The US Army’s Serial Plagiarists

Over the past decade, the Pentagon has taken a renewed interest in cultural knowledge. This has manifested itself in many ways, including the creation of culture training centers and the distribution of funds for narrowly targeted social science research under the aegis of the Minerva Initiative.

The Army’s latest attempt to inject military personnel with cultural knowledge is the recently published manual, Cultural and Situational Understanding or Army Techniques Publication 3-24.3. (I will refer to it as ATP 3-24.3.) While this might sound like a positive development to some, ATP 3-24.3 reveals the shoddy intellectual underpinnings of the Army’s counterinsurgency agenda.

Cultural Knowledge and Counterinsurgency

The manual builds upon what is perhaps the Army’s most famous doctrine, field manual FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency, released in 2006. FM 3-24 was aggressively promoted by General David Petraeus and his disciples, and received adulatory praise from the media. The New York Times described it as “paradigm-shattering,” while Time praised it as “radical” and “Zen tinged.”

Shortly after FM 3-24‘s release, many social scientists criticized it on theoretical, methodological, and ethical grounds. Some pointed to its outdated culture concept. Others suggested that it ignored history and politics. I argued that FM 3-24 “reads like a manual for indirect colonial rule–though ‘empire’ and ‘imperial’ are taboo words, never used in reference to US power” (González 2007, p. 16).

Similar critiques can be made of the new manual. Like its older sibling, ATP 3-24.3 looks like a dumbed-down Anthropology 101 textbook, but it includes bizarre overgeneralizations and stereotypes that one would never find in an anthropology text. For example, ATP 3-24.3 is peppered with dubious claims regarding the way “most people” from Asia, Latin America, Africa, or the Middle East view the world, make sense of time, or interact with other people. It betrays a superficial understanding of cross-cultural and intercultural variation.

The new manual suggests that the Army continues to think of culture as a skill that can be quickly learned by reading a manual, viewing PowerPoint slides, or hiring a consultant.

Much of ATP 3-24.3 can be viewed as an odd list of cultural dos and don’ts: “counterinsurgents should observe posture, body language, and common gestures, such as people tapping the sides of their noses, or flipping the lobes of their ears” (US Army 2015, p. 3-6); “counterinsurgents should be mentally prepared to experience the unknown” (Ibid., p. 3-8). The manual is filled with such prescriptive and mostly useless advice.

To call this work sophomoric would be an insult to high school sophomores.

It would be much more sensible–and inexpensive–to hand out Lonely Planet travel guides to the troops. Or better yet, to have them take introductory anthropology classes at community colleges. Perhaps Army leaders are worried that such measures might lead to soldiers developing a genuine sense of empathy for other peoples.

But the most egregious thing about ATP 3-24.3 isn’t its mind-numbing banality, or its crushing vapidity, or even its frequent cultural stereotyping. It’s plagiarism–bald, blatant, badly disguised plagiarism.

Plagiarism Redux

One might think that the US Army Training and Doctrine Command would have learned its lesson. In October 2007, anthropologist David Price wrote a blistering expose for CounterPunch in which he uncovered many cases of plagiarism in FM 3-24. That manual’s authors lifted material from social science texts without quoting the original material or citing sources. Price later wrote:

“The numerous instances I found shared a consistent pattern of unacknowledged use. While any author can accidentally drop a quotation mark from a work during the production process, the extent and constant pattern of this practice in this Manual is more than common editorial carelessness.   The cumulative effect of such non-attributions is devastating. . .” (Price 2011: 116).

Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl offered a swift defense: manuals “are not doctoral dissertations, designed to be read by few and judged largely for the quality of their sourcing; instead, they are intended for use by soldiers. Thus authors are not named, and those whose scholarship informs the manual are only credited if they are quoted extensively” (quoted in Shachtman 2007).

But not all military scholars agreed. Army Lieutenant Colonel Gian Gentile publicly criticized Nagl: “I am looking for an explanation for the reason so many passages from the manual were pulled directly from other sources (as the Price piece demonstrates) but were not set off in quotations in the manual. . .the publishers did find it within their means to use quotation marks to quote directly from T.E. Lawrence. So why not these other passages?” (Gentile 2007).

Fast forward to 2015 and the publication of ATP 3-24.3. As I began reading, I found the sections to be oddly disjointed; grammatical structures varied wildly. Perhaps my teaching experience made me suspicious. I decided to investigate.

