The Scott Thomas Beauchamp brouhaha is a proverbial tempest in a teapot. The claims Beauchamp made
(as the barely pseudonymous “Scott Thomas”) in his “Baghdad Diarist” New Republic
article about American soldiers behaving badly are fairly trivial; the war in Iraq does not stand or fall on their truthfulness. Nonetheless, the blogosphere’s reaction to the story has been sharply divided along pro-war and anti-war lines almost from the start, and this across-the-board knee-jerk response is, perhaps, the most interesting (if depressing) aspect of the entire affair.
Right meme: it’s a liberal media conspiracy to besmirch the war effort by encouraging a leftist literary poseur to publish fictional or embellished stories painting soldiers as depraved sociopaths. Left meme: it’s a right-wing cyber-lynching of a soldier telling the ugly truth about the war. TNR’s announcement that it has confirmed the story to its satisfaction has not changed any minds.
There is no question that some of the right-wing rhetoric directed at Beauchamp and at TNR was indeed shockingly ugly, violent
, and paranoid
(Beauchamp was a leftist mole who had deliberately infiltrated the military in order to destroy it from within!). But the defense of Beauchamp from the anti-war camp seems misguided.
Factually, the critics have the point that the incident of mocking an injured woman occurred in Kuwait, not Iraq. And, unless more facts emerge, that’s it.
But the location is not a triviality in this instance. Beauchamp’s piece opened with a shocking tale of how he and a buddy publicly mocked a woman on their base in Iraq — a woman whom, he wrote, he saw at almost every meal in the chow hall — whose face was badly disfigured by an IED. After three soldiers told TNR fact-checkers that they did remember a loud conversation in which the woman was mocked within her hearing range, but it happened at Camp Buehring in Kuwait, prior to the unit’s arrival in Iraq, Beauchamp acknowledged the error. But was it an error? After all, with the correct location, the anecdote would not have fit into Beauchamp’s narrative. His point was that war messes up one’s moral compass, including his own. In this case, logic is on the side of The Weekly Standard
‘s Michael Goldfarb
when he writes:
TNR says in this new statement that “Shock Troops” “was about the morally and emotionally distorting effects of war.” But now we find out that Beauchamp hadn’t even gotten to Iraq when this incident allegedly took place.
For an analogy: Suppose a conservative magazine ran an article about the baneful effects of same-sex marriage on general attitudes toward matrimony. Suppose it opened with an account of a conversation overheard by the author on a college campus in Massachusetts, a few weeks after that state’s Supreme Court ruled that same-sex unions must be legalized, in which several college students favorably discussed polygamy and group marriage. Suppose some questions were raised about the accuracy of that account, and then it turned out that the conversation did take place — only it was a month before the same-sex marriage ruling and it happened not in Massachusetts but in Virginia. Would anyone consider that a trivial error?
Shakespeare’s Sister (Melissa McEwen) also thinks
that Beauchamp deserves credit for coming clean about his error; but I’m not sure there’s much virtue in that, considering that three soldiers had already told TNR’s fact-checkers the incident had taken place on the base in Kuwait.
As for the other incidents chronicled by Beauchamp: Ace of Spades does a pretty convincing job
of “fisking” the one in which a soldier wore a piece of a skull on his head. It’s clear that Beauchamp did not entirely make up the story; whether he considerably embellished it is a different matter. The final anecdote, about a soldier who ran over stray dogs with his Bradley fighting vehicle for a hobby, is confirmed inasmuch as it is in fact possible to target a dog with a Bradley; but the part about the dog being neatly severed in half with such a hit still seems highly dubious.
And then there is the curious matter of Beauchamp’s first diarist piece, “War Bonds
” (subscribers only). In it, Beauchamp tells the horrifying tale of chatting with a friendly Iraqi boy while changing a flat tire, only to find out the next day that the boy, who called himself “James Bond,” had his tongue cut out by insurgents for talking to Americans. Some critics have focused on the improbability of Beauchamp’s claim that he was changing a tire in a “dark brown river of sewage.” But there are bigger problems with the story than that. How about, for instance, the fact that Beauchamp and the boy engage in pleasant chit-chat while standing in reeking excremental fluids that, according to the writer, swallow up the boy’s lower torso — and no mention is made of what, surely, had to be a suffocating stench?
Then, we get to Beauchamp’s account of what happened next. A private from his unit who had patrolled the same neighborhood brings him the news:
“… That James Bond kid you were telling me about–did he run around in an Adidas hat?”
“Those fuckers cut off his tongue.”
“Shia militia, the police, I don’t know. Apparently he had been talking to too many Americans.”
“No fucking way.”
“Yeah. Fuck them, man. I hate when this shit happens to kids.”
