The Plagiarized Field Manual, Part 2

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

In response to the emerging controversy over the plagiarized Army field manual on counterinsurgency, FM 3-24, Chuck Bazerman and Christopher Strelluf made what I think are some important points on WPA-L. On October 31, Bazerman observed that anthropologist David Price’s article “is not just a plagiarism gotcha,” and I’m inclined to agree: as Bazerman points out, the article offers some “subtle observations about the writing and research process, the ability to handle source material and depth of disciplinary understanding, a subtle understanding of the motives for plagiarism,” among other things. For the reasons Bazerman notes, I think Price’s article is valuable — although it also seems to me quite clear from Price’s tone that the article was, indeed, primarily intended as what Bazerman and other very smart people before him have referred to as a “Gotcha!” in support of his broader strongly implied claim that Military=Bad. (Note the supporting characterization by the Counterpunch editors of “military enterprises” as “evil.”) In serving the ends that its author intended, Price’s article critiquing the plagiarized field manual raises other, more complicated issues as well.

In his November 1 WPA-L response to Bazerman, Christopher Strelluf aptly summarizes some of the Army assumptions about how writing in general and field manuals in particular work in the military: “ideas and efforts in the Army are community property, not individual accomplishments; in a battlefield environment, speed is often preferable to precision; when Soldiers follow a leader’s decisions, ethos is attached to that individual’s track-record of good decision-making and Soldier care, not the wisdom of the people who came up with the ideas first. If I start writing a memo, it is expected that I will try to find an old version to copy. To attempt to do otherwise would be greeted with (unoriginal) dictums like ‘work smarter not harder’ and ‘don’t reinvent the wheel.'” Strelluf calls those assumptions into question, noting that he doesn’t intellectually agree with them — which I can work with, to a point. I interpret Strelluf as saying that those assumptions don’t work in the context of academia. The counterpoint, I’d suggest, is that they do work in the military, and are in fact common practice. It’s a matter of rhetorical context and practice: as Strelluf points out, “When the Army moves its writing out of its genre, the Army is wrong not to adopt the broader community’s conventions. Still, though, it’s interesting to think about how the values of intellectual property in this manual compare to ours, and how the factors we value in intellectual property are informed by our institutional membership.” From first appearances, what seems to have happened in the case of FM 3-24 is that the Army writers failed to account for and adapt to the altered rhetorical context and the dual release of the document as both doctrine and scholarship.

Several Army officers I’ve spoken to have observed that all the plagiarized passages David Price cites are definitions. Price asserts that “the inability of this chapter’s authors to come up with their own basic definitions of such simple sociocultural concepts as ‘race,’ ‘culture,’ ‘ritual,’ or ‘social structure’ not only raises questions about the ethics of the authors but also furnishes a useful measure of the Manual and its authors’ weak intellectual foundation,” but I would counter that the simplicity of those sociocultural concepts works to limit the ideational structures of their possible definitions. Again, I don’t believe this excuses the wholesale lifting of terminology without acknowledgment, but I think it may help explain the habits of mind that led to the plagiarism of definitional passages.

The latter part of that passage from Price does frustrate me, however, in its imputation that Army officers are stupid. His references to “marginally skilled writers” and “desperate people with limited skills” are inaccurate and unnecessary, and detract considerably from his credibility: he seems to be attempting to make plagiarism a matter of character rather than a matter of textual practice, and suggesting that the authors of the document plagiarized because they were bad, dumb, incompetent people. Here at West Point, the plagiarism policy is literally graven in stone at the black granite Cadet Honor Code monument: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do.” The prevailing consensus here is that plagiarism violates the first three prohibitions: as a misrepresentation of another’s work as one’s own, it is a lie; as an attempt to get away with not doing the expected work, it is a cheat; and as the appropriation of another’s work, it is theft. For those reasons, in some significant ways the military does indeed construct plagiarism as a matter of character.

I want to raise one caution, though, about the way theft is rhetorically constructed. On WPA-L and on other sites, a number of scholars have raised concerns about how the plagiarized passages may have been put to uses neither intended nor approved by the original authors. How dare the Army appropriate Author X’s words, some have suggested, when she was so adamantly opposed to Policy Y, or when he so strongly believed that the military is fundamentally evil. I’ll be blunt: I have little sympathy for such arguments, and in an academic context find the faux-naïveté of such arguments fundamentally disingenuous. As public intellectuals who contribute to the world of ideas, we know that others can quote, paraphrase, reuse, recycle, and recontextualize our ideas the moment they’re made public, for whatever purposes they choose, whether we like those purposes or not. If Bradley Bleck wants to quote a few sentences from one of my blog posts to show how heterodox economic evaluations of the teaching of writing are yummy and wonderful, or if Clancy Ratliff wants to quote a few sentences from another of my posts to show how heterodox economic evaluations of the teaching of writing are a completely stupid dead end and waste of time, I don’t have control over either. The principle of academic fair use doesn’t involve permission, and I don’t believe it should. So the suggestion that the Army is to be blamed for not seeking permission for plagiarizing the works that it did — the suggestion that an authors’ objections to having their works discussed should be a component of an evaluation of the severity of any given plagiarism case — strikes me as foolish.

