The Plagiarized Field Manual, Part 1

(This post, the first in a series, builds upon, revises, and condenses a number of emails sent in somewhat different form to WPA-L, the writing program administrators’ listserv.)

The Army recently published a revised version of its field manual (FM) on counterinsurgency, FM 3-24. Field manuals are how-to guides for soldiers: step-by-step, easy-to-follow instructions for everything you can imagine you might have to do in wartime, from loading a boat to reading a map. They’re some of the most clearly written documents I’ve seen, and they’re also all in the public domain, since — like any writing I do in my current official capacity — they’re products of taxpayer dollars.

The counterinsurgency field manual, however, represents a shift in perspective on the Army’s part. Field manuals are efficient, straightforward, commonsense. For the most part, FMs are careful to avoid complexity and ambiguity, and eschew the complications that attend upon the intricacies of intercultural interaction. But the Army realized that what’s going on today in Iraq and elsewhere is a whole lot more complicated than what they were initially prepared for, and that realization prompted a fundamental revision in doctrine; a revision than actually engaged the complexities and ambiguities of intercultural interactions, and relied upon peer-reviewed academic scholarship in anthropology and sociology to do so.

So there’s the initial ground for debate, which has made the rounds in various forms on WPA-L and elsewhere: is it acceptable for the Army to adapt scholarship — yours, mine, anybody’s — to the warfighting and peacekeeping ends decided upon by the nation’s civilian leadership? (I’m doing my best here to make careful distinctions as to who does what, both out of a self-conscious awareness of my status as a civilian instructor at a military institution, and out of a discomfort with the ways I’ve seen academics sometimes unknowingly conflate military leadership with high-level civilian command.)

The scandal, though, is this: according to anthropologist David Price, the published version of the Army’s FM 3-24 on Counterinsurgency is deeply and thoroughly plagiarized, particularly in its Chapter 3, which patches together a wide range of verbatim or minimally edited passages from prominent sociological and anthropological texts without any sort of sufficient documentation in order to establish a series of definitional terms for use by officers, NCOs, and soldiers seeking to implement counterinsurgency tactics in the field.

Now, initially, when I saw this, I immediately got out all my old FMs: not a single works cited among them. David Price writes that “The cumulative effect of such non-attributions is devastating to the Manual’s academic integrity,” but apparently fails to grasp that this is in some ways a matter of genre: FMs are manuals for use in the field rather than the library, and the sergeants and lieutenants and captains who will put them to use are far less interested in where ideas come from than in matters of implementation. Some officers I’ve spoken to have echoed the observation that Army writing is community property and definitionally in the public domain, which likely contributed to the habits of mind that led to the failures of documentation. I don’t believe that excuses the plagiarism — particularly given Price’s point that “The most damning element of the Manual’s reliance on unattributed sources is that the Manual includes a bibliography listing of over 100 sources, yet not a single source I have identified is included” — but it does help to explain it.

But I’ve put my hands on a copy of the new FM, and the plagiarism is unfortunately damning, particularly given the hyperattention to citation in other areas. I don’t know whose intent it was, but the bottom line is this: there is clearly some intent to deceive associated with the citations in this document.

(More to follow.)

The Plagiarized Field Manual, Part 1

4 thoughts on “The Plagiarized Field Manual, Part 1

  • November 7, 2007 at 2:38 am
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    hey Mike,

    i’ve been anticipating a post from you on this topic. more than any other poster to the WPA i’ve paid particular attention to your insights – mostly b/c i was familiar with your experience and current position (not sure if that’s common knowledge).

    anyway, i’m fascinated by your claim that “there is clearly some intent to deceive associated with the citations in this document.” fascinated for several reasons – not the least of which is your current position at your current institution.

    also, though i think Price hit on the deception that the plagiarism implies in his piece, the above claim is interesting b/c i don’t recall this being an issue among the WPA exchanges. however, the reason i don’t remember is probably b/c, for me, the plagiarism is of much smaller consequence than the actual usage of the scholarly work (work by those who most likely had IRB agreements or understandings with their research participants that they wouldn’t use their findings as part of a larger war machine that would bring them death and/or destruction).

    you: “is it acceptable for the Army to adapt scholarship — yours, mine, anybody’s — to the warfighting and peacekeeping ends decided upon by the nation’s civilian leadership?” this is what was the original heat source of my blood-boiling: the appropriation of research … “Ethnography as Weapon”. of course, as i write over at my place, once a researcher publishes her work, to a large extent, the uses of that work are out of her hands…

    anyway, thanks for writing about this. i look forward to future installments…

  • November 8, 2007 at 12:07 pm
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    I appreciate your taking the time, Mike, to review the WPA discussion and present the issue in your usual intelligent, clear and thoughtful way. I have to admit that because of my own time constraints that I wasn’t always able to read through the letters carefully, nor am I cognizant of the ways of the military, so I appreciate your contextualizing the FM as well as the larger issue of plagiarism in regards to the document.

  • November 8, 2007 at 10:15 pm
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    Chris, I hear and respect what you’re saying, but I don’t entirely agree. That’s a part of the reason why I didn’t respond to your posts at your place: I consistently enjoy reading what you write, and I didn’t want to be disrespectful to you in any way, and I was worried that any language I used would come across as argumentative and somehow dismissive. Still, I really feel like I do need to respond in some way, so let me do my best and attempt to be very, very careful.