We didn’t go back to Little Venice for a raid or patrol or mission of any type for quite some time–maybe a month or two. But when we did eventually go back, I didn’t have to look very hard to find Ali. He was mixed in with the throng of children who waded up to our convoy screaming for us to throw them chocolate or soccer balls. Of course, he wasn’t screaming, but he was smiling and his hands were outstretched to catch whatever a soldier with a generous streak might be kind enough to throw athim. I wanted to yell, “Hey, James Bond! I hope you get to California!”–but I didn’t. I just watched him scramble for the soccer ball that went bobbing away toward an alley and out of my field of vision.
Now, I know that life in a war zone does strange things to people. Still, a boy is horribly mutilated by insurgents for talking to Americans … and a month or two later he is back on the same streets, hanging around Americans and waiting for handouts, smiling happily and sprinting after a soccer ball? He is not shunned by other kids, if only for fear of further retaliation? His family has not thought to keep him off the streets, or maybe try to get out of that neighborhood altogether? None of it rings true — though I’m certainly not denying that the insurgents could have done such a thing. I also wonder if it’s odd that no one else has reported on this incident. While there are plenty of horrible things happening in Iraq right now, a child having his tongue cut out is an incident that would stand out even against this grimmest of backdrops; and besides, this is exactly the kind of thing the U.S. military would publicize as an example of the barbarism we’re up against.
Of course, no one questioned that story because no one has a political or emotional stake in disproving atrocities by insurgents. But it does, for the reasons listed above, get a pretty strong reading from my B.S. detector. It would be interesting to see a follow-up investigation, though I’m not holding my breath.
So yes, I think there are good reasons to question Beauchamp’s accuracy, and neither TNR nor liberal bloggers are doing themselves any favors by coming uncritically to his defense. But conservative bloggers aren’t covering themselves in glory either when they stridenly insist that TNR gave Beauchamp a platform in a nefarious plot to smear and slander the troops. TNR is not some far-left rag that revels in spitting on American soldiers; it is a centrist magazine that initially supported the war in Iraq. Indeed, while I think the story of the boy who had his tongue cut out raises further doubts about Beauchamp’s credibility, it also points to the aburdity of claims that TNR editors were eager to publish Beauchamp because his writings put U.S. troops in Iraq in a bad light. (Unless, of course, one wants to claim that TNR and Beauchamp cleverly conspired to ensure that his first diarist piece focused on atrocity by the insurgents in order to avert suspicion of anti-Americanism — which is probably not too paranoid for a few websites.) I think Beauchamp wanted to write gritty, vivid, human-interest-rich accounts of the horrors of war, and TNR wanted to publish them.
On the other hand, I think it’s not entirely accurate to claim that Beauchamp’s piece had no larger implications beyond “some soldiers are jerks.” His whole point was that war turns good, caring people (such as, he modestly suggests, himself) into the kind of people who would mock disfigured women, desecrate human remains, and run over dogs for sport.
At the same time, if Beauchamp and his editors at TNR truly wanted to slander the troops, you’d think they would come up with something more damning and more significant than boorishness, macabre humor, and animal cruelty. These claims are so insignificant that it’s doubtful anyone had noticed them at all if the right-wing blogosphere hadn’t made a fuss about it. (I can’t see The Associated Press or Reuters running a news story headlined, “Serviceman makes shocking claims about U.S. abuses in Iraq: Soldiers mocked disfigured woman, ran over dogs.”) John Cole points out
an amusing contradiction in a post by Matt Sanchez
, saying that the soldiers on Beauchamp’s base have never heard of the “Baghdad Diarist” saga — and, three paraphraphs later, that this saga is “taken so personally” because of all the soldiers who have died in Iraq. One irony of this affair is that many conservative bloggers make it sound as if the reputation of American troops in Iraq would indeed be compromised if Beauchamp’s account were corroborated.
I also think Andrew Sullivan probably has a point when he speculates
that one reason for the Beauchamp brouhaha is that, unable to discredit the real
bad news coming from Iraq, war supporters have targeted the Beauchamp story as a weak link. There are also far too many on the right who do not want to hear, or to accept, any bad news about the conduct or the morale of American troops. Yet we know that the bad news is out there — even in a Pentagon report, issued last May
, which found that fewer than half of the soldiers and Marines believed that Iraqi non-combatants should be treated with “dignity and respect,” that most would not report a team member for mistreating civilians, and 10 percent (not an insignificant number) admitted to such mistreatment themselves. One might add, too, that if conservatives want to get indignant at those who suggest that morally degenerate behavior is fairly “normal” for American soldiers in Iraq, they should have directed some of their ire at Rush Limbaugh when he suggested that the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was just a way for American soliders to “blow off some steam
” after being shot at every day.
But none of that changes the fact that a magazine like TNR (whose current issue, by the way, features a magnificent, poignant selection of photos from Iraq by freelance photographer Ashley Gilbertson) owes its readers real accuracy, not just a “close enough.” Truth in journalism matters; that’s why the Beauchamp saga is not entirely trivial. And even those who are rightly disgusted by the hysteria about “slandering the troops” should not overlook this fact. In the end, Beauchamp and his persecutors may well deserve each other.