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An Open Letter to Professor Stephen Ambrose: Did you Plagiarize or just Forget?

| Essays

Dear Professor Ambrose,

I can’t imagine what the last two weeks have been like for you and your family. You’ve been crouching in a hail of hateful words like “fraud,” “plagiarist” and “vampire,” mortar shells reminiscent of the battles you describe so vividly. Since January 4, when Weekly Standard reporter Fred Barnes alleged that you copied whole passages from other historians for Wild Blue, your book on WWII fighter pilots, your integrity has been called into question by your academic peers, veterans and the salivating punditry. Several more of your books have been held under the microscope, even as they have continued to sell.

You know all this, and my thoughts are probably little more than another howl in the chaos. Nonetheless, I believe that many of your accusers sympathize with your crimes more than they say. Outrage at this wrongdoing seems to have come in two parts: moralizing on the inherent evils of plagiarism, followed closely by how you, drunk with success, brought this upon yourself. Both are correct and yet miss the point, a point a little too true to admit out loud.

Our most basic common link — you, I, historians, journalists and students — is that we are all writers. We arrange words in order to bring about larger ideas and greater understanding. We use them, as you have done magnificently, to tell stories. These stories are often the result of physical and mental toil, research (and all of that word’s resonances) and the slow boil of ideas and narratives in our head. We journalists, with our relentless deadlines, rarely have that luxury, although our minds still insist that we do. We’re wired to discover, assemble and then tell out loud. The work on a story largely comes from those first two steps and when the writing begins, we know our story backwards and forwards because we’ve told it to ourselves a hundred times. I often find it changing during the writing, which is when it becomes my favorite part of the process. Other times, I’m already done with the story by then and inscribing it feels like a bother.

I fear this may have been what happened to you, Professor Ambrose, when you decided to import another writer’s words and pass them off as your own. I too labored in the salt mines of historical research for a few years and have an idea of how easily a passage can get misplaced, wrongly quoted, lost in the mass of findings that must support these endeavors. In your case, hard evidence has surfaced that it happened too many times to be dismissed as an accident, even though that’s what you called it.

You’ve made your apologies and your peers have accepted them. They both admire and envy you, as both a champion of historical memory and bestseller machine. Few academics have a gift for narrative like yours, one that can press a scholarly book into the hands of a general audience. But those who do pay their respects to the writing process. Edmund Morris, who in interviews, calls himself a writer first, a historian second, laces his hefty presidential biographies with several narrative styles. Following a stroke, historian William Manchester no longer has the strength to complete the final volume of his massively popular Winston Churchill biography. Not being able to write, he says, makes him weep.

I don’t see the same commitment in you. The production of your books is legendary in its efficiency, with your five grown children all employed as researchers and teams of assistants running about. You’re incorporated as Ambrose & Ambrose, Inc. Steven Spielberg produces films based on your work. You’ve finished eight books in five years. Even your editors tell you to slow down. Yet the record is oddly silent when it comes to your writing, your rituals, tendencies or preferred style. Maybe journalists just haven’t asked or they’ve assumed that copying is a habit you got into early on as some of the evidence would indicate. Me, I’m left with the sense that there’s no room on the production floor of Ambrose & Ambrose for composing a book from scratch, that writing is a task that can gradually be outsourced, one paragraph at a time.

I hope this isn’t true, Professor Ambrose. I admire the zeal you’ve shown in making our nation’s military history exciting and accessible. My guess is that while your respect amongst your colleagues may suffer, your popularity will not. Few of your millions of fans care much about footnotes and correct attribution styles. But I’m just another writer, one who walks away from this incident feeling as though something has been lost. Writers write, the hackneyed saying goes. Sitting down at the proverbial desk may not the adrenaline rush of another project rolling into production but it’s what makes us who we are. Regard that as disposable and where are we? In the trenches of the battle of the mind, defenseless without our imaginations.


Kevin Smokler