What's an Army Field Manual?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 16 2005 6:39 PM

What Are Army Field Manuals?

How-to guides for interrogation, laser injury prevention, and other useful skills.

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The Pentagon has delayed the release of a newly revised Army Field Manual on interrogations, a day after Tuesday's Senate vote to amend a torture ban to a defense bill. Earlier this month, Sen. John McCain succeeded in adding a provision that established the Army Field Manual as the source for interrogation procedures for all branches of government. What's an Army Field Manual?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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A how-to book for soldiers. There are field manuals—or FMs—for just about everything a member of the Army might need to do, from handling nuclear material to cooking dinner. As of a few years ago, there were over 650 different manuals. Some cover broad topics (for instance, FM 1 "The Army," and FM 3-0 "Operations") while others focus on more specific issues—like FM 8-50, "Prevention and Medical Management of Laser Injuries." The standard field manual is written at a sixth-grade level and broken into chapters, and adorned with charts, tables, and hand-drawn illustrations. Some of the books come with appendices of examples or real-life vignettes. Many—but not all—of them are available to the public on Web sites like this one.

A battalion typically has a library of 40 or 50 field manuals at headquarters. These would include some FMs on general topics, as well as a selection of more specific guides that vary from office to office. (A library might store multiple copies of a particularly useful guide.) Most field manuals look like college textbooks with the covers ripped off—they're about an inch thick, with a flimsy spine. Some have holes punched in the margin so they can be kept in three-ring binders. They're also available in HTML or PDF form, and some can even be downloaded to a Palm device.

Some FMs are used in the field. FM 7-8, for example, covers the basic tactics and operations for small infantry units. All platoons would have at least one copy of the "seven-dash-eight" around; the platoon leader might keep it in his humvee. Since it's so common, the FM 7-8 comes in a handy pocket-size version that's about the size of a small paperback book and bound at the top with staples. (At more than 400 pages, the little 7-8 is still pretty thick. True Army nerds can get their copies laminated for protection from the elements.) Other FMs that deal with very specific topics—like a specific weapon system—might be kept near the equipment for which they provide instructions.

All Army interrogators have access to the field manual on "Intelligence Interrogation" (FM 34-52), but it's unlikely that any carry it around. The book contains chapters on the role of the interrogator and various procedures for obtaining information. (Slate contributor Phillip Carter outlined a few of the FM 34-52 techniques here.) Chances are they'd only consult it when something unusual came up.

The Army distributes several other kinds of publications to its troops. Technical manuals (TMs) are a lot like owner's guides—most pieces of equipment come with one. Pamphlets give information on a topic or program, more to educate the soldier than to explain how to do something. Army regulations (ARs) lay out basic rules, like how to wear your uniform.

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Explainer thanks Operation Truth and the United States Army.

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