The Trip of a Lifetime – Canadian Battlefields Foundation Study Tour

The Canadian Battlefields Foundation (CBF) is an educational organization with the community mandate to remember Canada’s role in wars and military operations since the beginning of the twentieth century. To this end, the CBF has created a bursary fund so that young men and women from Canada can visit and learn – on the actual battlefields – what other Canadians have contributed to their freedom. The bursary fund, a truly living memorial, has allowed the Foundation to partially finance twelve university students, every year, from across Canada to study in Europe.

I was very fortunate to have been granted a spot on the 2013 CBF study tour. Alongside eleven other exceptional students from across Canada and our professors/tour guides Dr. Andrew Iarocci and Dr. Graham Broad, I spent over two weeks journeying through France and Belgium. We covered a lot of ground, visiting most of the major (and minor) battlefields, memorials, and cemeteries of both the First and Second World Wars. We literally walked in the footsteps of the fallen, tracing their journeys across windswept fields, through overgrown trenches, and atop hills they once thought impossible to climb. We visited memorials and monuments that stagger the imagination – some whose size and grandeur are only eclipsed by the sheer number of names that adorn their walls, others whose simplicity speaks more of loss and remembrance than words alone ever could.

Our group at Vimy Ridge

Our group at Vimy

Thiepval British War Memorial - it is impossible to adequately capture the size of this monument in a picture

Thiepval British War Memorial – it is impossible to adequately capture the size of this monument in a picture

Simple memorial to the soldiers who never returned  at Monchy-le-Preux

Simple memorial to the soldiers who never returned

Our visits to the cemeteries had an especially profound impact upon our entire group. Row upon row of grave markers dot the landscape in this part of the world, reflecting words of love from family and friends or acknowledging the service of someone whose name we’ll never know. Whether large or small, these cemeteries are everywhere, they are full, and they are often overwhelming.

Vis-en-Artois British Cemetery

Vis-en-Artois Commonwealth Cemetery

Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery

Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery

Beny-sur-Mer War Cemetery

Beny-sur-Mer War Cemetery

I would say that most of our strongest reactions to this entire experience were often felt in these cemeteries, regardless of the nationality of the soldiers buried there. Plenty of tears were shed, but I also think that our intense grief was at least matched in part by a sense of pride – in the individuals who gave their lives to serve their respective countries, and also in the communities that these individuals formed and those subsequently preserved by their actions. Walking among these graves really brought home for me the fact that remembrance is about more than just recognizing those connected to us through family, friends, or patriotism. We are all a part of a larger human community, one in which sacrifice is both mourned and celebrated in equal measure, regardless of which side you take up arms for.

The last two days of our journey were spent in ceremonies commemorating the sixty-ninth anniversary of D-Day and subsequent push to gain a foothold in France. We had the honour of participating in these ceremonies, laying wreaths at a number of different memorials and meeting those veterans who are still with us and able to make the long return journey to those distant shores. To have an opportunity to shake the hand of these veterans, to speak with them, was a humbling experience for us all. I will never be able to adequately describe what it was like to stand on Juno Beach, on the anniversary of D-Day, beside veterans who were responsible for storming its shores sixty-nine years ago.

Juno Beach - 6 June 2013

Juno Beach – 6 June 2013

6 June 2013 - D-Day Anniversary Ceremony at Beny-sur-Mer War Cemetery

D-Day Anniversary Ceremony at Beny-sur-Mer War Cemetery

Caen, France - Honouring the sacrifices of the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment in the liberation of France

Caen, France – Honouring the sacrifices of the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment in the liberation of France

I know our CBF group was further humbled by the fact that we shared this experience with another Canadian veteran, of a more recent war, but a Canadian hero none-the-less. Our tour-mate Bruce Moncur served with the Canadian Forces on two tours in Afghanistan, returning from the last severely wounded. Alongside our veterans who stormed the beaches in Normandy, Bruce was honoured in a speech given by former CDS General Rick Hillier at this year’s Juno Beach anniversary ceremony. This speech reminded us all that we must continue to remember and celebrate our veterans – those who fought for our freedom in the World Wars, but also those who have made and continue to make sacrifices in conflicts around the world. Remembrance should not end with the last total war. And it should not be overlooked or impeded because of personal political views regarding the validity of any one conflict.

