top of page

The “Reality” of War and the War on Truth – Insights from an Exercise in Source Analysis

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Joakim Berndtsson | 20 December 2018

The 2018 TIME Magazine Person of the Year is a group of journalists, including Jamal Khashoggi who, by most accounts, was murdered upon entering Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. In his article entitled “The Guardians and the War on Truth,” TIME journalist Karl Vick writes about the increasingly precarious and often dangerous life of journalists and media personalities around the world. Vick also notes a sustained “assault on truth” through misinformation and skewed facts, which are frequently transmitted through social media.

In this context, our responsibility as researchers and teachers to engage in continuous, honest and open critical reflection about the nature of “truth” and the selection of facts to support it has seldom –if ever– been greater. While techniques of source analysis or source criticism have been used for decades by journalists and historians, this primary analytical skill has taken on a new sense of importance and urgency. So much so, that state authorities such as the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) identifies source analysis as a key part of Sweden’s psychological defense.

As university teachers, we need to find innovative ways of making source analysis an integral part of our educational programs both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Therefore, we have devised an exercise for our students in International Relations that sensitizes them to the abovementioned challenges by providing hands-on training in the techniques of source analysis at a very early stage of their education. At the same time, the exercise allows them to deepen their understanding of the realities and cruelties of international violent conflict and war.

In our introductory course in International Relations, we work with a historical case: The My Lai (Song My) massacre of March 16, 1968. The events on that fatal day of the Vietnam War have been discussed widely in research, in documentaries, and in the media. The exercise presents the students, who work in small project groups of 4-6 individuals, with two plausible but conflicting accounts of the event. One document, the official Combat Action Report filed by Lt. Col. Frank A. Barker presents the events as a highly successful military operation. The other account, a letter by whistleblower Ronald Ridenhour, outlines a brutal massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. military personnel.

After participating in a brief, one-hour lecture on the foundations of source analysis, the students are tasked with analyzing the veracity and credibility of the two conflicting accounts. Additionally, they have to identify the number of combatant and civilian deaths that resulted from the incident, as well as identify the person or persons who gave the order to fire upon non-combatants. To answer these questions, they are encouraged to draw upon and critically evaluate additional sources. There is a rich body of academic literature on the massacre, a wealth of journalistic accounts in addition to tens of thousands of pages of official investigations.

Up until now, about 600 students have participated in the exercise, and feedback has, overall, been positive. A majority of participants have deemed the assignment important as training in methods and techniques of source analysis, but also as a valuable way of approaching the “realities of war” through a historical case. As we seem to have entered the age of “alternative facts,” and a time in which political actors proclaim that “truth isn’t truth,” the skills that this exercise seeks to develop are more important than ever, both in academia and beyond.

For a more detailed discussion of the pedagogical rationale underlying the exercise, feel free to consult our recent article published in Peace Review.

If you are interested in adopting the exercise for your own teaching, you can find an electronic copy of the instructions for the assignment here

If you have ideas regarding how the exercise could be developed further, or if you have questions, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us.


The Authors

Arne Wackenhut has recently finished has PhD in Peace and Development Studies, and now works as a lecturer at the School of Global Studies. His teaching philosophy builds on student-centered learning, and places an emphasis on teaching and learning activities that encourage deep learning.

Joakim Berndtsson currently works as Senior Lecturer at the School of Global Studies. Besides his work as a teacher and researcher, he is also Deputy Head of Department for Education. He finished his PhD in 2009. During his undergraduate studies, he majored in International Relations and Political Science. He also holds a Master degree in English Literature.



bottom of page