Daily Archives: August 7, 2007

More Beauchamp

According to Michael Goldfarb at The Weekly Standard, Beauchamp has recanted.

THE WEEKLY STANDARD has learned from a military source close to the investigation that Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp–author of the much-disputed “Shock Troops” article in the New Republic’s July 23 issue as well as two previous “Baghdad Diarist” columns–signed a sworn statement admitting that all three articles he published in the New Republic were exaggerations and falsehoods–fabrications containing only “a smidgen of truth,” in the words of our source.

Goldfarb also quotes this statement from Major Steven F. Lamb, the deputy Public Affairs Officer for Multi National Division-Baghdad:

An investigation has been completed and the allegations made by PVT Beauchamp were found to be false. His platoon and company were interviewed and no one could substantiate the claims.

Could the Army investigation be a means of sweeping embarrassing facts under the rug? Sure. Could the military pressure a private into recanting a true story? Sure — though Beuchamp, at present, has enough visibility to be more protected from retaliation than the typical soldier. Be as it may, if the story recantation story pans out, it will no doubt breathe a new life into the story.

Meanwhile, Jeff Goldstein responds to my earlier post on the topic, and specifically to this part:

[W]hile 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.)

Asks Jeff:

Consider: is it really “paranoid” to suggest that a writer working to establish credibility would be careful to describe the barbarism of “both sides” (and aren’t we always told that what separates “us” from “them” is that we do not behave like them, making the subsequent barbarism of the American troops reported in Beauchamp’s follow-up pieces all the more pointedly ironic)?

In fact, isn’t it that juxtaposition itself that gives the pieces their pointedness and, to some, their poignancy?

The idea that war turns us into what we are fighting is the “literary” conceit being serviced by Beauchamp’s collection of essays — and in the aggregate, his pieces are, in my reading, intended to supply this practiced layer to the anti-war narrative embraced both by Foer and (if we can believe his other writings, or view his political affiliations as “significant” with respect to his literary output) Beauchamp.

Sorry — I find it hard to believe that Beauchamp sought “juxtaposition” between an essay published in February and an essay published in July. People weren’t reading his essays in a collection of books, they were reading them in a weekly magazine, and except for a handful who were paying special attention to the “Baghdad Diarist,” I doubt that most even remembered that the “Shock Troops” article was written by the same guy who wrote about the insurgents cutting out a kid’s tongue. If Beauchamp wanted “juxtaposition” between the atrocities of the insurgents and the dehumanization of U.S. soldiers to the point of becoming “just like the enemy,” surely he would have made it in one article, not two different essays separated by months. Besides, especially compared to an atrocity like cutting off a child’s tongue, the behavior Beauchamp imputes to U.S. soldiers hardly qualifies as “barbaric.”

Meanwhile, in the comments, “Jeffersonian,” who says he is a longtime fan of mine and defends me against some of the more spirited comments from his fellow posters, accuses me of being “disingenuous” in this case:

TNR obviously knew what Beauchamp was going to write before he did, given the nature of his oeuvre. Of the tens of thousands of soldiers in Iraq, they just happened across this guy? … TNR picked STB for a reason, and it wasn’t because of his purple prose.

I appreciate the fan support, of course; but does “Jeffersonian” really believe that when TNR picked up Beauchamp’s first Diarist piece about the Iraqi boy mutilated by insurgents for talking to Americans, Franklin Foer knew in advance that Beauchamp would follow up with a piece chronicling bad behavior by American soldiers and that’s the only reason he decided to publish Beauchamp? Sorry, but that is paranoid, and it’s also the kind of demonization of “the other side” that I find so frustrating in political discourse.