In France and Belgium, at least, remembrance has not ceased to hold a meaningful role in everyday life. Everywhere we went – at every single memorial, monument, and cemetery – fresh flowers or wreaths could be found. At every single one. Every day. Last post ceremonies are also held on a regular basis – daily at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.


Cabaret Rouge Commonwealth Cemetery

Cabaret Rouge Commonwealth Cemetery



We also had local residents coming up to our group in the streets telling stories of the Canadians they remember liberating their village or town. One gentleman came out of his home upon seeing our group in the ‘Place des 37 Canadiens’ – a square in the village of Authie, France where the SS killed 37 Canadian soldiers – to share his memories of being a nine year old boy (in the same home, incidentally) and witnessing this event first hand. In this corner of the world, remembrance is a feature of everyday life. It never ceases. It really puts into perspective the remembrance ceremonies held once a year here in Canada…

I would also like to recognize the important role that my 2013 CBF cohort played in making this journey more than just educational. While visiting the battlefields, memorials, and cemeteries certainly formed the foundation of our excursion, our shared experience is what truly made this journey exceptional. For a group of strangers who knew nothing of one another less than two weeks ago, we became remarkably close. We are all proud Canadians who share a common love of history and a special affinity for the World War period in particular, but we are nothing if not a diverse group. However, despite our differences in age and varied backgrounds we managed to find a lot of surprisingly common ground. We became a family for the few short weeks we travelled together, and I know that the genuine, honest, and heartfelt openness shown by my tour-mates during this journey was what truly made this experience profound.

Group Photo at Quarry Cemetery

Group Photo at Quarry Cemetery

As a student of military history, especially one who recently completed her candidacy exams and feels she has read a ridiculous amount of books on the World Wars and the Canadian military in particular, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from this trip. It would be moving, I was sure, and I would have an opportunity to see places I have only ever read about, but the experience would be simply supplementary to my educational journey thus far. I had no idea what a profound impact this experience would ultimately have. I can honestly say that I have returned to Canada a changed person. I want to sincerely thank the Canadian Battlefields Foundation for allowing me to participate in the 2013 study tour and for continuing to make it possible for Canadian students to set foot on the ground that so many Canadian and Allied soldiers fought and valiantly gave their lives for. I strongly encourage all students – of history or otherwise – to apply for this amazing program in the future. I promise it will be an experience you will never forget.

Katie Domansky

P.S. to hear about this journey in my tour-mates words, see the CBF study tour blog here. After reading some of these posts, I promise you will understand why I call my experience with these folks profound.


Kenneth Waltz is Pablo Picasso: A Tribute to a Guy I Never Met

The first thing I did when I saw that I had been accepted to the ISA convention was to check if Kenneth Waltz was on the program. He was and that is how I sold it to everyone around me: “I am going to the same conference as Kenneth Waltz!” But he dropped out of the program and there were some dark rumors in the corridors of the San Francisco Hilton about his health. Now, just a month after the convention, he is gone. That means that Waltz will always remain just a name in a book to me, but maybe that is the way it should be. But when it comes to the field of International Relations, Waltz is not just a name, he is THE name. Why does Waltz remain the most important and recognizable theoretician in the field?

I can remember my first encounter with Waltz quite vividly. Like most of my fellow undergraduates I had not done my assigned reading, but one of my fellow students assured me that the class on Realism was going to be great. “Those guys are so pessimistic, it is awesome.” When I first ran into Theory of International Politics, it kindled my lifelong interest in theory. It was an overarching explanation of how the world worked, full of powerful and  elegant imagery. Three simple yet evocative concepts held sway in my imagination and those of my fellow students, anarchy, self-help and structure. They were simple enough for a first year student to get their heads around and they also seemed to explain everything. Within a week of reading it I was explaining how the world worked to my bewildered friends and my bored girlfriend. Half of my undergrad class became confirmed neo-realists (especially the males) and half became opponents of neo-realism. The heated arguments in class centered on 9/11 and the Iraq War as the hapless TA tried to control the excitement.

When I first entered graduate school, he was anything but fashionable. I remember the head of the department telling us in our theory seminar that Waltz had killed all the nuance in realism. He pointed to Machiavelli and Hobbes and their natural 20th Century heirs, Morgenthau and Carr. “They understood the richness of political life”, he told us. Waltz had simplified the interaction of political units into an abstract formula which seemed ridiculous in light of the development of the European Union and globalization. This seemed to make sense at the time and I found myself distancing myself from neorealism. My studies took me into the field of ethnic conflict. This meant that every article I read and every theory I tried to formulate further broke down the state-centric approach Waltz embodied. I joined those who viewed Kenneth Waltz as a dinosaur with a useful yet ridiculously outmoded approach to theory.

