***This webpage was developed in April 2003 and has not been updated.
The U.S. is at war right now as you're taking a writing class. How can we understand the significance of this concurrence? Certainly, each of us has something personal at stake in the war--whether because we have loved ones in the military in Iraq, whether we are ourselves Iraqi, Arab or Muslim in this land of immigrants, whether we are worried about safety and terrorism in the U.S. itself, whether we are overwhelmed by the scale of death and destruction in this war, whether we are struggling with the obligations of patriotism, whether we are trying to sort out questions of right and wrong, whether we are wondering about the future position of the U.S. internationally, whether we are concerned about civil liberties domestically, and any number of other urgent and agonizing questions that bring the war home to us personally.
That you are taking a writing class means that you have the opportunity this quarter to explore, challenge, sort through, analyze, further develop and express your thoughts and feelings relating to the war in Iraq. A key point that I ask all students to consider, not only under these circumstances, is that you need not see writing as only for the sake of a grade or a degree. Rather, writing can be seen as an avenue for you to claim your voice as an intellectual; to join longstanding conversations with other writers and thinkers, both living and dead, contributing new insights and analyses; and to engage in current dialogues, both with those in your immediate communities of classroom, campus, workplace, friends and family, as well as those outside your acquaintance who are reading and writing in response to the current situations in the U.S. and the world. The war makes it impossible, perhaps, not to confront the relevance of writing and its potential effects.
As you will hear me emphasize again later in the quarter when we tackle topic selection in greater detail, the college-level essays that I assign you to write in this class are not designed just to have you put forth your opinion, however well you may support it, but to have you discover new questions that will motivate you to seek out new information, perspectives, and connections, all of which will challenge you to move beyond broad yes/no, for/against, pro/con, either/or kinds of debates. Ultimately, college-level writing asks you to contribute something new to already existing conversations rather than regurgitate information or just choose a position as though you were responding to a TV poll. The more rigorous and difficult the critical thinking you do at various stages, the more rewarding and rich will be the research process and learning experience for you.
This page is designed to provide you tools and some possible leads in order to support your efforts to research and write about the war. It describes the process of narrowing topics and finding good questions, discusses the different types of arguments and research methods you may encounter or utilize yourself, and gives a broad (but not exhaustive) overview of the different areas or topics on which you might write and research. There's a lot of information and explanation here. Do read through the entire page carefully, but don't feel as though it all has to make sense in your first reading. We will return to re-read and make use of different sections of the page as we move along through the quarter.
Note 1: As is indicated in the "Diversity" section of the Syllabus page for your course, "Since you are taking this course during a time of war, it is also important that you are thoughtful and circumspect rather than disrespectful and hateful with regard to Iraqis, Muslims, Arabs, or immigrants as various issues arise." If you feel that you will be unable to maintain respect in your public expressions and dialogue as we consider the perspectives of Iraqis, protestors, Arabs, Muslims, independent journalists, and immigrants, as well as those of supporters of the war, the U.S. government, the military, analysts and many other people both in the U.S. and around the world, you may decide that this course is not for you; at the very least, you may want to speak with me to explain your point of view and gain clarification.
Note 2: This webpage is a work in progress, so the content will change periodically. Please feel free to send comments and suggestions to Vik Bahl <email@example.com>. In particular, please suggest additions to the list of "research areas" below, as well as links to websites and articles that you think are especially useful in giving us information, providing compelling and plausible analyses, or illuminating issues and connections that are commonly misunderstood. Version 1.1.2 (4/10/03)
Narrowing a topic can refer either to reducing the scope of a topic or to making your approach to a topic specific and explicit. For example, if you were interested in writing about refugee populations that are created through war, you could obviously narrow the topic down to refugees in Afghanistan only rather than ALL refugees--in Iraq, Somalia, etc. You can also narrow the topic further by deciding that you want to look at Afghani refugees created during the period of Soviet occupation; this way you are not obligating yourself to present the refugee situation as a result of the U.S. war in 2001. Another option might be to compare the refugee rates and conditions during the period of Taliban rule with the post-2001 period. Beyond reducing the scope of your inquiry, you can also narrow your topic according to the approach you will take or the angle on which you will focus, which means that you clearly specify the question you are posing in order to direct your research and writing. Your answer to that main question - the formulation of which will continue to evolve as you research, read, think and begin to write - becomes the main claim or thesis in your essay.
