The Plagiarized Field Manual, Part 1

Mike Edwards, a civilian instructor at West Point, reflects on the academic reaction to a new army field manual that plagiarizes large swaths of complex material, sometimes verbatim, from published sources. Part 1, Part 2.

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.