The day he died, it hit me. Kenneth Waltz is our version of Pablo Picasso. The simplicity and elegance of his later models were the product of the sort of deep understanding that only the greatest master of detail and nuance could muster. If you forgive the tortured art parallel, before Picasso broke new ground in his Cubist period he mastered Modernism and Symbolism before putting these existing forms into new perspective in his Blue Period. Similarly, Kenneth Waltz taught political theory and his PhD (which became the book, Man the State and War) focused on the rich teachings of the greatest political philosophers. In examining why wars break out, he looked first at the age old argument on the nature of man. Analyzing the debate between Niebuhr and Plato and putting it into a political perspective. He then proceeds to examine the debate on the proper structure of the state and regimes and their contributions to war and peace, looking into the old claims of Kant, Hamilton and Marx. Finally, he takes the complex and misunderstood political thought of Rousseau and fashions it into a concept we take for granted: the system. Just like Picasso, even when treating the work of the masters with reverential respect, Waltz cannot avoid creating bold and new concepts. Man the State and War, gave us the material for the first class you teach in any IR theory class. By breaking down the political arguments of the classical theorists into three categories, Waltz created the much vaunted levels of analysis: individual, state and system.

But just like Pablo Ruiz, Waltz did not stop there. His next major contribution came out twenty years later (there is no way he would have gotten tenure nowadays). In Theory of International Politics Waltz created the equivalent of abstract art. Without describing reality, Waltz tried to impart a deep understanding of the structure underlying it by using symbols and mentally evocative concepts. “Anarchy” and “self-help” were powerful metaphors for the fears which underline the operation of the system and the obsession with physical security which typifies states and so mystifies peace activists and well-meaning civilians.

The end result was a huge and ambitious canvass which inspired and essentially spawned the modern discipline. It did so in two ways, first of all by the previously mentioned appeal of the overarching explanation and the evocative language of neorealism. Second, and more importantly, just like abstract art or jazz: the missing details or the notes which are not played are the key to inspiration. I would argue that just about all of the important works of the decade following Theory of International Politics were based on an attempt to play those absent notes and fill in those blank portions of the canvass. Keohane asked, what the role of institutions and incentives in promoting cooperation? Jervis asked what about the interdependence created by trade? Wendt asked, what about the meaning we invest in the concept of anarchy? Cox asked, what about the normative assumptions inherent to this invention of structure? All of these scholars challenged various assumptions, while paying tribute to the way Waltz stimulated their imagination by writing nuanced critiques which built both their reputations and the robust and pluralistic discipline we see today. Would so many thousands have flocked to San Francisco for the ISA Convention this year if it had not been for the genius of Kenneth Waltz? Personally, I think not.

I have now been working as a lecturer or teaching assistant for six years. Just last semester we discussed anarchy. In one class, I was explaining the different angles and criticizing Waltz’s conception of anarchy using both Archer and Wendt. A heartbroken student raised his hand and said, with deep pathos, “are you saying Waltz is wrong?” The cycle continues. 

Shaiel Ben-Ephraim, PhD Candidate

This blog post is done*

I recently finished my thesis.

If my wife were reading this, she’d probably break into gales of laughter. “I’ve finished my thesis” is a statement I made a good dozen times over the last month of the slog towards final submission. “It’s done.”

Well, it was done. Then it was done again. But this time it’s really done. I mean, sure, I’ve got a few more sources coming in through interlibrary loan, but I mean other than that it’s pretty much done. I’ll probably take another editing pass or two at it, but that won’t change much I’m sure.

There’s the “I’ve finished primary writing” done. Then there’s the “I finished the editing” done. Then there’s the “I sent the draft of the final off to my advisor done”, quickly followed by “yes I made all the bloody edits” done. But then you’re done.

Of course, after that it’s time to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous defense panels, and the post-defense edits that almost inevitably follow. And the wrangling over the little things you largely ignored that you didn’t consider important until then, like your dedications (“what do you mean I can’t dedicate my thesis to Slayer?”).

Best graffiti ever.

Best graffiti ever.