As I recall, Beauchamp was recommended to TNR by his fiancee Elspeth Reeve, a staffer at the magazine. It’s not as if the magazine went looking for a soldier to write “Diarist” pieces. I do think that, to a large extent, Beauchamp was given a platform because he was someone the TNR editors saw as “one of us”: a guy with a background in creative writing and journalism, as well as a Howard Dean supporter. I think it’s also fair to say that the first Diarist piece, while not negative toward American troops in Iraq, showed them as mired in bleak and awful futility: at the end, Beauchamp reflects on his feelings of helplessness at his inability to protect the boy. So in that sense, it certainly fits into the current world-view at TNR. On the other hand, it could also be read as implying that if we withdraw from Iraq, we will leave the population in the hands of people who cut out children’s tongues to make a point.

Finally, I’m not sure why some of Jeff’s commenters think I’m helping “close ranks” in defense of TNR, or wondering what my reaction will be “if Beauchamp’s recantation is acknowledged and TNR still holds the articles as representative of the magazine’s journalism.” Where exactly is my defense of TNR? I said I believed that Beauchamp is a fabulist or at least a partial fabulist, and that TNR is wrong to stand by him. Nor did I ever say the story didn’t matter; I specifically said does, because I think journalistic integrity, particularly in reporting from a war zone, is important. I think they’re guilty of shoddy journalism, but not of trying to undermine the war. As far as I know, no anti-war blogs picked up Thomas’s piece or tried to trumpet his allegations before conservative blogs drew attention to the piece.

This is not to say that Beauchamp’s stories should have been left unchallenged — only to say that, even unchallenged, they would have been unlikely to have much tangible effect, good or bad.

Update, August 9: TNR denies Beauchamp’s recantation. The Weekly Standard stands by its story. The Army says its investigation has showed Beauchamp’s stories to be false. In the end, everyone will probably stick by their opinion.

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Filed under Iraq, journalism, Scott Thomas Beauchamp

Hiroshima, moral purity and moral blindness

A thoughtful, poignant post by Shaun Mullen at The Moderate Voice (and in a longer version on his own blog, Kiko’s House) reminded me that today is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Mullen opens with a heartbreaking image of human suffering — the death of a three-year-old boy who was outside riding his tricycle when the bomb hit. Then, he examines the arguments made in favor of Harry Truman’s decision to approve the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (avoiding the huge losses of both American and Japanese lives that would have inevitably resulted from a mainland invasion, freeing millions of people under Japanese occupation as well as hundreds of thousands of POWs in danger of death), as well as the arguments against it. He concludes:

[I]n my humble view, President Truman made the right decision in 1945 under circumstances so extraordinary that it is difficult to imagine them being replicated at some future time. I pray that I am not wrong.

Oliver Kamm, British commentator and liberal hawk, has a piece making the same argument in The Guardian, challenging the “alternative history” which claims that Japan was already on the brink of surrender and the nuclear bombs were dropped in order to intimidate Stalin’s Soviet Union. Writes Kamm:

Contrary to popular myth, there is no documentary evidence that his military commanders advised him the bomb was unnecessary for Japan was about to surrender. As the historian Wilson Miscamble puts it, Truman “hoped that the bombs would end the war and secure peace with the fewest American casualties, and so they did. Surely he took the action any American president would have undertaken.” Recent Japanese scholarship provides support for this position. Sadao Asada, of Doshisha University, Kyoto, has concluded from analysis of Japanese primary sources that the two bombs enabled the “peace party” within Japan’s cabinet to prevail.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often used as a shorthand term for war crimes. That is not how they were judged at the time. Our side did terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome. The bomb was a deliverance for American troops, for prisoners and slave labourers, for those dying of hunger and maltreatment throughout the Japanese empire – and for Japan itself. One of Japan’s highest wartime officials, Kido Koichi, later testified that in his view the August surrender prevented 20 million Japanese casualties. The destruction of two cities, and the suffering it caused for decades afterwards, cannot but temper our view of the Pacific war. Yet we can conclude with a high degree of probability that abjuring the bomb would have caused greater suffering still.

