Small Wars Journal

"Desperate People with Limited Skills"

Thu, 11/01/2007 - 11:54am
Writing and Employing the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual

In the current issue of "Counterpunch", anthropologist Dr. David Price continues his assault on social scientists assisting national efforts to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan. This time he impugns the work of anthropologists who helped write Field Manual 3-24, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual that was published by the Army and Marine Corps in December 2006 and republished by the University of Chicago Press in July 2007.

Price's essay is extensive, but the argument and the tone of the whole can be extrapolated from this paragraph on the first page:

Most academics know that bad things can happen when marginally skilled writers must produce ambitious amounts of writing in short time periods; sometimes the only resulting calamities are grammatical abominations, but in other instances the pressures to perform lead to shoddy academic practices. Neither of these outcomes is especially surprising among desperate people with limited skills-- but Petraeus and others leading the charge apparently did not worry about such trivialities: they had to crank out a new strategy to calm growing domestic anger at military failures in Iraq.

I will attempt to explain the motivation for the project that led to the writing of the Field Manual as I observed it, provide a few words explaining the process of writing doctrine, and then discuss the effects of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual in the field and on the American military. This is not an official response to Price's essay, and I do not speak on behalf of the Army, General Petraeus, or any of the other members of the team that produced the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, but only for myself.

Writing Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency

When insurgencies arose in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the United States Army was unprepared to fight them. In the wake of Vietnam, the Army turned away from counterinsurgency, focusing instead on preparing for conventional war against the Soviet Union. The Army's last comprehensive counterinsurgency doctrine prior to FM 3-24 was written in 1967; a less ambitious manual on countering guerrillas was written in 1987. When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, most Army officers knew more about the US Civil War than they did about counterinsurgency.

The Army hurriedly produced an interim counterinsurgency field manual in 2004, promising to deliver a more comprehensive version within two years. The revision effort caught fire with the return of then-Lieutenant General David Petraeus from his second tour in Iraq in late 2005. Recognizing the urgent need to help the military understand the wars it was fighting, Petraeus and his Marine Corps counterpart LtGen James Mattis pulled together a writing team that differed dramatically from the military officers who usually write field manuals.

The team included academics and practitioners from a number of disciplines ranging from anthropology and human rights to strategic studies and journalism; its core, however, was a small group of Army and Marine Corps officers, many with recent experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus picked his West Point classmate Conrad Crane, a retired Army officer and military historian with a PhD from Stanford, to lead the writing team, which volunteered to help out of a conviction that the Army and Marines needed a better instruction manual for the wars in which they were engaged.

The writing team had a lot of ground to cover. Counterinsurgency has been well described as "the graduate level of war"; success in counterinsurgency campaigns requires extraordinary political acumen, a real feel for the nature of the society in which the war is being waged, and an understanding of the political economy in the country and its neighbors, among dozens of other demanding requirements. Hence the need for a field manual writing team that could, and did, draw upon the best scholarship available. Remarkably, the team turned a draft of the manual in just two months—a process that often takes years. The draft manual was vetted at a conference Petraeus hosted at Fort Leavenworth in February 2006 that included journalists, human rights organizations, and military officers; at its conclusion, James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly commented that he had never seen a more open exchange of ideas in any institution, and that the nation would be the better for more such exchanges.

Citations in Military Doctrine

Price describes the failure to cite all sources used in the manual as evidence of "shoddy academic practices", but in fact he is applying the standards of one society to those of a very different one—a violation of the anthropological norm of cultural relativism as I understand it. To paraphrase von Clausewitz, military Field Manuals have their own grammar and their own logic. They 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. This is not the academic way, but soldiers are not academics; it is my understanding that this longstanding practice in doctrine writing is well within the provisions of "fair use" copyright law.

Most Field Manuals discuss machine gun employment and the ranges of artillery systems and draw all but exclusively on other military writing for sourcing; because of its far broader subject matter, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual drew upon a wider range of academic scholarship. Citations of previous works were transferred into standard Field Manual format, with footnotes removed in order to improve readability. Primary chapter authors were encouraged to publish their chapters in peer-reviewed journals with proper academic citations; a number of chapters have been published, and it is likely that others will follow. In any case, failure to adhere to academic decorum involving footnotes has no bearing on the merit of the doctrine itself.

