Allegations of plagiarism leveled against Army's Counterinsurgency Manual

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[David Price is author of Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI's Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists.]

Last December, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps published a new Counterinsurgency Field Manual (No. 3-24). In policy circles, the Manual became an artifact of hope, signifying the move away from the crude logic of "shock and awe" toward calculations that rifle-toting soldiers can win the hearts and minds of occupied Iraq through a new appreciation of cultural nuance.

Some view the Manual as containing plans for a new intellectually fueled "smart bomb," and it is being sold to the public as a scholarly based strategic guide to victory in Iraq. In July, this contrivance was bolstered as the University of Chicago Press republished the Manual in a stylish, olive drab, faux-field ready edition, designed to slip into flack jackets or Urban Outfitter accessory bags. The Chicago edition includes the original forward by General David Petraeus and Lt. General James Amos, with a new forward by Lt. Col. John Nagl and introduction by Sarah Sewell, of Harvard's JFK School of Government. Chicago's republication of the Field Manual spawned a minor media orgy, and Lt. Col. Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert, became the Manual's poster boy, appearing on NPR, ABC News, NBC, and the pages of the NYT, Newsweek, and other publications, pitching the Manual as the philosophical expression of Petraeus' intellectual strategy for victory in Iraq. ...

[Yale educated] Montgomery McFate and an unnamed "military intelligence specialist" co-wrote the Manual's chapter 3, the Manual's longest and the key chapter on "Intelligence in Counterinsurgency." Chapter 3 introduces basic social science views of elements of culture that underlie the Manual's approach to teaching counterinsurgents how to weaponize the specific indigenous cultural information they encounter in specific theaters of battle. General Petraeus is betting that troops working alongside Human Terrain System teams can apply the Manual's principles to stabilize and pacify war-torn Iraq.

When I read an online copy of the Manual last winter, I was unimpressed by its watered-down anthropological explanations, but having researched anthropological contributions to the Second World War, I was familiar with such oversimplifications. But some in the military found the Counterinsurgency Manual to be revolutionary. McFate claims the Manual is so radical that it "is considered 'Zen tinged' not just by the media, but also by many members of the military who felt that the Manual, and chapter 3 in particular, was 'too innovative' and 'too politically correct.'" Like any manual, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual is written in the dry, detached voice of basic instruction. But as I re-read Chapter 3 a few months ago, I found my eye struggling through a crudely constructed sentence and then suddenly being graced with a flowing line of precise prose:

"A ritual is a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects performed to influence supernatural entities or forces on behalf of the actors' goals and interest." (Counterinsurgency Manual, 3-51)

The phrase "stereotyped sequence" leapt off the page. Not only was it out of place, but it sparked a memory. I knew that I'd read these words years ago. With a little searching, I discovered that this unacknowledged line had been taken from a 1972 article written by the anthropologist Victor Turner, who brilliantly wrote that religious ritual is:

"a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and designed to influence preternatural entities or forces on behalf of the actors' goals and interests." (See full citation in the concluding "comparison" section of this article.)

The Manual simplified Turner's poetic voice, trimming a few big words and substituting "supernatural" for "preternatural". The Manual used no quotation marks, attribution, or citations to signify Turner's authorship of this barely altered line. Having encountered students passing off the work of other scholars as their own, I know that such acts are seldom isolated occurrences; this single kidnapped line of Turner got me wondering if the Manual had taken other unattributed passages. While I did not perform exhaustive searches, with a little searching in Chapter 3 alone I found about twenty passages showing either direct use of others' passages without quotes, or heavy reliance on unacknowledged source materials. ...

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