Above, I say that in choosing and narrowing your topic, you should move beyond broad yes/no, for/against, pro/con (either/or) questions. Such questions include whether or not you think the war in Iraq is right or wrong, justified or unjustified, necessary or unnecessary, or whether the benefits outweigh the harm. These are essential questions for us to ask and answer, both personally and collectively, and it would be difficult and undesirable to avoid them. However, answers to these kinds of questions can be seen as made up of answers to smaller questions, which require their own careful research and argumentation. For example, if you support the war, you may argue that it is necessary to fight terrorism; if you oppose the war, you might do so because you think the war is really for the control of oil. My recommendation is that you pursue the smaller questions as the focus of your writing; in the example, ask and answer a question about oil rather than whether the war is justified or not. Your answers to the smaller questions will no doubt make it evident to your readers where you stand on the big ones. You may want to mention your answer to the "bigger" question in your introduction or conclusion for emphasis, or if you think your audience may be sleeping! The following is an extended example of how we can productively move beyond yes/no and other kinds of either/or questions.
Example: From Yes/No to More Complex Questions
* Let's say your initial question is, "Is the war justified?" If you want to answer the question (the answer to the question would be your main claim or thesis) by saying "yes," you would have to give reasons and other kinds of support: "The decision for the U.S. to go to war in Iraq was justified BECAUSE ...." Your reasons might be "Iraq has weapons of mass destruction (WMD)" and/or "Iraq has not met the requirements of UN resolutions" and/or "Iraqis need to be rid of Saddam Hussein to allow for democracy," etc.
* Each of these reasons can become topics in their own right, all of which can require new questions, new research, and new reasoning. We can come up with a yes/no question for each reason as well, e.g., "DOES Iraq have weapons of mass destruction?," BUT we can also come up with various other questions that are not yes/no: "Why was Iraq singled out for the monitoring and dismantling of its weapons programs?" "What were the factors and forces that led to the departure of the weapons inspectors in 1998?" "Why was there disagreement between the U.S. and the UN weapons inspectors on interpreting the monitoring and dismantling of Iraq's WMD?" "What specific conditions or procedures would have made the weapons inspections more successful?"
* You can see the difference between the first question - "Does Iraq have WMD?" - and the other four. In general, questions that begin with "did," "does," "is," and "should" will lead to either/or answers. Questions that begin with "how," "why," and "what" are more open-ended and often more complex.
* How/why/what questions, however, are not automatically great choices for argumentative essays or research projects because they may be questions that only ask you to give information. Although you cannot answer questions like "What are weapons of mass destruction?" or "How did Saddam Hussein acquire WMD?" with a yes or no, you would most likely merely provide information that you had found written down someplace by someone else. These questions would not likely invite you to do independent research, critical thinking and analysis, nor sort through competing perspectives and interpretations of other writers.
* However, a question like "Why was Iraq singled out for the monitoring and dismantling of its weapons programs?" cannot just be answered by looking up some facts or finding information. In fact, there is not a single answer that all analysts would agree upon. Some might point to the aggression against Kuwait that led to the 1991 Gulf War; others might emphasize the record of Hussein's human rights violations; others might suggest that weakening or containing Iraq was important for the U.S. and Israel to guarantee their strategic interests in the area; and others might argue that the U.S. and British desire to control Iraq's oil reserves is key to understanding the entire intricate set of events in the 1990s, including the first gulf war, the weapons inspections, the economic sanctions, and the current war. There are many, many more explanations (claims/arguments) that writers could give. Your job would be to answer the main question by sorting through these various arguments, evaluating their forms of support, understanding their disagreements, and then formulating your own answer based on that rigorous work of research and thinking.
I hope that the extended example above makes clear the difference between quickly declaring that you are for or against something and then even supporting that view, on the one hand, vs. carefully formulating a richer question that will urge you to seek out new perspectives and analyses to allow for a growing depth of knowledge on your part. It's impossible to know everything, but it is possible to begin seeing connections between the different pieces of the puzzle. We can think of virtually all topics and issues as complex puzzles, and the war in Iraq is certainly no exception. Even if you cannot know each piece fully or even adequately, your in-depth research and critical thinking with regard to even individual pieces of the puzzle will inform your broader understanding of the big picture, giving you well-founded confidence in your analysis and perspective, which can even become the basis for lifelong commitments and action on your part.
Writers can pose hundreds if not thousands of questions with regard to the war! If the purpose of academic writing is to discover, develop and share your thoughts as new contributions to ongoing public conversations, consider that your answers as well as your questions can make your contribution unique and compelling. A carefully formulated question can offer a new angle or way of seeing that your readers hadn't quite thought of before, but nevertheless one that speaks to their needs, interests or curiosity. Finding a provocative, compelling, and useful question is itself a process with many twists and turns. Don't assume that you can know the best question to ask before you begin reading to familiarize yourself with background information; your question will continue to change, perhaps drastically, even after you begin researching in a more focused way to move beyond basic information. Remain open to the evolution of your main question, but make attempts to state the question clearly at all of the stages of the research process, even the early ones, rather than first waiting to learn all that you think you need to know.