Here, I will say that my knowledge of World War II is limited. I don’t know who is factually correct about the situation in the Pacific theater at the end of the war. (The revisionist case is made here by the Hoover Institution’s David Henderson.) The argument that the primary goal of dropping the bombs was to intimidate the Soviets doesn’t make much sense to me, given that after the war ended we allowed the Soviet Union to keep all of Eastern Europe, half of Germany, and the Baltics as part of its empire. If Truman mainly wanted leverage against the Soviets, he didn’t make much use of it. Some argue that alternative means of forcing a surrender, such as dropping the bomb on a military target first, could have worked. Others dispute that. I don’t know the answer.

On a purely instinctive level, I am of course appalled by justifications for the killing of about 150,000 civilians, many of them children. One cannot, if one is a normal person, justify such an act without doing violence to one’s moral sense. But are there times when the unspeakable is the lesser of two evils? Obviously, arguments that noble ends can justify terrible means can lead to some pretty dark places, and such arguments have also served countless tyrants and dictatorships as excuses for barbarism. The danger of becoming “as bad as the enemy” is real.

But the view that all use of terrible means is equal represents the opposite extreme: it is a kind of moral laziness that abdicates critical distinctions and context. Assassinating Hitler with a car bomb in the middle of World War II, even if the bomb also kills some innocents, is not morally equivalent to assassinating Martin Luther King. When some have the will to do evil things — enslavement, mass murder — there is generally no way to stop them except by force, and when one chooses to use force, terrible choices must sometimes be made. What if the only way you can stop a death squad is to destroy the camp that serves as its base, and you know that some members of this death squad have children living in this camp? (Neo-neocon has an interesting post on the subject from two years ago.)

I don’t dispute that even necessary violence, particularly when it kills innocents, damages the soul. I will even agree that we should all find it a little harder to live with ourselves when we pause to think that the victory over evil in World War II was bought with the lives of so many innocents, not only at Hiroshima but also in Dresden or in Tokyo, where the men, women and children killed by “conventional” firebombing were as dead as the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (I also agree that it’s a sign of moral progress that such wanton slaughter of civilians is now considered off-limits as a war tactic, at least by civilized nations). Nonetheless, it was as clearcut a victory over evil as there has ever been in history.

And that’s why what truly shocked me was the responses to Oliver Kamm on the Guardian website. Not all the responses, to be sure; but many of the anti-Kamm posts were truly striking in their venom and their strident moral equivalency:

The funny thing is, Oliver Kamm demonstrates what Noam Chomsky said years ago about war crimes; war crimes are defined by the victors of the war and not be (sic) any objective standard.

You could argue, that Kamm is supporting terrorism: as several posters has pointed out, with the kind of logic he espouses, Al Qaeda is perfectly entitled to target civilians in order to end the WOT.

What a disgusting article. For me, the dropping of an atomic bomb on any town anywhere is entirely despicable. In my opinion it proves beyond a shadow of doubt that whilst Americans may be lovely people when they are getting their way, they will stoop to any depths to ensure their personal gain in the face of opposition. They will also, always hide behind “holier than thou” reasons for their contemptible behaviour.

Do you believe that what you wrote actually justify intentional killing of babies, women and old folks? If so, what is wrong with Taliban killings of Korean hostages? They just want to save their own people at the moment in Afghanistan prisons.

Yes, of course, Oliver, nuclear bombs save lives, so let’s offer our unique form of salvation to the Iranians. Zonist (sic) and neo-con interests and oil have nothing to do with it.

Only idiots, cretins and evil people try to rationalize dead babies. There is no cause worth this evil. If we use evil to defeat evil, we ourselves have become evil.