Within half an hour I discovered four plagiarized passages. Soon after, I found ten more instances in which sentences or entire paragraphs were snatched from books, articles, or online sources without quotation marks or citations. The unacknowledged sources ranged from social science textbooks to online university tutorials. In three cases, ATP 3-24.3 incorporated more than 20 plagiarized sentences from a single source. Hadn’t Nagl said that materials used in field manuals should be “credited if they are quoted extensively”?

It’s telling that the only materials included in ATP 3-24.3‘s source notes are works from T.E. Lawrence and Mao Tse-tung–neither of which is quoted nearly as extensively as the unacknowledged sources. Apparently only dead military men are worthy of credit.

Examples of Plagiarized Material

What follows are some examples of passages gleaned from unacknowledged sources. I follow a convention established by David Price in his analysis of FM 3-24: Bold type indicates words used without attribution from unacknowledged sources.

Example 1. The weirdest (and most worrisome) case of plagiarism is found in the manual’s section on religion.

Here, ATP 3-24.3‘s authors take unattributed sentences from Allen Wood’s Say No to Religion, an inflammatory book that rants against Islam and homosexuality. Among other things the book states, “The current situation that our military is facing is like none other ever faced. We are in the middle of a Jihad, a holy war, women and men are turning their bodies into bombs to reach their God, to please Allah. To die in the name of Allah is the ultimate goal of Muslims” (Wood 2009, p. 7). In the same chapter, he writes: “In Islam, women are treated like trash. . .Have you wondered why so many Muslim women strap themselves to bombs and kill themselves?” (Wood 2009, p. 17).

Though the manual does not include any of Wood’s hate-filled words, it is bewildering that ATP 3-24.3–a document extolling the virtues of cultural understanding–would rely upon such a twisted source:

ATP 3-24.3 ( Section 1-28: Religion)

Religion is more than just a belief in a deity; it is a philosophy and a way of life. Religion can define who people are, how they view the world around them, and how they interact (US Army 2015, p. 1-6).

Unacknowledged Source:

Religion, however, should be more than just a belief in a deity or a philosophy. True religion should be a way of life. Its beliefs should define who we are, how we view the world around us, and how we interact with others living in this world (Wood 2009, p. 9).

Example 2. The following illustrates how the manual lightly reworks original material from other sources. In addition to these selections, ATP 3.24-3 sections 2-34, 2-35, and 2-36 draw more than a dozen sentences from the same unacknowledged source. Even the plagiarizing process has been bungled with misspelled words:

ATP 3-24.3 (Sections 2-38, 2-39: Perception of Time):

“. . .In monochromic [sic]-time cultures (which include most Western countries), members place a great emphasis on schedules, precise reckoning of time, and promptness. In such cultures, the schedule takes precedence over the interpersonal relation. Furthermore, because of this urgency to maintain schedules, members of such cultures tend to get to the point quickly. This directness may be viewed as rude or brash in polychromic [sic]-time cultures. In polychromic-time cultures, time is viewed as fluid. Members of polychromic-time societies do not observe strict schedules; agendas are subordinate to interpersonal relations. Most African and Asian countries, as well as a number of Latin American and Middle Eastern countries, are considered polychromic-time cultures“(US Army 2015, pp. 2-5, 2-6).

Unacknowledged Source:

“Monochronic-time cultures view time as fixed and linear. Members place a high emphasis on schedules, a precise reckoning of time, and promptness. In such cultures, schedules take precedence over interpersonal relations. Because of this urgency to remain on schedule, members attempt to get to the point quickly when communicating. As a result, they may appear rather rude or brash. In polychronic-time cultures, time is viewed as fluid and cyclical. Members do not observe strict schedules. In such cultures, preset schedules are subordinate to interpersonal relations. . .most Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern countries are polychronic-time cultures” (Fernandez, Trusty, and Criswell 2002, p. 267-268). 

Example 3. When basic definitions are presented in the manual, the authors rely almost entirely upon others’ words, as if to stay on sound footing:

ATP 3-24.3 (Section 3-11: Cultural Nonverbal Communications)

Nonverbal communications use facial expressions, gestures, physical contact, and body postures to convey meaning ” (US Army 2015, p. 3-6).

Unacknowledged Source:

Non-verbal communication involves the use of facial expressions, body movement, gestures, and physical contact (often called body language) to convey meaning” (Ferreira, Erasmus, and Groenewald 2010, p. 102).

Example 4. In some instances ATP 3-24.3‘s authors change pronouns, transform nouns into adjectives, or make other minute alterations:

ATP 3-24.3 (Section 2-41: Perception of the Individual Versus the Group)

“. . .individualist culture is one in which the ties between individuals are loose and where people are expected to take care of themselves and their immediate families. In a collectivist culture, people are raised from birth into strong, cohesive groups. These groups offer a lifetime of protection in exchange for unquestionable loyalty” (US Army 2015, p. 2-6).