It’s not until you finally hit “Enter” on that electronic repository submission that you’re well and truly done.  But a thesis is just such a beast that you’re interested in declaring it dead as soon as possible. And, just like victims in a horror movie, grad students tend to say “this time it’s dead for sure” far too early, usually getting dismembered by their advisors’ chainsaw for their troubles. And then the thesis returns for Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Thesis Part 2: The Reckoning.

Keith Hann, MSS

2013 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference

The 2013 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference took place at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Centre, Washington D.C. on April 8-9, 2013. This conference brought together 800 nuclear experts and policy makers from 46 countries to discuss emerging trends in nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament, and nuclear energy. It was a great learning experience for me to attend this conference and meet experts, scholars, and policy-makers with diverse backgrounds.


Yukiya Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was a keynote speaker in the conference. He outlined the contributions as well as challenges of the IAEA. He described Iran, North Korea, and Syria as the biggest challenges for the agency but at the same time he was optimistic about the greater role of the agency in coming days. He described how the IAEA safeguards evolved with the passage of time and emphasized the greater role of advanced technology in the verification process.

The next session was about “deterrence and disarmament in Obama’s second term” in which speakers from the USA, Russia, and China participated. Yao Yunzhu from the Academy of Military Science, China emphasized that the US and Russia have the biggest nuclear arsenals and should first disarm themselves to the level of China before China can join the disarmament process. Alexei Arbatov (Carnegie Moscow Centre) argued that China is the only country with small nuclear arsenals that can build nuclear weapons quickly to the level of Russia, therefore, China has an important role to play to make sure that China will not benefit from the situation if Russia and the US reduce their nuclear weapons. Rose Gottemoeller (Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security) highlighted the initiatives taken by the Obama Administration to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security and emphasized the need for further negotiations with Russia.

In the “Humanitarian Dimension of Nuclear War, Deterrence, and Disarmament” session, the role of nuclear weapons from a moral perspective was discussed. In the 2010 NPT Review Conference, countries agreed to comply with international law, including humanitarian law. This was an important development, which shifted the state-centric approach to nuclear weapons towards a human security approach, but the question of how using nuclear weapons in self-defence can be reconciled with humanitarian law remained unresolved.

The “Too Little Disarmament, Too Much Nonproliferation?” session discussed the balance between nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. Christopher Ford (US Senate Committee on Appropriation) argued that nonproliferation is the base of the regime and without a strong base we cannot build other pillars. Herald Muller (Peace Research Institute Frankfurt) was in favor of the right balance between nonproliferation and disarmament.

In the “Proliferation Implications of New Fuel Cycle Technologies” session, the debate focused on the impact of new fuel technology, like laser enrichment and processing, on proliferation. Advocates argued that safeguards could prevent proliferation while critics emphasized the adverse affects of this technology for nonproliferation if commercialized.

In the “Deterring Cyber and Space-Based Threat” session, use of cyber attack and capability to destroy objects in space was discussed with the relevance of nuclear deterrence to these threats.

“Are Treaties like FMCT and CTBT Still Vital?” was a question asked in the next session. The Conference on Disarmament (CD) cannot start negotiations on FMCT unless Pakistan joins the consensus. Maleeha Lodhi (Former Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States) defended Pakistan’s position in the post India-US Nuclear Agreement and pointed out that Pakistan can join the consensus if offered the same nuclear agreement or is willing to negotiate a FMCT treaty that includes existing fissile material.

Group photo with Maleeha Lodhi, former Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States (fourth from the right)

Group photo with Maleeha Lodhi, former Ambassador of Pakistan to the United
States (fourth from the right)

In the next session, “Whither Nuclear Power?” was discussed with the relevance of the use of nuclear power after the Fukushima accident.

The second day of the conference was started with the keynote speech of M. J. Chung (Member of National Assembly of the Republic of Korea). He explicitly argued in favor of South Korea’s nuclearization against the North Korea nuclear threat.

In the “Managing Nuclear Power Post-Fukushima” session, the safety of nuclear power was assessed in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  The panel agreed on the sovereign right of states to develop nuclear power but Fukushima forced us to focus more on cost, security, and safety.

“The Arab Spring and a Middle East WMDFZ” was next, in which implications of the political changes in the Middle East were assessed for implementing a WMD-Free Zone. Dore Gold (Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs) rejected the possibility of the zone in an unstable political situation. Representatives from Egypt and Iran argued that if Israel has nuclear weapons there is always incentives for other Middle Eastern states to pursue a nuclear path, therefore, Israel has a more important role to play in negotiating the zone.