Price also decries the incomplete bibliography of the manual; again, he neglects consideration of the cultural practices of the society which he is examining. Bibliographies are not a common feature of Field Manuals; indeed, the Counterinsurgency Manual is the first of which I am aware that includes recommendations of civilian texts for further reading. The works cited in the bibliography are not all or even most of those consulted during the writing of the text, but those that soldiers are encouraged to read to further their understanding of counterinsurgency. This is a book for practitioners.

The Employment of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Iraq

The proof of any recipe is in the pudding. David Petraeus was promoted to full General and selected for command of all forces in Iraq a month after the Manual was published, and he immediately put the principles enumerated there into practice. Perhaps the most important change in policy in Iraq since Petraeus assumed command has been an increased focus on providing security for the population, a basic precept of counterinsurgency that is the core of the Field Manual—and, one assumes, not one that arouses any ire from Dr. Price. It is a reach to attribute the lower civilian and military casualties in Iraq to the influence of a Field Manual, but the increased understanding of the principles of counterinsurgency that the publication of the Manual accelerated has certainly contributed to our—and the Iraqis'—recent successes there.

Critical to those successes has been a better understanding of the peoples of Iraq, an understanding that is a direct result of the influence of some of the people who contributed to the Field Manual. In particular, Dr. David Kilcullen, who recently served as General Petraeus' counterinsurgency adviser, played a key role in building bridges with the Sunni tribes who have recently turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Dr. Montgomery McFate, who also contributed to the manual, is working to further the use of anthropological knowledge in our counterinsurgency campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan to save more lives and build better societies.

I am confident that because of their efforts—and, more broadly, because of the contributions of a number of social scientists to an improved understanding of counterinsurgency in the United States government—there are many Iraqi and Afghan civilians who are alive today who might otherwise have been killed in action by well-meaning but more poorly informed soldiers. Arguably even more importantly, Al Qaeda in Iraq is far less of a threat to the people of Iraq and the United States today than it was six months ago—an outcome that even Osama bin Laden has acknowledged, and one that is largely a result of smarter policies enacted in part because of the contributions of social scientists. Fewer needless casualties and a safer planet should, in my eyes at least, cause us to thank rather than castigate those who apply human knowledge to the cause of fighting as judiciously and as intelligently as possible. I am sincerely hopeful that the broader and deeper understanding of other societies that anthropologists like Drs. Kilcullen and McFate bring to the table will diminish not just the casualties in the wars we are fighting today, but also make future wars less likely.

There is real danger in Dr. Price's jeremiad against Montgomery McFate, David Kilcullen, and the other anthropologists who are taking not just academic but also personal risks to help America fight more intelligently. General Sir William Francis Butler noted 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." 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.


A response to the response -- David Price's reply in Counterpunch. Published 3 Nov.

Army Response to Counterpunch - Small Wars Journal

Controversy: FM 3-24 Plagiarism "Scandal" -- Abu Muqawama

More on 3-24 and the Vanguard of Revolution -- Abu Muqawama

FM 3-24 "Scandal": Nagl Responds -- Abu Muqawama

Counterinsurgency Author Hits Back on "Plagiarism" - Danger Room (Wired)

A Surge in Plagiarism? - Harpers Magazine

Nagl Responds to Price - Savage Minds

Anthropologists and a True Culture War - Discuss at Small Wars Council

"Desperate People with Limited Skills" - Discuss at Small Wars Council


Joshua (not verified)

Sat, 11/03/2007 - 5:19pm

A feeble defense of Price's sharp observations that the Field Manual is a shoddy patch work of others' works stitched togther to sound and look 'smart'. Nagl's 'this is how we roll' defense is so problemtatic I dont know even where to begin.

My biggest concern is how people forget that they are arguing WITH THE MILITARY(!) about the military over the issue their 'success' while forgetting that success is an euphemism for the completion of US imperialism in a place they have no right to be; it is not Nagl's or McFate's place to 'fix' a society they deem broken. Instead Americans should stay home and support the many creative talents individuals in Iraq's communities posses to solve their own problems (instead of killing them). There are plenty of smart and capable people there as well as local voices who know what they need; it certainly isnt American brands of neocolonialsim or indirect rule.

