I was wrong: Senator Walsh and Plagiarism

I have a new piece up on Chronicle Vitae on the alleged (but really not alleged) plagiarism by Senator John Walsh (D-MT) in his final paper at the War College, where he received his masters. In the piece, I talk about what we do and don’t need from military elites in terms of citation. Details of Chicago Manual of Style? No. Honesty about sources? Yes. I finish:

I am troubled by Walsh’s plagiarism. I don’t care whether our military elites know the intricacies of Chicago Manual of Style citation, but we cite in order to be transparent about the sources of our information. We cite to show how our ideas relate to the work of others. We cite to show that the evidence supports our conclusions. That’s something that I want our military elites to take very seriously. I hope the War College is responding to this scandal by examining their assessment norms and looking at other papers, not just those written by senators, to make sure their practices match their principles.
Walsh’s paper talks about the Iraq War. The Iraq War, as we now know, was started based off of faulty and biased information. One study found 935 false public statements from the Bush administration, many blithely reported as facts by the media. Many of the allegations about weapons of mass destruction came from “Curveball,” a single individual that claimed to have insider information, but didn’t.
Now there is a case where good footnotes might have helped.

I like to think that’s a good point, that information structure REALLY does matter when deciding whether or not to go to war, or bomb something, or otherwise engage in military actions.

Here’s the thing. I am a strong-willed opinionated writer. You have to have strong opinions to be an opinion writer; in fact, I am often toning myself down to seem reasonable when really I just want to WRITE ALL CAPS HOW CAN YOU BE SO WRONG kinds of essays. But there’s plenty of that kind of thing online, I like a lot of it, and so I try for a more measured approach. Just remember, inside, I am shouting.

This leads me to get accused of never being willing to admit that I am wrong. That’s not a new accusation for me, as I was a loudmouth extroverted-introvert as a kid (nerdy, pudgy, unpopular, argumentative) and some things don’t change. I’m not easily persuaded that I am wrong. But I can be persuaded. For example, yesterday I tweeted:

Fourteen pages? A thought piece without data? For a masters? Such was my gut reaction.

A friend of mine from a military family quickly called me on it, followed by another friend who is a veteran, and they both pointed out that this was not a degree of higher learning, but a credential system. An officer gets nominated and sent there, everyone is under a lot of pressure to pass people through (my friend made an analogy to the pressure sports teams are under to get people passed, except for the whole school, with the honor of the service on the line!), and so forth.

It’s still plagiarism. It’s important. It’s against the War College’s rules and honor code. And Walsh is going to lose his election (he was probably going to lose anyway), pending some other kind of big change. But it was an important reminder that although the words were the same as my world – masters, plagiarism – the context was in fact entirely different.

I was wrong.

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