“Is there an ‘Emerging Power’ Agenda?” was a session in which representatives from India, Brazil, and Turkey explored a common nuclear agenda. They agreed that ‘emerging powers’ are in favor of the nonproliferation regime but demanded a greater role.

It was an interesting discussion in the next session, “Extended Deterrence: Defining the U.S. Reassurance Requirement”, examining how the United States could have a balance between reducing the role of nuclear weapons and fulfilling its extended deterrence commitments.

The last session “Proliferation and Regime Change” assessed how nuclear proliferation caused changes in regime policies.

The above-mentioned conference proceedings show that the conference focused on deterrence, nonproliferation, disarmament, and nuclear industry. This conference examined these four themes through broader analytical lenses such as multilateral nonproliferation measures, sanctions, humanitarian law, and the implications of regime-change policies for the regime.  For me, it was a unique learning opportunity to familiarize myself with scholars from around the world who share an interest in my research topic. It was beneficial for me to discuss my topic with them, and was helpful in setting the stage for formal interviews and contacts with respect to my research.

— Saira Bano, PhD Candidate


Bad Powerpoint Presentations?

An opinion by Boris Trnavskis, MSS student.

I have heard some CMSS students and the occasional professor disparage PowerPoint presentations. So what is worse than a bad PowerPoint presentation? In my humble opinion, it is a presenter who undermines his outstanding analysis, ideas, and insights by reading his paper or script, word-for-word, in a monotone using an allegro tempo. At least with a lousy PowerPoint presentation, I have something to look at while the presenter reads his script.

But all kidding aside, I see two important advantages of using PowerPoint or some equivalent visual medium when presenting ideas. By using PowerPoint slides I am engaging two of the audiences’ senses – hearing and seeing.  I recall reading somewhere that the more senses you can engage, the more likely the audience will absorb and retain what you have to communicate.

But more importantly, if I am clicking away my slides instead of burying my nose in the paper I am reading, I can read the visual feedback and cues my audience is sending me.  Am I connecting and communicating or are people checking their tweets, text messages, emails, surfing the net, etc.? Am I using jargon, acronyms, or terminology they are unfamiliar with? Do I need to re-phrase or re-state a point I just made because it is not clear? Am I droning on too long on a particular point?  Are they all tired after a big lunch and about to fall asleep unless I raise my voice or energize them? etc. etc.  I also like to give the audience a copy of my slides in advance so they can jot down questions next to the relevant slide, while the question is still fresh in their minds, or they can make their own notes and comments in the margins.

If at all possible, try to engage a third or fourth sense.  Here is a crazy example: I brought in some mountaineering gear and placed one piece of equipment in front of each student, while delivering a PowerPoint presentation on mountain warfare in Dr. Huebert’s Strategic Studies class.  Students were encouraged to look at and touch the specialized climbing gear.  It helped me to emphasize the point that conventional infantry soldiers are not trained to use even the most basic mountaineering gear, which is used routinely by mountain infantry like the Gebirgsjäger.  If the students got bored and were a bit twisted, they could smell my old, beat-up, leather climbing boots with attached crampons.

Just my opinion.


Another contingent in Halifax

Once again, a CMSS contingent made the trek across Canada to attend the Political Science Graduate Symposium at Dalhousie University in Halifax. As a wonderful opportunity to share research and ideas with graduate students from around the country, the eighth instalment of this academic assemblage did not disappoint!

2013 CMSS Halifax Contingent

2013 CMSS Halifax Contingent

Five students and one professor from the Centre were able to make the journey this year, contributing to discussions on a diverse range of issues and problems. Stephen Hayes and Bill Carruthers – two members of the CMSS Arctic Working Group (affectionately referred to around here as ‘Arctic Friends’ or the ‘Meeting of the Arctic Minions’) – started the conference off with presentations for the Arctic Sovereignty panel.

Bill and Steve on the Arctic Sovereignty Panel

Bill and Steve on the Arctic Sovereignty Panel

While Stephen disputed claims that the militarization of the Arctic is evidence of inter-state tension, Bill presented an informed view of Radar Sat procurement here in Canada, specifically the role of SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) and AIS (Automatic Identification System) functionalities.

