How Literature Can Enhance Intelligence Analysis

Some months ago while watching a televised performance of the Scottish play, it occurred to me that dramaturgy would be an interesting potential to explore in relation to alternative intelligence analysis. Here was a staging of a whole host of issues that the intelligence analyst is confronted with on the job: early warning, denial and deception, human leadership profiling, and assassination to name but a few. From the very first scene of the three witches providing “early warning” and nature foreshadowing the impeding gloom and doom of the story to the self-reflections of a king (and queen) losing the power of their title to the subtle change in patterns of light vs. dark in all their metaphorical expressions, the play is full of lessons and analogies that the intelligence analyst could use as a prompt to boost his/her critical thinking skills.

What a pleasant surprise then, to discover last week a paper by Jeffrey White, “Shakespeare for Analysts: Literature and Intelligence”, published by the Joint Military Intelligence College. In this paper White makes a powerful argument for the value of reading literature both in terms of teaching new analysts ways to expand their imagination in order to be able to better discover patterns and make sound interpretations and also aiding seasoned analysts gain more multifaceted perspectives on human behavior in complex situations.

In Shakespeare’s historical and tragic plays, White finds a wealth of resources pertaining to human behavior that he claims is of enduring interest to intelligence analysis: conspiracy, treason, assassination, moral corruption, poisoning, civil war, inner-circle behavior, political relationships, the effects of asymmetry in culture, power, and personality, succession, rivalry and faction, loyalty, political violence, the analysis of motives, and the handling of ambiguity and uncertainty.

The paper is not only an intellectual reading exercise; it also provides concrete sets of questions that the author has developed through his reading of Shakespeare to aid the analyst frame the issue he/she is tasked to analyze.

Here is a crunched exerpt:

Questions to examine when looking at a leader in a position of great power
Source: Shakespeare’s Henry V

  • How did he prepare for his future role?
    How did he exercise leadership?
    Was he self-aware in doing this?
    How did others – allies, enemies and subordinates – see him?
    What was his response to the possibility of failure and defeat?
    How did he manage the uncertainty he faced?
    How did he weigh the responsibility that he had to carry?

Questions to examine when looking at a weak leader in a position of great power
Source: Shakespeare’s Henry II

  • What are the dimensions of leadership failure?
    What is it like to lose power?
    What is it like to believe yourself to be in charge, but to actually be failing?
    What is it like to see yourself as a failure, and know it’s your fault?
    What is it like to see your opponent win?
    How do your supporters see you as you lose?
    What is it like to usurp a crown?
    Is success ever final?

Questions to examine the pure exercise of force
Source: Shakespeare’s Richard III

  • What is it like to covet the throne?
    What is it like to be willing to do anything to win it?
    Can one enjoy oneself in the gaining of it?
    Can a person be evil and still have admirable qualities?
    What are the limits on the exercise of power and the use of force?
    What are the implications of evil at the pinnacle of leadership?

Questions to examine civil war
Source: Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy

  • What are the key dynamics of a civil war?
    How does violence expand?
    How does violence become personal?
    How does the use of violence evolve as a civil war emerges?
    How is violence justified, to the self and to the group?
    What kinds of behavior and actions does it produce?
    What do the leaders see as the civil war process begins and progresses?
    What do they do in response?

Questions to examine plotting a coup
Source: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

  • When is a coup justified?
    What rationalizations are employed?
    When is the right time?
    How do the plotters see one another?
    How does opposition arise?
    What are the internal dynamics?
    What is the range of behaviors among the principals?
    What are the consequences, intended and unintended?

Questions to examine family matters, the behavior of members of small groups or “inner circles” – could be particularly useful when looking at clans, tribes and some organized crime groups
Source: Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI

  • Is “family” important in the politics of “tribal” or “lineal” societies?
    How do the relatives of leaders affect the political situation?
    Are family and political power inseparable in dynastic or traditional societies?
    What are the consequences of poor family political management?

Questions to examine the role of women in politics
Source: Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI

  • Can women play important political roles in traditional societies?
    What are these roles and what are their limits?
    What tools and methods do women have available?
    How do they actually exert power and influence?
    Under what circumstances can they emerge as political players in their own right?
    Do women have any special advantages?

Questions to examine loyalty and honor
Source: Shakespeare’s King John

  • Are loyalty and honor absolute or contingent?
    What is the basis for loyalty to political leaders?
    How is loyalty won and kept?
    What are the boundaries of loyalty?
    Is anyone totally loyal or completely honorable?
    Why do people break oaths or change sides in a political contest?
    What justifications do they employ?
    What are the political and military consequences of dishonorable actions?

White concludes with the sound observation that literature, and the works of Shakespeare in particular, is a good starting point for examining political psychology. It helps the analyst with pattern recognition on a basic human level that transcends cultural differences. I find this argument particularly viable and would add that, the reading of myths has a similar power to evoke patterns that are universally applicable even if the particular mythological hero is associated with specific geo-cultural characteristics. There is a difference between how an individual and a group would react to particular circumstances. Where the group reaction might help define certain cultural peculiarities, the individual reaction to a situation of fear, power coveting, revenge, loyalty, etc., in my view, follows a more general line, one not specific to culture, ethnicity and/or religion, but specific to the “human condition”.

Finally, in terms of concrete application of literature to the process of intelligence analysis, I must fully voice my support for White’s argument that reading good literature contributes to the analyst’s ability to write better – a largely undervalued and underestimated skill in intelligence analysis. In White’s words:

“As we go down the road to “digital production” and “knowledge packets”, concepts that are fundamentally antithetical to story telling and sense making, it will be increasingly important that quality writing continue to be one of the essential elements by which we measure quality analysis. As his skills as a playwright matured, Shakespeare hardly wasted a word. ”

See here Perseus resources on Shakespeare.