Army’s Prime Salesman of Counterinsurgency Manual Seeks to Defend Stolen Scholarship

On November 1, Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl posted a response to my recent CounterPunch article documenting unacknowledged use of other scholars’ writing in the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Nagl contributed a foreword to the Chicago University Press edition of the Manual and was heavily involved in the Manual’s production and promotion. I described him accurately in my first piece as “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.”

Nagl’s response can be found at A US Army spokesman, Major Tom McCuin, also posted this release on the Small Wars Journal website:

Nagl’s response shirks the central points raised in my article. My primary aim was not, as he falsely claims, to continue an “assault on social scientists assisting national efforts to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan,” it was to examine how the University of Chicago Press’s republication of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual was part of the Pentagon’s efforts to convince the American public that victory in Iraq would occur with a new academic approach to counterinsurgency. That some of this scholarship turns out to be fake scholarship exposes the hollowness of this sales pitch.

Lt. Col. Nagl wants it both ways. He was the Manual’s public spokesman on the well oiled media circuit where he claimed that the new Manual was the product of high scholarship in the service of the state; yet when it became apparent that somewhere along the line in the production of the Manual the most basic of scholarly practices were abandoned, he now pretends that these rules do not apply in this context. He has to choose how he wants to pitch the Manual: scholarship or doctrine. He can’t have it both ways anymore. I read U.S. Army Spokesman Major Tom McCuin’s statement as military doublespeak declaring a mistakes-were-made-but-the-messages-remains-true admission that passages were indeed used in an inappropriate manner, so I guess what we have here is doctrine.

I am not applying inappropriate cultural standards to this work. As I wrote in my original CounterPunch piece, “To highlight the Manual’s scholarly failures is not to hold it to some over-demanding, external standard of academic integrity. However, claims of academic integrity are the very foundation of the Manual’s promotional strategy.”

Nagl skirts the issue of the Manual’s lifting exact sentences (and of slightly modifying others) and reproducing them in the manual without quotation marks as if the problem was simply one of missing footnotes and citations and not of quotations. Nagl writes that it is his “understanding that this longstanding practice in doctrine writing is well within the provisions of “fair use” copyright law.” Unless Nagl has some special legal expertise on the rights of the military to kidnap and republish materials protected under copyright as if it were their own, I am less interested in “his understanding” than I am in the Army’s understanding of these legal matters. Can Lt. Col. Nagl’s view be that of the Army? This would be remarkable.

Nagl claims that “military Field Manuals have their own grammar and their own logic.” While the logic of this manual is certainly ideographic and not bound by the normal rules of logic, I refer Dr. Nagl to the partial list of pilfered sentences I provided in my article if he thinks the grammar of the manual is entirely its own.

Nagl pretends that this is somehow a personal matter. There is nothing personal about this; I wouldn’t have mentioned Dr. McFate’s involvement in any of this if she hadn’t been telling anthropologists about her work on this chapter. She is the one who chose the media spotlight and demanded inspection of her work as that of a model military-linked scholar. My article leaves her plenty of room to explain how all of this happened, and I await her explanation, and to see the early drafts of this chapter so that we can understand just what happened here. That Nagl, and apparently others on the project, approve of such practices may be all the explanation she needs to make with in military circles. This is valuable information. I will wait to see just how widespread among other military anthropologists is Nagl’s view that use of unattributed sources is of no consequence. I’m already hearing from some in this community who are distancing themselves from these poor practices. They don’t share Nagl’s view that it is acceptable to pilfer whatever sentences you need when writing “doctrine”.

Nagl’s response to my CounterPunch article concludes with some high-flown rhetoric citing General Sir William Francis Butler as saying “a century ago that ‘The nation that draws a clear line of demarcation between its thinking men and its fighting men will soon have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.'” Nagl concludes, ” I am pleased that our nation is not in that perilous condition, and am proud to be associated with the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.” Closing with this invocation of General Butler is an interesting choice. If anyone is demarcating lines separating “thinking men [and women]” and “fighting men [and women]” it is the military and intelligence organizations that Lt. Col. Nagl serves. These organizations have become so governed by forms of groupthink, that they are unable to accommodate academic critics who see the current trajectory and use of embedded scholarship as leading our nation deeper into crisis. By this I mean people like the recently retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez who know that the Iraq war is now “a nightmare with no end in sight”. Such people are pushed aside for true believers. Nagl knows full well that Chicago’s republication of the Manual was part of a public relations campaign to bury the views of those like Sanchez who recognize that President’s Bush’s policies have led us into a quagmire. Selling America a war with fake scholarship won’t get us out of this mess.

The use of fake scholarship to sell the Iraq war to the American public only makes things worse. If we are going to get out of this mess, U.S. military and intelligence agencies need to call on outside scholars and critics to help them get it right. Army spokesman McCuin says that I have failed to “accept the Army’s several offers to enter in a reasoned dialogue on the merits ­ or lack of merits – of the role anthropologists can play in helping to reduce the use of lethal force to achieve military and political objectives.” I have no idea what these supposed “several offers” refer to, but I’m willing to talk with anyone in the Army who wants to hear my personal or anthropological views (informed by several stints of Middle East fieldwork) on how to reduce the use of lethal force by leaving Iraq. If the Army is interested in learning more about the limits that anthropological ethics place on appropriate anthropological interactions with the military, I’d also be willing to help get them up to speed.

If the Counterinsurgency Field Manual had remained an obscure military document, I can’t imagine this exchange would be occurring. It was the Army’s calculated decision to use the University of Chicago Press to try and sell the American public the notion that we could win the Iraq War based on intellectual principles, rather than shock and awe that raised the ante on claims of academic worth. If there are public claims that the Manual is a work of scholars, then the scholarship of this work needs examination, and this is precisely what my article does.

DAVID PRICE is author of Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Duke, 2004). His next book, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, will be published by Duke University Press in March 2008. He can be reached at


David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.