As Price admits and contributors to WPA-L have already observed, though, the extremely rapid turnaround time for the Counterinsurgency FM set up a situation in which plagiarism became an option for the military authors or their editors. While West Point has the Cadet Honor Code, we also separate cadet desks during final exams, so that cadets aren’t tempted to violate the Code. Ultimately, I think Price is mistaken when he asserts that the “commandeered passages make curious [FM co-author, anthropology scholar, and Army officer Montgomery] McFate’s insistence that ‘it is the nature of knowledge to escape the bonds of its creator; to believe otherwise is to persist in a supreme naivety about the nature of knowledge production and distribution.'” I don’t think McFate’s point is curious at all: I think it’s entirely accurate. To me, the plagiarized FM has quite a bit to say about how material, historical, and institutional constraints shape how we understand and construct debates over the production and use of intellectual property.

However, I should also point out something else: FM 3-24 does, indeed, use quotations and cite sources. In fact, it engages at some points in what I’d call hypercitation: in a number of places in the document, the source for a quotation of a sentence or two or three is listed after a quotation, is listed again with the phrase “used by permission” and the copyright mark in a footnote, and listed yet again in an end-list of notes. Such redundant use of hypercitation suggests to me that someone, somewhere in the editorial process, was concerned about acknowledging some sources but not others. And that’s the matter that most deeply concerns me: that somebody made a carefully considered and conscious choice between what they wanted to acknowledge and what they didn’t.

(More to follow.)

The Plagiarized Field Manual, Part 2

3 thoughts on “The Plagiarized Field Manual, Part 2

  • November 9, 2007 at 1:04 am

    You have to assemble these posts and make them into an article manuscript! I’m hoping the copyright issue won’t be a problem; do journals understand that you can’t just sign over the copyright to them given your position?

    On a completely unrelated note, ever since I started in administration, I’ve thought about starting some kind of site that would be called “Can of WPAss.” is available; should I get it?

  • November 10, 2007 at 12:10 am

    Thanks for posting these. Fascinating stuff, and the cliff-hanger ending of the previous post was, well, suspenseful.

    I too found the whole “How dare the Army appropriate Author X’s words?” argument odd.

  • November 15, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    Interesting discussion. There are so many competing notions at work, that Clancy is right, it’s article time! I’ve been thinking a lot about utility lately (about bike racks most recently, but that’s another story) and that seems part of what’s at play.

    One reason we provide citations is not just to acknowledge the work of others, but to use those others to support our contentions because they are supposedly more authoritative than we; they lend gravitas. Authority, though, for the field manual, seems to lie in it’s collective production. If I were an officer in the field, I imagine I wouldn’t have time to care whether Mister X or Madam Y wrote Z. What I need to know is that this is Army protocol and it’s best if I follow it, not because it’s the Army way, but because it will help me and my troops live through the day. That seems to be the fundamental purpose, core to the ethos, of such a text. Plug this into the rhetorical triangle of ethos, logos and pathos, and plagiarism in this instance is a non-issue.

    But then there’s the hyper-citation. In the context of the field manual, it seems like it must have been written by committee, and writer/editor A was hyper-concerned with citation, and maybe scholarship, while writer/editor B didn’t see the FM as a piece of scholarship, but as a traditional Army text where the source of the words mattered less than the words and what they convey, that they ensconced the Army way. Hence, it contains the two extremes of hyper-citation and what can readily be viewed as plagiarism. But are the words being passed off as original, the lack of citation being overt deception? Not having read it, but based on what you’ve written, Mike, it doesn’t seem that way.

    I’m as liberal as a lot of people, and more so than many, but I somewhat understand the military mind having grown up in a military household. I think we revert to the Vietnam era baby-killer hysteria when we conflate civilian leadership and the men and women of the military who are (in my mind) essentially chattel. It’s wholly naive at best, and disingenuous more likely, to fob responsibility off on anyone below the policy making level. Unfortunately, it’s the people below the policy making level who are being killed and maimed. If the plagiarized material in the FM keeps someone who might some day be in my classroom from being killed or maimed, hell, plagiarize away. I think that fits nicely with some Benthamite utility. 🙂

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