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The Quiet Death of ATP 3-24.3 (A Plagiarism Postmortem)

When one knew that any document was due for destruction. . .it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.

–George Orwell, 1984

On May 1, CounterPunch published an exposé in which I detailed many cases of plagiarism in a new US Army manual. The manual, entitled Cultural and Situational Understanding (or ATP 3-24.3) used unacknowledged sources ranging from college textbooks to web-based tutorials. In some cases more than 20 sentences were pilfered from a single unacknowledged source.

The most bizarre selection was taken from Allen Wood’s book Say No to Religion, a toxic anti-Muslim manifesto proclaiming the depravity of Islam.

The Army manual included milder passages, so the connection to Wood’s book was not immediately obvious. However, we live in a world when anyone can use search engines and plagiarism detection software to identify sources. I was stunned by the foolhardiness with which the Army had created this piece of doctrine. Many people around the world could have interpreted the manual’s use of Wood’s words as evidence of a Pentagon conspiracy against Muslims–and perhaps some did.

In the days following my article’s publication, I received many messages from readers. One thanked me for exposing a blatant example of American exceptionalism–the idea that “we don’t need no stinkin’ badges,” much less in-text citations or sources. Another reader suggested that the authors whose words were stolen file a class action lawsuit and sue the Army for copyright infringement, tortious interference, or violation of the False Claims Act.

But the most surprising message of all was an email from a reader who informed me on May 6 that she was unable to access the document on the Army’s publications website. She noted that the title was still there, but that the link to the document was no longer working.

I was skeptical to say the least.

But indeed, the reader was correct. The Army’s link to the publication was no longer functional (though the title is still listed on the website as I write these words). Attempting to access the link to ATP 3-24.3 results in a “File Not Found” error message.

Was it possible that the Army had retracted the manual less than a week after rampant plagiarism had been revealed?

It would be presumptuous to conclude that a CounterPunch article brought an end to ATP 3-24.3‘s short and mostly uneventful life. Other factors were probably at work, and the timing of the rescindment may be purely coincidental. Still, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that officials at US Army’s Combined Arms Center (CAC)–the document’s “preparing agency”–realized that some quick damage control might be needed. A literary link between a radical anti-Muslim text and a military manual on “cultural understanding” is probably not the kind of strategic communications strategy that the Army’s top brass want to pursue.

One can only wonder how many more pieces of flawed doctrine continue to survive within the bowels of CAC–or how many millions of dollars have been spent on other useless, recklessly written, and potentially damaging documents.

ATP 3-24.3–rest in peace.

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.