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The Challenges of Teaching Intelligence Studies

28 Jun

This post is based on a short presentation I gave as part of a job interview at the International Politics department of Aberystwyth University. I didn’t get the position, but I am very grateful to Jenny Mathers and the rest of the InterPol department for the chance to visit Aberystwyth. 

In addressing the question of what are the challenges of teaching intelligence studies, I’d like to focus on four main challenges that I see as significant. These obviously are not the be all and end all, but are succinct summaries of key issues that I see as affecting how and why we teach.

spooksI’d argue that one of the main challenges is addressing student expectations of what intelligence is. These expectations are at least in part formed by a lifetime of exposure to popular cultural interpretations of intelligence, such as television programmes like Alias, Spooks, 24, and The Night Manager, the Bourne films, video games like the Metal Gear Solid series, and so on and so forth. As much as we in academia would like to think otherwise, films like Bridge of Spies, the Mission Impossible series, and Burn After Reading seem to have a much greater impact on the way people think about intelligence in the wider world than our publications in scholarly journals, conference papers, or blog posts. Oh how I wish it were otherwise!

So, it’s vital to demonstrate that the realities of intelligence are at the same time more pedestrian and more exciting than any film, television programme, video game, or book. For example, while intelligence analysis is a vital component of what intelligence is, it’s dull, painstaking, and often long-winded. I’m not sure a real time programme that involves watching analysts pour over decrypted emails would get quite the same viewing figures as Jack Bauer torturing and killing his way around the world. On the other hand, the career of Oleg Penkovsky or the story of Able Archer ’83 is far more thrilling than any fictional accounts. Able Archer ’83 in particularly informative. The way in which Soviet intelligence gathering that was at its heart based on faulty and often false assumptions about NATO intentions towards the USSR led us closer to nuclear war than any time since the Cuban crisis is a fascinating story. Tales of KGB and GRU officers wandering the streets of London and Brussels at 2 in the morning looking for excessive numbers of lights on in government offices never fails to catch the interest of students.

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The Pakistani Nuclear Weapons Programme and Globalisation in the 1970s

6 Mar

sargent_ASTReading Daniel Sargent’s excellent recent book A Superpower Transformed provoked me to re-assess some of the framework supporting my own research into US-UK and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons project in the 1970s. Sargent manages to crystalise some of the conclusions I was tentatively reaching towards, very handy as I work on the manuscript for my own book. One issue that formed a component of my work – but that I hadn’t made prominent enough – was globalisation. Not just globalisation in terms of markets, but in the emergence of modern transnational movements, networks, and ideas (such as human rights), and the significant role they played in US foreign policy.

Sargent’s thesis forced me to re-appraise the role that globalisation and transnationalism played in US-UK nuclear non-proliferation policy, and in Pakistan’s own clandestine bomb programme. The Pakistani nuclear weapons programme had a lengthy history, but only really emerged as an international issue after the catalytic Indian nuclear test of May 18 1974. This spurred Islamabad into action and gave leaders such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Muhammad Zia ul-Haq the necessary oppositional context to push forward a national nuclear programme.

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Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Nuclear Identity

13 Apr
Hogg

Jonathan Hogg’s forthcoming book British Nuclear Culture

Last Friday, April 10, the Centre for the Study of Modern Conflict at the University of Edinburgh played host to a workshop on ‘Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Nuclear Identity’. This formed part of an ongoing series of workshops under the auspices of the British International Studies Association’s Global Nuclear Order Working Group. I was delighted to be able to organise this very stimulating and interesting session that brought together faculty, postgraduates, and practitioners from across the UK.

The aim of the day was to discuss and debate various interpretations of ‘nuclear identity’ and how the work we are doing in our different disciplines can fruitfully be shared. One of the main aims – for me certainly – was to grapple with how we understand ‘identity’ and how do we analyse it in our different disciplines and across disciplinary boundaries. In regard to this, I was struck by how much common group we all shared, whether working in history, political science, international relations, or within the nuclear establishment itself.

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The Misrepresentation of Nuclear Things

31 Jan
Front cover of Metro, Wednesday, January 28, 2015.

Front cover of Metro, Wednesday, January 28, 2015.

This post was inspired the coincidence of two things, one good, one depressingly bad. Firstly, I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading Gabrielle Hecht’s excellent article ‘The Power of Nuclear Things‘ (the article kindly and conveniently made available to all on Prof. Hecht’s personal website).[1] Secondly, I most certainly did not enjoy the sight of free newsheet Metro’s front page on Wednesday January 28 (see image to the right).

It’s not often you get to bring together the work of an esteemed scholar and the comment-baiting scare quotes of a – let’s not mince words here – paper that is down-market of the Daily Mail (if such a thing is possible).[2] That being said, I would suggest that Hecht’s analysis (more on that below) offers us a useful critical framework for understanding this faintly ridiculous front page.

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Archaeology of the Future

3 Jun

A recent post on the ill-fated Safeguard ABM system by Matthew Gault over at War is Boring pointed me towards some stunning photographs held by the Library of Congress. Matthew’s article does a great job of explaining the background to these eerie, haunting images. Whoever the official photographer was, they certainly had an eye for an arresting image.

East oblique of missile site control building, with better view of exhaust (the taller columns) and intake shafts – Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Films As Teaching Tool

30 Jan

Here at the University of Edinburgh, 20-24 February 2012 is the first ever Innovative Learning Week (ILW.) As part of a joint initiative between the Edinburgh University Students Association and the University, normal teaching is suspended and replaced with field trips, discussions groups, public lectures, theatre productions, and (most importantly for this post) film screenings.

The American History 2 are doing their part by organising a mini film festival, showcasing significant movies that look at a particular period in history. We’ll be showing the Civil War drama Glory, Depression-era comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, early Cold War paranoia classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the Vietnam war film Full Metal Jacket. Personally, I’m excited to have this chance to show a range of intellectually and visually stimulating movies that will hopefully enhance students understanding.

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The Vela Incident and Proliferation

2 Jan

Nuclear history is chock full of the strange, the never-quite-adequately explained, and the conspiratorial.(1) A fascinating example of this is the September 1979 ‘Vela Incident.’ This is kind of vaguely related to my thesis work, as it impinges on nuclear proliferation (kind of.)

The Velas were a series of U.S. satellites designed to detect clandestine nuclear testing. They used what are known as ‘bhangmeters’ (plus a bunch of other uber-scientific doohickeys) to pick up the unique ‘double flash’ given off by a nuclear explosion. The satellite in question, Vela 6911, was over ten years old in September 1979. On the 22nd, it picked up a double flash in the South Atlantic, far, far away from any land (apart from the remote, French-owned Kerguelen Islands.) Heads were scratched on a global scale, committees were convened, much sweat poured forth.(2)

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