We have already distinguished above between those kinds of research questions that ask you to gather and report information vs. those that require you to sort through multiple sources that sometimes conflict with one another, to evaluate the credibility of and disagreements between various perspectives, and to put forth your own analysis and argument by drawing support from sources as needed, while also responding to sources with which you disagree. A question like "What are the main economic exports of Venezuela?" is informational, while "How have the conflicts around Hugo Chavez's presidency affected the prospects for economic expansion in Venezuela?" clearly requires more work than looking up an encyclopedia entry.
Even if you are not merely posing a question that would only require you to look up information, you should be aware of the numerous types of arguments or disagreements that you can enter. Remember that an academic argument requires that reasonable people, even after rigorous research and critical thinking, can reach different conclusions or take different approaches to the same question or issue, in short that reasonable people can disagree. Allow your initial reading in your research area to help you identify the type (not just content) of argument that you would like to make. Disagreements can be about
* Facts, events and information (what is true and
false): Does Iraq have
WMD? Did Iraq kick out
weapons inspectors in 1998?
Did the US bug the offices of members of the UN security council?
Research methods refer to the various means by which you can gather data, evidence, other people's perspectives and analyses, and so on. The purpose of gathering all of this information is not merely to prove or support your claim (thesis or hypothesis), but also to test the main claim you think you are going to make and to allow it to evolve. Moreover, it's important to remember that data and evidence rarely speak for themselves; you have to make them relevant to your claim through reasoning. Testing your claim and submitting the evidence to your own critical reasoning mean that you do not discard material or views that you disagree with; you must make a fair attempt to understand and explain opposing views in their complexity, respond to them when you think they are erroneous, and concede to them when you think that there are valid arguments that you cannot overcome. In the process, your own claim may change, whether slightly or radically.
If you are doing new research on a particular topic or issue, it is likely that you have some sense of what you don't already know. Before you begin any research, you should certainly reflect critically on what you do and don't know. Relating to what you do know or think you know, ask yourself how you got that information or knowledge? Was it from TV or a political speech? Regarding the analyses, perspectives, and values you may have in relation to the war, again, ask yourself where those came from? To what extent have you accepted ideas and explanations as they were given to you, and to what extent have you gone through a process of critical thinking to sort through competing sources of information and viewpoints to reach your own conclusions?
In addition to making use of libraries (Holman Library @ Green River College, King County Library System), magazines, books, electronic databases of articles (Expanded Academic ASAP, ProQuest Direct), government documents, the World Wide Web, and other "secondary" sources, please refer to the Research Methods in the Social Sciences page for methods that will allow you to generate your own primary research. By identifying a particular group of people, you can use a survey to get some sense of that group's experiences and attitudes. By doing an ethnography of a community or institutional space (like a classroom), you can identify and analyze group dynamics that the participants themselves may not be aware of. By asking for volunteers for a psychological experiment, you may be able to ascertain the effects of a certain stimulus on people's behavior. Here are two examples:
Example 1: Consider that on Feb. 15, 2003, 55,000 people in Seattle marched in protest against the war from Westlake Center to the INS building. Even though these 55,000 people might have shared something in common, a researcher might be interested in understanding the diversity of this group. Beyond their basic opposition to the war, did they have any specific differences in viewpoints, perhaps about their reasons for opposition? Were people marching as individuals or as part of organizations, families or church groups? Was this their first time protesting something? Were they there at the WTO protests in 1999? Were there meaningful differences in viewpoint or attitude based on gender, age, race, class, etc.? A researcher could have passed out a carefully designed survey to a percentage of the marchers to begin answering these questions; the survey would have generated quantitative data. A team of researchers could have interviewed a smaller number of protestors but gotten more detailed information and stories, an approach that would have generated qualitative data.
Example 2: There has been serious concern among parents, educators, and psychologists about the effects of the war, TV images, and the threat of terrorism on children in the U.S. (an inquiry into the effects of the war on Iraqi children would take us in radically different directions). A research study could do one or both of the following things: (a) Characterize the responses of kids to different kinds of images or stories about the war, based on type of image, based on number of images or duration of viewing time, based on whether an adult was around to explain the images and stories, based on the kind of explanation given, etc. (b) Using the research in (a), propose a curriculum for students (K-4) that will alleviate the negative effects of the war and create a sense of empowerment for them.
Your research question (what you're trying to find out) is likely to determine the kind of research method that you will choose. At the same time, perhaps a research method is attractive and will help you formulate a corresponding research question. Another strategy for exploring both questions and methods is to speculate about the various research projects that different kinds of scholars might take up (review the Social Science Disciplines page). What research questions is a political scientist likely to ask vs. an anthropologist? What research methods would be most suitable for those distinct questions?
