my research lab. The skills development chapter is optional, but will give you a sense of why the assessments and group work have been designed in this way, and may be of particular benefit to those who have not studied in the UK system before. The further reading is built from a cohort group project in 2019-20, and gives a lot more sources for you to follow up on particular dimensions of the course. The case studies exist to mirror the primary lecture series, so that if you are interested you can examine a single case study in depth, referring back to the theoretical discussions in this course. Lastly, I run a teaching and research lab to develop new teaching methods for transferring research skills. If you would like to join a research project, please check it out.

  1. That’s 0900-1800 GMT. 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.↩︎

  2. That’s 0900-1800 GMT, Monday to Friday.↩︎

  3. These tasks are detailed in chapter 2↩︎

  4. KCL has a system of King’s Inclusion Plans so that students with particular learning support needs may record teaching sessions. If there is a need to record sessions to enable equal access to the course then I will do so, which should obviate the need for individual recording.↩︎

  5. There is one edge-case: if a student has to repeat a year, I will restrict access to recorded material to that student at the end of the year, and then delete data once they have submitted their final assessment.↩︎

  6. This is a privilege of engaging in academic discussion. Making a pointlessly offensive comment is not covered by this privilege.↩︎

  7. Note the third point about not revealing the identity of other participants…↩︎

  8. From student feedback, this is useful when watching lectures on a mobile device, or opening up lecture slides on a separate device↩︎