They both impressed the audience with their arguments and seemingly boundless knowledge of all things Arctic, while their panel chair Commodore Darren Hawco – currently in Command of the Atlantic Fleet and an Arctic aficionado himself – provided an enthusiastic and very welcome addition to the panel discussion. We’re hoping the Commodore will consider a trip out to the prairies some time soon to continue that discussion here at the Centre!

Commodore Hawco and the 'Arcticians'

Commodore Hawco and the ‘Arcticians’

The rest of the CMSS students – Tim Wright, Maria Robson, and Katie Domansky – gave their presentations on the second day of the conference after some last minute re-shuffling and re-branding saw them take over the Defence panel in an all-CMSS effort. A rather eclectic take on “defence”, this panel featured presentations on security issues pertaining to all corners of the globe.

The Defence Panel

The Defence Panel

Tim focused on Chinese strategy for gaining a foothold in the Arctic, noting that China is already in Canada’s Arctic resources sector, while Maria discussed issues of intelligence sharing, specifically how middle powers leverage their intelligence capabilities to maintain political relationships. Katie rounded out the panel with her views on the re-professionalization of the Canadian Forces, in both practical and normative terms, after the significant changes wrought by the post-Somalia reform process of the 1990s. Each of these presentations were informative and succeeded in generating some significant debate amongst audience members and the panelists themselves. Mission accomplished!

Our faculty contribution to the conference came in the form of Dr. Rob Huebert, who provided an informative look at “the power of ideas” during his keynote address.

Dr. Huebert

Dr. Huebert

As the Centre’s favourite Realist who usually presents his expertise on the Arctic and security issues, Dr. Huebert surprised the attending CMSS students with his thoughtful discussion on the role that ideas and inquiry can play in changing the world. Yes folks, grad students and the work they do, does matter… even when they are social scientists! His personal experiences at Dalhousie during his doctoral studies, and the role of Dalhousie academics and others in fundamentally altering the way in which the world considers the use and governance of international waters, provided a case in point to support his argument. As did the question and answer period, which turned into a debate amongst all in attendance that demonstrated the value of academic inquiry and exercises such as this conference.

All CMSS members in attendance were very thankful for the opportunity to interact with and learn from the other student presenters from universities across the country. With topics ranging from immigration policy, to aboriginal rights, to health care, and conceptions of peacekeeping/peacemaking, this conference fostered discussion on security issues affecting Canada, while also allowing us to interact with scholars studying outside of our usual ‘security bubble’. A highlight was the keynote address given by NDP Environment Critic Megan Leslie. A frank, open, and engaging speech delivered with enthusiasm, Megan’s view of environment issues in Canada managed to captivate all those in attendance, no matter where on the political spectrum they usually tend to dwell.


Besides the conference itself, something must also be said for Halifax and Nova Scotia, which welcomed our Calgary crew with open arms (not to mention full pints and lively music!). Visiting the Halifax Citadel, Canadian Immigration Museum at Pier 21, the Keith’s Brewery, Peggy’s Cove, Mahone Bay, Lunenberg, and – of course – the many pubs that have led to the cliché that “every second building in Halifax is a church, and every one in between a bar,” made the trip even more rewarding. We defend the old grad student adage that just as many good ideas are formed outside the classroom as in…. especially in the pub over a cold pint of Keith’s!

Storming the Citadel

Storming the Citadel


Journalists and Research Methods

— A Rant by Boris Trnavskis, MSS student

Taking a research methods perspective, my rant questions the value of the writings of journalists like Bob Woodward and Ron Suskind, on matters of public policy, people, and historical events.  I don’t have any answers and maybe my question isn’t even valid. That is because I am writing as a new MSS student with only a superficial understanding of how research and analysis is conducted in political science and history.  So I apologize in advance.  My perspective and bias comes from specializing in research methods in my previous grad studies in an unrelated field, using a wide variety of research techniques over a 31-year working life, and teaching research methods to undergrad and grad, business and engineering students.

First I want to distinguish between research techniques and research methods.  Using inferential or descriptive statistics or probability theory, building mathematical or econometric models, applying operations research techniques such as linear and dynamic programming, using sampling survey or interview techniques, conducting archival research using primary sources, and using case analysis to investigate a specific situation, are examples of research techniques – research “tools” in your research “toolbox.”  Research methods refers to the process of deciding and selecting the “tool” best suited or most appropriate for the problem in hand.  [And parenthetically, as Dr. Maurice Scarlett stressed over and over, the term “research methodology” means the “study of different research methods” and not what I am going to do to answer a research question.  Finally, paraphrasing Russell Ackoff, if you have only a hammer and a saw in your research “toolbox,” then all problems are hammer and saw problems.]