Unacknowledged source:

Individualism stands for a society in which the ties between individuals are loose: Everyone is expected to look after him/herself and her/his immediate family only. Collectivism stands for a society in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty” (Hofstede 2001, p. 225).

Example 5. Among the most brazen cases of plagiarism are those lifted from online tutorials. For example, the authors of ATP 3-24.3 extracted at least 20 sentences from a website entitled “What is Culture?” developed by Washington State University faculty. Rather than reprint all the material, I will select a small excerpt. Additional passages plucked from the same unacknowledged source are located in the manual’s sections 1-17, 1-18, 1-19, 1-57, and 1-58.

ATP 3-24.3 (Section 1-16: Learned Behavior as a Component of Culture)

“The baseline definition of culture indicates that learned behaviors are an essential component of culture. Learned behavior in this sense can mean almost anything; the way a person dresses, the way a person speaks, or the food a person eats are indicative of an individual’s socialization into a specific culture. Whenever individuals brush their teeth, cross their legs, send birthday cards, kiss someone, listen to music, or choose a form of recreation, they are practicing learned behaviors that are a part of their culture” (US Army 2015, p. 1-4).

Unacknowledged Source

“In our baseline definition of culture, we have said that learned behaviors represent an essential component of culture. Learned behavior in this sense can mean almost anything, from the way we dress to the way we speak to the food we choose to eat. Whenever we brush our teeth, cross our legs, send our parents a birthday card, kiss someone, listen to music, or go out for recreation we are practicing learned behaviors which are a part of our culture” (Miraglia, Law and Collins 1997).

Example 6. ATP 3-24.3 ‘s authors also culled at least 20 sentences from a copyrighted online resource on “Culture Shock”:

ATP 3-24.3 (Section 3-59: Stage 3-Reemergence)

Stage 3 is characterized by gaining some understanding of the new culture. A renewed feeling of pleasure and sense of humor may be experienced. One may begin to feel a certain psychological balance. The new arrival may not feel as isolated and a feeling of direction emerges. The individual is more familiar with the environment and is better able to belong. This process initiates an evaluation of old ways versus new ways” (US Army 2015, p. 3-10).

Unacknowledged Source:

“The third stage is characterized by gaining some understanding of the new culture. A new feeling of pleasure and sense of humor may be experienced. One may start to feel a certain psychological balance. The new arrival may not feel as lost and starts to have a feeling of direction. The individual is more familiar with the environment and wants to belong. This initiates an evaluation of the old ways versus those of the new” (Guanipa 1998).

Example 7. ATP 3.24‘s authors sometimes prefer old-school plagiarism–grabbing passages from a book (in this case, at least eight consecutive sentences) and slightly tweaking them. Here are a few of those sentences:

ATP 3-24.3 (Sections 3-34, 3-35):

Touching should be minimized when communicating across cultural lines. Although some cultures are more open to touching than others, even the most demonstrative groups have rules of propriety and etiquette. Physical contact made at the wrong time can risk serious misunderstandings. In mainstream American culture touching is generally discouraged. Native-born Americans tend to abandon touch at an early age and substitute words as the primary means of communication. Northern Europeans, such as the Germans, Scandinavians, and British are similarly uncomfortable with touching from anyone other than intimate family members or friends” (US Army 2015, p. 3-7).

Unacknowledged source:

“. . .touch should be minimized when doing business across cultural lines. Although some cultures are more liberal in their attitudes toward touching than others, even the most tactile groups have strict rules of propriety and etiquette. To touch at the wrong time can risk serious misunderstandings. . .In mainstream American culture touching is, as a general rule, discouraged; native-born Americans tend to give up touching at an early age and substitute words as the primary means of communication. Northern Europeans, such as the Germans, Scandinavians, and British, too, are generally uncomfortable with touch from anyone other than intimate family members or friends” (Thiederman 1991, p. 85).

These are but a few examples of ATP 3-24.3‘s pervasive plagiarism. To include all cases would require considerably more ink.

Conclusion: Doctrine and Disrespect

In an effort to better understand these egregious cases of intellectual larceny, I contacted a colleague with links to military and intelligence agencies, who asked to not be identified. She learned that the manual’s principal authors were social scientists with doctoral degrees–including an anthropologist. In her words, “it was primarily two people at the organization that has risen from the ashes of HTS [Human Terrain System].” CounterPunch readers may remember HTS as a poorly conceived, grossly mismanaged boondoggle that embedded social scientists with combat brigades in Afghanistan and Iraq–with little effect. It cost taxpayers more than $720 million, making it the costliest social science program in history.

