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HSEC 690
Ideology, Discourse and Conflict

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"Some of the best weapons do not shoot."
-- U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field manual FM 3-24, Dec. 2006

Homeland security in the broad sense includes counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, internal defense, law enforcement, unconventional warfare, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, and other areas. All of these areas critically involve various forms of influence: interactions with and communications to relevant populations, groups, and actors; processing, exploitation, and dissemination of intelligence relating to threat groups, relevant populations, and their interactions; understanding the diverse human ecosystems involved (including ideological factors and political dynamics); and understanding the dynamics of recruitment, motivation, and action in both physical and symbolic realms.

Among the four pillars of national power – Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic (DIME) -- the INFORMATIONAL element is increasingly recognized as primary.

Control over bodies is secondary to control over minds. Especially in the age of mass personal communications, projection of influence over individuals and populations (whether through words, images, music, performance, or other symbolic means) is the primary factor in the success or failure of all kinds of endeavors, including political, military, and humanitarian ones. Even kinetic action is a means of psychological impact and influence (as in the case of the attacks of 9/11). According to Vladimir Tismaneanu, a Harvard scholar of political transition, “individuals need something more than bread and water: human beings need to make sense of their very existence, to find a cause worth living for [and, one may add, fighting for], to construct a set of values that allow one to make distinctions between good and evil” (x). Symbolic sense-making is fundamental to the survival of human groups and the construction of collective identities, including those of nations, groups, movements, and so on.

Political struggle today is to a large extent struggle over meaning conducted through symbols. Global conflicts increasingly involve asymmetrical confrontations with diverse networks of actors in loose, horizontal coalitions coalescing around shared narratives and symbols, often based on a common ideological (political or religious) identity or simply on the idea of struggle itself as a unifying, motivating, and organizing mechanism. As many scholars have noted, “[o]ne of the key implications of the Information Age for global politics is the dramatically increased significance of the broadcasting or projection of information, through a variety of means, as an instrument of power” (Malone, Jeff and Armistead, Leigh. “Speaking Out of Both Sides of Your Mouth: Approaches to Perception Management in Washington, D.C. and Canberra.” in Macdonald, Scot. Propaganda and Information Warfare in the Twenty-First Century. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. 139-151.)

It is thus increasingly recognized that:

  • politics, security, and even warfare today have become intimately connected to information, influence, and perception management, and that
  • every human action carries symbolic meanings and thus has potential implications for power and security.

The course is designed to introduce you to the complex relationships between, on the one hand, the use of symbols and messages of all kinds, and, on the other hand, power, culture, human motivation and action, and, ultimately, conflict and security.

To navigate this complex realm, we will become familiar with some basic tools of rhetorical analysis, understood as the study of how people use symbols to shape attitudes, influence thoughts, and motivate actions in other people. We will also examine historical examples of the use of propaganda and psychological operations, including the American, Nazism, Communism, the two world wars, Islamic extremism, Russia, China, and selected social movements, insurgencies, revolutions, and criminal organizations to see how they use language and other means of influence and perception management to promote their causes, secure and exercise power, and achieve their strategic and tactical aims.

The major topics in the course include

  • Understanding the Power of Rhetoric: Recruiting, Mobilizing, Persuading, Framing
  • Propaganda as related to Political Ideologies: The examples of Nazism, Communism, and Islamic Extermism
  • War Propaganda and Psychological Warfare: From the American Revolution to ISIS, Russia, and China
  • The Growing Importance of Narrative and Visuality (images, video)
  • Propaganda of the Deed: Action and Performance as Propaganda
  • The Return of Political Warfare: Grey Zones, Bots, and Artificial Intelligence

This course is very much an effort at collective inquiry. I do not have all the answers. What I offer is a set of concepts, models, and cases that we can apply to new data. While much is known about the mechanisms of, for instance, Nazi or Communist propaganda, we are just learning about the dynamics of radical Islamist propaganda, the recruitment strategies of various extremist or criminal groups, or how to deal with the challenges of global strategic communication in the age of digital media (as in the case of Russia’s fake news campaign). As part of our inquiry into these mechanisms and into the historical and contemporary “wars of ideas,” we will examine texts, events, videos, and other symbolic material, some of which will be supplied or discovered by the students and shared in class in the course of student presentations and group work. Your contributions in terms of the background and experience you bring to the class as well as the materials you find, analyze, and share are an important component of the class.