Recently, I read three “non-fiction” books by journalists, Bob Woodward (State of Denial and Plan of Attack) and Ron Suskind (The One Percent Doctrine) to gain a better understanding of U.S. security policy.  The jacket on Woodward’s book states, “Plan of Attack is the definitive account of how and why President George W. Bush, his war council, and allies launched a preemptive attack to topple Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq.”  The jacket on Suskind’s book claims, “Suskind tells us what actually occurred over the next three years by tracing the steps of the officials who oversee the “’war on terror’ and the men and women who are actually fighting the fight.”  The rest of the text on both jackets implies these authors will provide the reader in-depth knowledge and understanding using inside information on the people and events they are discussing.

Before I start my rant I want to acknowledge that Woodward and Suskind are respected, best-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning journalists and authors, and I do not wish to imply any intentional mischief.   However, as a student of research methods, I am troubled by how journalists present factual information.  I think they blur the distinction between creative speculation and verifiable “facts.”  For example, Woodward might have a passage in which he says Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld held a private, SECRET [my emphasis] meeting in the White House on a particular day to discuss WMD.  Woodward then provides very detailed dialogue between the participants, complete with expletives and descriptions of their body language during that meeting.  I presume Woodward is doing this to help me understand the interpersonal dynamics and decision making process within the Bush White House; and to make his book fun to read.  Or if you are a conspiracy buff or cynic, he just wants to sell books.  What is that saying, “the facts and nothing but the facts please?”  Regardless, as a researcher from an unrelated field, I find this troubling on several levels.

First, how would Woodward know (a) if that “secret” meeting was even held; (b) if it was held, who were the participants; (c) what did they discuss; or (d) how did they behave toward each other during that meeting?  But even if one person attending that meeting “leaked” to Woodward “on the record” about a secret meeting, what is the probability the “leaker” could recall the exact words, gestures, etc. – especially when “movers and shakers” are in meetings almost non-stop, every day.  Heck, I didn’t remember my wife asking me to pick up some milk and bread on my way home today!

But even if a meeting participant had no moral or ethical issues revealing publically what took place during a SECRET White House meeting, and that person had a photographic memory, how can we be sure that that person will report the conversation accurately and honestly, without being selective or self-serving?  I mean, who would not want history to record him as a wise and influential, advisor or leader?  So much of the journalists’ writing strikes me as fiction and creative speculation – of questionable validity.  Which is fine, if it is acknowledged as fiction or an editorial position.  But from a research methods perspective, is it a reliable way to gain information or insight?  That is, how much weight should I give to books and articles written by journalists because it is hard for me to distinguish fact from fiction?

It is also troubling on another level.  In the U.S., the media and freedom of the press guarantees exist, to allow the media to be “fair and balanced” (© Fox News) in the performance of its “due diligence” responsibilities on behalf of American citizens, so those citizens can give their “informed consent” to their leaders.  Most non-partisan, news media watchdogs point out that the majority of journalists select and report events through a left-of-centre, liberal lens.  Is the process further corrupted if these journalists can make up stuff and publish it as non-fiction?  What if a journalist wants to demonize, marginalize, or ridicule a person they don’t like or agree with – like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others?  Books written by journalists are ideal vehicles for selective presentation of facts, misrepresentation, spin, and character assassination.  Why, because if I can make up conversations or take words out-of-context, I can make anyone look out-of-touch, insensitive, extreme, imperial, or almost anything I wish.  Of course, the opposite is also true if journalists like the person they are writing about, like Obama.  Bernard Goldberg’s book, “A Slobbering Love Affair: The True and Pathetic Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media,” talks about that side of the coin.

But back to the research methods issue, should we rely on books written by journalists on public policy issues simply because there is nothing better?  If yes, how much weight should we give their accounts?  Are there other sources we can use to check the “facts?” I understand that these journalists often get it right but isn’t that an “ends justify the means” kind of justification?  I don’t know the answers.  All I know is I need a glass of single malt when I read Woodward telling me exactly what Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, or whoever said in confidence, behind closed doors.