The Baghdad Diarist, 'Shock Troops,' and Fabrications

Left-leaning The New Republic (TNR) gained new notoriety in recent weeks by  publishing of a trio of columns by the “Baghdad Diarist,” an American soldier who was serving in Baghdad and who wrote under the admitted pseudonym “Scott Thomas.” The stories written by Thomas were shocking and distasteful, telling of actions by soldiers in his unit, such as the exhumation of children’s skeletons (and the wearing of one of their skulls “like a crown”), the purposeful running over of dogs with armored vehicles, and the ridiculing of a female contractor for her disfigured appearance, which was purportedly caused by an IED blast.

The “milblogging” (military blogging) community, along with publications like The Weekly Standard, reacted almost immediately to Thomas’s claims, shooting holes in his stories and calling into question the veracity not only of his narrative, but also of his claim to be a soldier serving in Iraq. The “tall tale” tone of his narrative, and the many erroneous details present in his description of military vehicles and operations, made it somewhat difficult to believe that “Scott Thomas” was a soldier at all, let alone one who had actually been “outside the wire” participating in combat operations. (A few actually went so far as to say that he definitely was not in the military, and blogger/filmmaker JD Johannes actually predicted, very early on, which unit he was in.)

Given the increasing tendency of the media to run unchecked or clearly fabricated stories — take the “fake but accurate” memos pushed by Dan Rather on CBS, or the altered photographs provided Reuters by Israel/Lebanon “war” photographer Aidan Hajj for example — in hopes of affecting events or of scooping their opposition, add that to  TNR’s history of being snookered by too-good-to-be-true “journalism” (exhibit A: Stephen Glass), the milblogging community was well justified in their drive to shed further light — positive or negative — on “Scott Thomas” and his stories. 

The episode became so far-reaching that the New York Times ran a story this week on the credibility questions raised in the Thomas affair. But the Old Grey Lady’s online staff (and many others in the Old Media) are still not savvy enough to catch on to the fact that bloggers will take note of undocumented alterations in published stories. The Times changed the part of its article (post-publication) which quoted TNR editor Franklin Foer’s comments as to his certainty of whether or not Thomas was an actual US soldier three separate times — further feeding the speculation as to Thomas’s actual affiliation (or lack thereof) with the US military.

Thursday morning, after being hammered by bloggers and publications, TNR finally caved in to the calls for Scott Thomas’s identity to be revealed, publishing this message on their website:

I am Private Scott Thomas Beauchamp, a member of Alpha Company, 1/18 Infantry, Second Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division.

My pieces were always intended to provide my discreet view of the war; they were never intended as a reflection of the entire U.S. Military. I wanted Americans to have one soldier’s view of events in Iraq.

It’s been maddening, to say the least, to see the plausibility of events that I witnessed questioned by people who have never served in Iraq. I was initially reluctant to take the time out of my already insane schedule fighting an actual war in order to play some role in an ideological battle that I never wanted to join. That being said, my character, my experiences, and those of my comrades in arms have been called into question, and I believe that it is important to stand by my writing under my real name.

So, “Scott Thomas,” whose name we now know to be Scott Thomas Beauchamp, has identified himself, and is actually a member of the US military in Baghdad, based at FOB Falcon (my former place of residence when embedded with the 1-4 Cavalry earlier this year). Many who have defended TNR in this affair will now sit back and claim victory against the evil righty milbloggers, seeing themselves vindicated now that Beauchamp has proven that he is, in fact, a military member.

To claim that this is the be-all and end-all of the story, though, would be to focus on the wrong point entirely.

The critical issue here is not the fact that Beauchamp is an actual American soldier (nor was the question of whether or not he was one core to the swarm surrounding the stories.) The critical issue is what Beauchamp said — whether his hyperbolic claims have any basis in fact at all — and whether The New Republic actually did the legwork necessary to verify parts of his claims, let alone the whole stories. There are still many questions to be asked regarding the plausibility of the events he claims to have “witnessed”, from the existence of the burned woman, who source after source on the Forward Operation Base in question have said simply does not exist, to the ability of a Bradley driver to maneuver his vehicle with such precision that he can catch a dog with his tracked wheel, while the canine is in his glaring right-side blind spot, just to name two.

TNR has acquiesced a bit to the specter of another Stephen Glass in their ranks, releasing this statement Thursday:

Although the article was rigorously edited and fact-checked before it was published, we have decided to go back and, to the extent possible, re-report every detail. This process takes considerable time, as the primary subjects are on another continent, with intermittent access to phones and email. Thus far we’ve found nothing to disprove the facts in the article; we will release the full results of our search when it is completed.

Unfortunately, this is what the sensationalist media appear to have come to: in hopes of breaking the next big story, actually investigating and re-investigating the facts surrounding stories is reserved for after their publication, while statements like that above from TNR (reminiscent of Dan Rather’s “nobody has challenged the actual thrust of our story) are issued as a means of keeping the wolves at bay and attempting to keep people focused on the charges, not their underlying truth or falsity.

The fact that Beauchamp has become the darling of the left-of-center media as a result of his “speaking out” is ironic at best — for, if what he says is true, then he not only witnessed some very unfortunate examples of human depravity (not to mention potential war crimes), but apparently participated in them.

Had he really witnessed such things, and had he really wanted to make a difference in preventing them, then, as Major Kirk Luedeke (Public Affairs Officer for the 4th IBCT on FOB Falcon) said, the right course of action would have been to report it immediately — thus sparking a military investigation into the events he recounted, rather than — as is now ongoing — into himself and his gross impropriety.

Beauchamp is going to face repercussions for his actions. As milblogger Greyhawk has pointed out, “Although that will be for the behavior he confesses to, the media will try to construct a fiction that he’s being persecuted for speaking out.” This reflects the current position of the anti-war stalwarts within the media:  they have an entrenched belief regarding the nature of the Iraq war and of the military, and of the character of the men fighting it. Given that, when a story of this nature becomes available, that is just too juicy to pass up, “too good to be checked,” and in absolute conformity with the left’s idea of our soldiers, then any repercussions which reach the storyteller must be a result not of his untruthfulness or rule-breaking, but of his daring to “speak truth to power.”

Scott Thomas Beauchamp has been outed — both as the Baghdad Diarist, and  as a very, very poor excuse for an American serviceman. (His personal blog includes such statements as “My goal is to become an incompetent leader that gets fragged by 30 something NCO’s at a forward operating base in Sadr City”). In him, though, TNR found their “real soldier” whistleblower — one who would tell tales of atrocities, and who would reinforce their conception of who and what an average American soldier was.

Beauchamp’s identity has been confirmed; at least that part of his series of claims was true. But many questions remain about the veracity of his stories. If TNR is as serious about verifying his claims (this time) as they say, then I would like to offer my services to the publication. I will be at FOB Falcon this September, working with the 4th IBCT, under which Beauchamp’s unit falls. While I am there, I’d be more than happy to do whatever investigative work is necessary to either corroborate or debunk the stories and provided to you by Scott Thomas Beauchamp. Given the Stephen Glass episode of years past — and the speed with which questions were raised about this episode — I would say that your credibility could definitely use the boost of an outside source working to verify this for you.

I am sincere, and am awaiting your call. The offer will be open for as long as I am in Iraq.