Price is simply showing that the manual is not a 'real' manual but a publicity stunt and a political tool. If his tone is angry, well, shouldn't we all be angry over the meaningless loss of life the US and their cohorts have caused over the years through their ridiculoussly self-interested and illegal wars?

Steve Blair

Fri, 11/02/2007 - 11:44am

Killing the message?

The question that's starting to dominate my thoughts about the whole 3-24 controversy is: "Are people upset about the lack of citations or are they happy that they have found an academically valid justification for attacking the manual?" Much as I hate to say it, I'm beginning to suspect the latter.

As mentioned in my earlier comment, I wish that the UC version of 3-24 would have included citations so that I could satisfy my own curiosity and need for deeper research. Will I throw it out because it lacks such citations? No. Do I consider this on the same level as Stephen Ambrose's plagiarism (a great article discussing this appears in the Slate here: No.

In many ways I view 3-24 as a digest and not necessarily as original scholarly research. Perhaps the authors should have expected that others outside the military community would be interested in this work, but I do not in this case fault the authors. The blame (if there is any) or responsibility (a better term) lies with the editors (be they civilian or military) who failed to consider that there would be individuals out there looking to discredit this publication. Providing full documentation (either in the publication or making it available as a supplemental download using proper sourcing) would have avoided much of the fuss. Instead they have given people a window to attack the manual based on its style and not its substance.

Gian P Gentile

Fri, 11/02/2007 - 8:30am

To Mr Nagl:

Agree that the Price piece is strident and very angry in tone. He uses a critique of the Coin manual to go after HTTs and his apparent abhorrence for the involvement of American anthropologists in war.

However, in all of the responses to the Price piece to include yours not one has offered a satisfying explanation of the passages that are used in the Coin manual that Price shows to be directly lifted from other sources. Now the garden variety explanation for this has been oh yes, oh well what should we realistically expect since it is a doctrinal manual and it can not be cluttered with footnotes and quotation marks.

But I look at it this way, like you I have an advanced degree (a PhD in history from Stanford University). I was not an author of the Coin manual. You were along with others like Dr Conrad Crane. Con was in fact a senior mentor of mine at Stanford and read and critiqued my dissertation. So I have to tell you that if I was involved with the writing of this manual and even understanding the limits of using footnotes, if I would have pulled so many direct quotes from other sources and placed them in quotations and then found out that the publisher had removed the quotations then I would have taken that to be a "fall on my sword issue" for me. Is that the way it was with you, Con, and the other scholars who were involved with the writing of this manual?

Again and to sum up, 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. I mean heck on page 1-4 of the manual the publishers did find it in their means to use quotation marks to quote directly from TE Lawrence; So why not these other passages?


Tom Paine (not verified)

Thu, 11/01/2007 - 2:39pm

Price and those who think like him are simply marginalizing themselves.

Anthropologists who go out into the field and contribute important knowledge to solving important problems -- and who themselves gain new knowledge from that process -- will be the ones who advance the field and in future years write the important articles in the important journals.

Price and his ilk will not be among them -- unless they turn from enforcing their sterile orthodoxy to advancing their field of knowledge.

Steve Blair

Thu, 11/01/2007 - 1:34pm

This is a very reasoned response, and one done with much less personal mud-slinging than the piece authored by Dr Price. Given the state of some academic writing and research, perhaps Dr Price would be better served by turning his invective on his own profession instead of attempting to judge writing for one that is apparently outside his experience or understanding. Either that or Price has written one too many academic book reviews and has lost touch with a more civilzed mode of communication or dialog (this is a comment on the often harsh style found in many academic reviews, where such mud-slinging seems to be accepted and expected).

That said, it might have been better (although hindsight is always perfect) if 3-24 had followed the model established by the Marine Corps' warfighting publications (which make use of endnotes). I make this observation not as a nitpicking academic, but as one who is always interested in the source or root of an idea or quotation. History does not create itself in a void, and since 3-24 is attempting to draw some observations from history such sourcing is especially valuable for those who wish to "track it back to its source." While this might not have been practical (or desirable) for the .pdf version, it would certainly have been useful (and even expected) for the University of Chicago print version.