Wow. Americans are just shocking in their denial. By this sick logic the jihadis are completely justified when they attack American civilians in massive acts of terror – which I might add are mere blips in comparison to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We live in a sick culture, where 60 years have passed, and there isnt even a shred of shame with regards to this heinous crime. For the sake of our species – Boycott America.

this is a truly disgusting article by a truly disgusting war monger who has now become famous for constantly suggesting war and violence against brown, black and yellow people – Lebanon, Iraq and now a justification of nuclear weapons against Japanese,
next we will get an Oliver Kamm article that says drop a nuke on Bahghdad for the sake of the Iraqis and to save American casualities,
what is the different between Oliver Kamm and the guys with long beards who glorify jihad and say things like drop drop drop the bomb?

“Our side did terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome.”
The other side also did similar terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome which became war crimes.
It is the winner who decides what is or is not a war crime.

Apologists for Western war crimes are two a penny. But why would such a person imagine they were left wing?

Most people can justify anything, even killing millions of humanbeings as long as they are not among the killed.It is sad to read such an article in the Guardian

America has ever been a psychopathic bully ever since it’s first days and the genocide against the indiginous Americans. Why all these attempts to justify what was clearly a war crime greater than all others?

The demand of unconditional surrender is in itself a war crime. It convinced the Germans (the generals not least)that they would have to fight to the last man, since no mercy could be expected from the Allies. Germany was to be destroyed rather than merely conquered. The same with Japan.

The US has never learned the lesson of treating one’s enemies with grace and magnanimity once those enemies have lost–it is always vindictive, always demands unconditional surrender, complete acquiescence to US subjugation. The US and will destroy an entire country in order to prove a point instead of giving in to one very small, insignificant condition.

What is completely absent from these comments (and many others like them) is any awareness of things like the Rape of Nanking or the Bataan Death March, or even the Holocaust for that matter; or of the fact that America’s supposed determination to “destroy” and crush her enemies manifested itself in rebuilding postwar Germany and leaving Japan with a political system that allowed it to prosper and become a strong economic rival to America herself. (There is also very little awareness that tens of thousands of German civilians died in British bombing raids.) A few commenters suggest that America should have allowed the Soviets to end the war by invading Japan, blithely unaware of the hell on earth that would have awaited the Japanese under Soviet occupation. This isn’t mere ignorance; it’s a profound conviction that only evil done by the West, and above all by “psychopathic bully” America, truly matters. Meanwhile, posters who point out Japanese atrocities in World War II are rebuffed with accusations of “the implicitly racist overtone [of] recounting the endless ‘savagery’ of the Japanese.”

When anti-Americanism becomes so extreme that it turns the U.S. into the bad guy of World War II, that’s truly frightening and depressing. Even one poster highly critical of American foreign policy today was moved to point out:

Now I don’t think I’ve ever posted anything in the defence of the United States, but there is a time for everything. The naivety of certain comments above is astonishing.

It is not racist to state that Japan during the 1940s was in the grip of a pseudo-religious nationalistic fever and would have fought to that last man rather than allow foreigners to invade their land. The inhumanity of the Japanese regime was akin to Nazi Germany. Had the situation been reversed and the Japanese had the bomb, there would not be a hamlet left standing in the United States.

It is difficult to imagine given the current American tendency of mindless warmongering, but there was a time when the US fought a just war, and there was unfortunately no alternative way of ending it to save hundreds of thousands of American lives and millions of Japanese lives.

Many of the Guardian posters were convinced that the real purpose behind Kamm’s defense of Hiroshima was to defend the use of nuclear weapons against Iran or Iraq today. I don’t know what Kamm thinks on the subject, but I do know that Shaun Mullen thinks it would be insane to use nukes in the War on Terror. So, the argument that the U.S. was justified in dropping the bombs in 1945 is not necessarily, folks, a transparent rationalization for incinerating Baghdad or Tehran in 2007.

As for whether the bombing was indeed the least evil of all available options: again, I don’t know. I’m sure there is room for legitimate debate on this issue. But that debate is almost entirely drowned out by hate and self-righteousness. The insistense on moral purity has turned to moral blindness.

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Filed under moral issues, the left, War