As should be clear from all of the discussion above, it would be an exercise in frustration and futility to attempt to write about the U.S.-Iraq war in its entirety. In the subsections below, I have broken down the broad topic of the war into several categories, which you can think of as subtopic areas. Even these subtopic categories are far too broad, however, and there are numerous sub-subtopics for research within each umbrella category. Recalling the section above on "Narrowing Topics, Finding Questions," note that even after you identify a sub-subtopic (or one of your own) or question below, you still have to formulate your own issue or research question, hopefully one that is not yes/no, good/bad, for/against, or either/or. And remember that even if you need to find information on something, the purpose of your paper is NOT merely to report information, but to make an argument. Many of these subtopics, sub-subtopics, and questions could lead you to years of study and analysis. Think carefully about the scope of the research you are undertaking; stretch yourselves both conceptually and practically, but don't bite off too much more than you can chew!
Note that these subtopic categories are themselves up for interpretation; after all, I am the one who has divided up the topic in this way. I can assure you that there are many more subtopics and sub-subtopics than those listed here, as well as alternate ways of thinking about the divisions and overlap between the various subtopics themselves. I encourage you to contest the framework below if you feel it doesn’t provide an accurate treatment of some issues, or to add subtopics and sub-subtopics based on your research and interests. In an updated version of the "Research Areas" section, within each subtopic category, there will also be selected links to articles and websites that illustrate some of the issues that are being debated by different researchers and analysts (please send links that you think would be appropriate).
Some (sub-sub)topics might appear to be old or outdated. For example, we might say that the question of how much time the UN weapons inspectors should have been given is no longer current or relevant since the war has already begun. Researchers often return to earlier topics, events, issues that most people have long forgotten about. In some instances, especially in the case of government documents, some evidence or information may not be available for several decades! This doesn't mean that it is not important for us as researchers to interrogate a particular event, issue or topic vigorously, even if our access to information and evidence is severely restricted. Think about why it might be important to reinvestigate old events, whether from 100 years or one month ago, in addition to being concerned about what is going on this very day in the war.
Note: This is the least complete section of this webpage, so look for changes in subsequent updates.
With regard to the war in particular, numerous questions have arisen about the role of the media. Here is a sampling:
- To what extent are "embedded" journalists
free to express their honest views?
For many of us, because it is so pervasive, we cannot help but get a good deal of our information and viewpoints from the mainstream media (TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards, etc.). Mainstream news coverage includes such outlets as CNN, MSNBC, and Time.
ALTERNATIVE / INDEPENDENT MEDIA
Many have argued that mainstream media is not objective and that it does not accurately or adequately represent the wide range of relevant views and analyses that are available (look for a separate webpage on "Media Literacy" over the next few weeks). How might additional research and exposure to a broader range of sources of information and viewpoints affect your understanding and viewpoints? Outside of mainstream media, "alternative" media sources are defined as those media venues that are not owned or influenced by large corporations or governments; these include alternative newsmagazines, news websites, radio programs, and even some TV programs and stations available through satellite or cable. Here are some links to alternative media sources:
KBCS 91.3 FM (Seattle/Bellevue)
Public Access TV
CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
These are various factors that have been given at different times by different people to explain the lead up to the war in Iraq, as well as the final decision to begin it. Keep in mind that all of these factors would need serious research and reflection; don't accept any of the factors at face value.
- Terrorism and 9/11
- Death and injury of U.S. and British soldiers
- Freedom and democratization
For virtually any topic you choose on the war, you will run into one or more of the terms below. None of these terms can be taken for granted, or merely looked up in a dictionary. There is considerable dispute, for example, about how we should define "terrorism" or "patriotism," which suggests that language is not neutral but rather is itself a site of political struggle. If you choose to focus on a topic in this section, be prepared for complex and subtle conceptual arguments, even philosophical ones, and conduct them fairly and critically. If you choose a different topic area altogether, be aware that you will most likely still have to tackle some of the challenges of sorting through and assessing the range of definitions and interpretations of the concepts below.
- Magnitude of protests
- Cost of the war (requested vs. projected)
- Soldiers' health (depleted uranium, vaccines, etc.)
In this section particularly, one might be tempted just to find out information (dates, events, figures, etc.) and report it. You may find that you need background information related to subtopics in this section in order to work on your research arguments for a completely different section, but if you make one of the following subtopics the focus of your research, it has to be because you are concerned about the debates and arguments related to history, region and context, not because you are simply locating and reporting well-established facts.
- History of Iraq
- United Nations (history, processes, contradictions,
equity and democracy, security council vs. general assembly, past security
council resolutions, who is left
- Depleted Uranium (effects on U.S. military and on
As we know, everything is ultimately connected to everything else. At first glance, it may appear that the issues and topics listed below are completely unrelated to the war in Iraq. After some consideration and reading, however, you might find that there are some significant connections, either obvious or more indirect. In this section especially, the questions you ask will be crucial to the research you find and the conclusions you can reach.
- U.S. Budget crises