    I believe Price has an axe to grind with the military, and I believe he’s of the mindset — fairly common among academics — that nothing the military does can ever be good; that the military is a fundamentally evil institution. The plagiarism incident offered him an opportunity to essentially say, “Look, not only are they evil, not only are they using anthropological research, they’re also plagiarizing!” I believe the construction offered by Price of the military is monolithic and mistaken in the characterization of a total of one million soldiers — one million people, including my good colleagues and my students — as bloodthirsty killing machines. It distresses me when you and Price phrases like “war machine” and “killing machine” and “kill chain,” because I think such usages perpetuate that monolithic and reductive characterization, although I’ll certainly acknowledge as well that the Army uses such terms itself, in order to try to get its soldiers away from that emotional identification with the guy on the other side of the battlefield — the knowledge that he has to put up with the same chain of command BS and crap work details that you do; the knowledge that he’s got a wife and kids just like you do; the knowledge that he’s just as scared as you are — in order to be able to pull the trigger. And I believe that sometimes that trigger has to be pulled: I believe that there are just wars, and the soldier knows how terrible they are better than anybody else.

    What I think Price completely misses is that the use of military anthropology was a response to a failed strategy. The use of scholarly work by the Army in that FM was implemented by Petraeus because the blood-and-guts kill-’em-all approach from other generals didn’t work, and so they turned to civilian scholarly expertise in order to help them get local populations on their side: to increase agreement, if you will. It was an effort to reduce bloodshed.

    Of course, the easy retort to that assertion is, “Well, why not reduce bloodshed by leaving?” And that’s not the military’s decision. That’s a decision to be made by the military’s civilian leadership: the President, Congress, and the Secretary of Defense. The Army does what it can, as best as it can, given its mission.

    And, as I note in my second post, I’m not very sympathetic to the argument that an author’s scholarship should only be used for purposes that the author approves. I think that argues for a form of intellectual totalitarianism that is contrary to the spirit of free and open debate. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who wants to is free to quote and use whatever I write for whatever ends they like, and I think that should hold true for everybody.

    I hope that in my disagreement, I haven’t been dismissive or rude in any way. I don’t know if I’ll convince you, and I seriously doubt I’d be able to convince Price or some of the other interlocutors on WPA-L, but it felt and continues to feel important to try.

  • November 10, 2007 at 3:15 am
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    Hey Mike,

    I’m appreciative of your (overly?) respectful approach to this dialogue.

    Below I’ll try to respond more directly to your comments, but first a couple of quick anecdotes (that are a form of a response):

    As i may or may not have mentioned to you (or over at my place) before, if i hadn’t played sports in college, i would have gone into the military. In fact, i was recruited by West Point to play basketball, and gave it serious consideration (b/n you and me, i think my pops had something to do with squashing that option, though). My uncle went to WP. Still, today, as a 29 year old, i often think about joining the Guard or enlisting. In fact, two weeks ago i emailed a military recruiter about a summer officers training program in the Philadelphia area… I mention these things to point out that despite my “kill/war machine” rhetoric, i secretly have a complex and conflicted view of and quasi-relationship with the military (which i won’t go into here, but there are things that i respect and admire about military culture). Though i will admit that it is quite easy to engage in oversimplifications.

    The second brief anecdote is related to your respectful and non-dismissive response:
    I haven’t blogged about it at all, b/c it is completely draining to relive, but there’s been quite a bit of drama lately at my institution…battles over writing and curriculum and support and what is/is not ethical etc. I am the juniorist of junior faculty at my institution (remember, i don’t even have those last three letters yet) and yet somehow i’ve become something of the front-man in these small battles with upper administration. It took some perspective from a friend to help me get some (useful! and more realistic) perspective on what i perceived as happening. I thought she was going to tell me how justified my anger was and that i was the righteous one and etc. etc. She didn’t. And by patiently and understandingly walking me through a few “realities” i’ve been able to temper my approach and have gained some understanding that will be infinitely useful in negotiating with various folks …sometimes in my impassioned responses i get so committed to an argument or a position that it’s hard for me to evaluate my own position *as i’m constructing it.* Now, hopefully this is simply the result of my (relative) youth… but, well, i recognize that i have this habit. In other words, what i’m saying is i *am* capable of being “convinced” or at least open to the other side…even if it’s not done in with the overly polite and respectful tone that you’ve graciously taken with me. (I say “overly” because another aspect of my “habit” that may slip into my arguments are subtle personal attacks – not malicious or purposeful, mind you – but remarks that (again, unintentionally) cut at a person’s character or ethics. (Which, btw, i hope i didn’t do over at my place or here at yours. And if i did, you have a right, nay, an obligation to call me out on that, too.)

    As for your point about the military’s use of anthropology and other scholarly work, i think i make a not-dissimilar point: the use of our work as scholars is not for us to decide. Whether we approve of its use or not, in many ways once our work is out in the world it’s not really “ours” anymore.

    Though they make sense to me, in case these nuggets of information aren’t useful as a response to this particular discussion let me conclude with another note of thanks for having this discussion and for patiently engaging me with this issue. These days the military is an easy target, and it’s important to be reminded of the complexities that are involved.

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