Apart from the sheer dishonesty of ATP 3-24.3, it is alarming to witness the reckless ways in which the military has twisted “culture” to meet its needs. What the manual’s authors–and the military–consistently fail to understand is that culture isn’t a tool that can be used to prod popular opinion or bend people’s behavior.

What makes this case particularly upsetting is the means by which it has occurred: through the military’s byzantine and secretive system of doctrinal writing, which tends to give sloppy work a thin veneer of scientific respectability. Because each piece of Army doctrine is written and edited by dozens of people, those involved can easily escape accountability.

With small but powerful groups of crass careerists, cronies, contractors, and crackpots running amok, it is not surprising that the Army’s cultural knowledge projects fall short. Military and intelligence agencies would be much better off hiring anthropologists to critically analyze their own internal bureaucratic cultures and deformed decision-making processes.

I contacted some of the people whose words were reproduced in ATP 3-24.3, and I asked them to comment on the Army’s unacknowledged use of their work.   Among them was Dr. Sondra Thiederman, author of the book Profiting in America’s Multicultural Marketplace, one of the sources used by the manual’s authors. She told me:

“Whoever put this book together clearly read Profiting. They quoted some material word-for-word without attribution and made a feeble effort to slightly alter others. Although the ideas they used were nothing that is not in the general domain, the use of my exact words is the kind of practice that, if a student of mine did that in a paper, I would be forced to flunk them. It is sloppy scholarship and disrespectful to colleagues and readers alike.”

Disrespectful–perhaps no term more fittingly describes the Army’s Cultural and Situational Understanding manual. It disrespects the scholars whose work it has expropriated. It disrespects those peoples and cultures that appear as little more than means to the military’s ends. It disrespects American taxpayers who unwittingly finance such work. And it disrespects countless soldiers who rely upon its “expert” knowledge.

A group of Army hucksters once famously declared that counterinsurgency represents “the graduate level of war” and “thinking man’s warfare” (US Army 2006, p. 1-1). ATP 3-24.3 demonstrates the absurdity of such claims–and the intellectual poverty of those who make them.

Roberto J. González is professor of anthropology at San José State University. He has authored several books including Zapotec Science and Militarizing Culture. He can be contacted at roberto.gonzalez@sjsu.edu.


Fernandez, M. Sylvia, Jerry Trusty, and Reba Criswell. (2002). “Interpersonal Communication Skills as a Basis for Multicultural Counseling.” In Trusty, Jerry, Eugenie Looby, and Daya S. Sandhu (eds.), Multicultural Counseling: Context, Theory and Practice, 261-281. Huntington, NY: Nova.

Ferreira, E.J., A.W. Erasmus, and D. Groenewald. (2010). Administrative Management (2nd Edition). Claremont, South Africa: Juta and Co.

Gentile, Gian. (2007, November 2). “To Mr. Nagl.” Message posted to http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/desperate-people-with-limited-skills

González, Roberto J. (2007). “Towards Mercenary Anthropology? The new US Army Counterinsurgency Manual and the Military-Anthropology Complex.” Anthropology Today 23(3), 14-19.

Guanipa, Carmen. (1998). “Culture Shock.” http://edweb.sdsu.edu/people/cguanipa/cultshok.htm

Hofstede, Geert. (2001). Culture’s Consequences (2nd Edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Miraglia, Eric, Richard Law, and Peg Collins. (1997). “What Is Culture?” http://richard-hooker.com/sites/worldcultures/CULTURE/INDEX.HTM#top

Price, David H. (2011). Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in the Service of the Militarized State. Petrolia, CA: CounterPunch Books.

Shachtman, Noah. (2007). “Counterinsurgency Author Hits Back on ‘Plagiarism’.” Wired.com. November 1. http://www.wired.com/2007/11/price-describes/

Thiederman, Sondra. (1991). Profiting in America’s Multicultural Marketplace. New York: Lexington Books.

US Army. (2006). Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency. Washington, DC: Department of the Army.

———–. (2015). Army Techniques Publication 3-24.3: Cultural and Situational Understanding. Washington, DC: Department of the Army.

Wood, Allen. (2009). Say No to Religion. The Woodlands, TX: Xulon Press.

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Roberto J. González is professor of anthropology at San José State University. He has authored several books including Zapotec Science, American Counterinsurgency and Militarizing Culture. He can be contacted at roberto.gonzalez@sjsu.edu.

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