This is an interdisciplinary course for graduate students. The purpose of this class is to produce leaders from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds who can effectively and efficiently identify, design, and mobilize the appropriate community resources to prevent, deter, preempt, defend against, and respond to criminal acts, terrorist attacks, other acts of war or natural disasters as they impact homeland security on the local, regional, national and international levels.

Homeland security encompasses a grouping of diverse missions and functions that are performed by a wide variety of organizations on the local, state, federal and international levels. Consequently, there are many definitions of homeland security. For the purposes of this course, homeland security is defined as:

"The prevention, deterrence and preemption of, and defense against, external and internal threats and aggression targeted at U.S. (or another sovereign state's) territory, sovereignty, population, and infrastructure, as well as the management of the consequences of such threats and aggression and other domestic emergencies."

Familiarity with the way symbols, words, and all kinds of communications (including visual and digital) work to generate or ameliorate conflict, construct collective identities for political actors, promulgate ideologies and recruit supporters for ideas and actions, shape attitudes and behaviors, and potentially help predict and prevent actions across a spectrum of environments, from local to global, is an important aspect of the preparation of security professionals.

Learning Outcomes

  • Analyze all sorts of rhetorical artifacts (texts, images, actions, performances, displays, even architecture and urban design) in terms of the fundamental elements of persuasion and perception management: ethos (persuasive self-presentation), pathos (emotional appeal), logos (argumentative strategies), framing, target audience, purpose, theme, commonplaces, key terms, codes, and others;
  • Identify the different genres of security-related communications (propaganda, public diplomacy, public affairs, psychological warfare, strategic communications);
  • Recognize and describe the frames, themes, commonplaces, key terms, and codes characteristic of major contemporary political ideologies and movements (Nazism, Communism, Islamism);
  • Recognize and describe the evolving approaches to, means, and media of propaganda, influence, and perception management over the 20th and 21st centuries;
  • Understand the role of narratives in shaping collective perceptions, beliefs, and values, and in motivating action and recognize key contemporary narratives motivating America’s various adversaries;
  • Understand the role of visual images in security as well as analyze visual images (including still and video images) in terms of how they work to achieve their effects;
  • Understand and analyze action and performance as means of propaganda and influence;
  • Understand the information challenges of the contemporary security environment and the technological advances (such as Artificial Intelligence) that drive change in that environment.


  • Weekly written responses to readings and assignments, typically 1-2 double-spaced pages (sometimes these will be simply your reflections and thoughts about the readings; at other times, I will give you specific instructions of what I’d like you to do in your response)
  • Student presentation brief analyses of specific artifacts for group discussion as we go along
  • Final paper (10+ double-spaced pages) may be an analysis of any of the following: a propaganda artifact (text, narrative, video, film, symbol, act, performance, and so on) in its context, a specific influence campaign, or some other form of messaging or communication characteristic of an ideology, movement, nation, group, or activity. It can be a historical or contemporary case study of some deployment of propaganda, influence, or perception management; an analysis of a rhetorical artifact or symbolic action; exploration of a theoretical or practical problem or issue raised by the class; research into the communication/symbolic strategies of some nation, group, movement, or ideology; and so on. Please feel free to explore topics that may be related to your past, current, or future work or assignment. Remember that your project may become the basis of your thesis or program final project (as they have been in the case of many students).


Your grade in the course will be based on the quality of your written work (written responses and final paper, preparation (class discussion and any presentations or analyses), and on your general class participation. Specifically:

  • Weekly written responses to readings and assignments (30 percent of the grade)
  • Student presentation (20 percent of the grade)
  • Final paper (30 percent of the grade)
  • Class participation (20 percent of the grade)