Last week, controversy swirled around some good news from Iraq. An op-ed appeared in the New York Times with a flashy title, "A War We Just Might Win," written by two Brookings scholars. These scholars were immediately called out by anti-war critics as hardly being credible (the link is very much worth clicking).
The report wasn’t entirely glowing, as it contained some qualifiers, but the authors truly believed that things are improving in Iraq. The authors stood by their words, again offering qualified assessments that whatever the military successes, the political situation is dire.
Both sides of the debate used the article to serve their purposes. Pro-war advocates felt that if scholars from the liberal Brookings Institution were seeing the light, it was a point in their favor. Anti-war advocates thought of it as a sham, irrelevant, even, as the "deteriorating" political situation was what the surge was all about. The report from the Associated Press that followed received the same treatment. Hawks seized on the part focusing on the progress resulting from the surge, doves went for the still unresolved political problems facing Iraq. Both sides accused the other of tunnel vision.
In that light, it should be no surprise that The New Republic faces a scandal after a series of anonymous articles were largely discredited. The decision to run these pieces wasn’t so much a sign of ideological hubris (it could have been) as it was sheer editorial stupidity.
Earlier this year, TNR received a manuscript from Private Scott Thomas Beauchamp, a soldier deployed in Iraq. Seeing in it an opportunity to cover something from the ground with a unique voice, they ran it with a pseudonym, Scott Thomas. A publication makes such a decision to shield the author from retribution from authorities, but in this case, it proved a double-edged sword. By publishing Beauchamp anonymously, TNR was practically begging critics to bite. They did. And TNR was surprisingly unprepared.
I’m not going to assume readers of HUMAN EVENTS follow The New Republic very closely, so here’s a summary. The first story in January depicted the soldier’s playful meeting with a spunky young Iraqi boy who eventually suffers for his involvement with Americans. The narrator is later told by a fellow soldier that the boy’s tongue was cut out by disapproving insurgents.
Later tales would get a bit more gruesome. Beauchamp’s second vignette, months later, featured ravenous dogs picking on the corpse of a victim of a police execution — evidenced by a 9mm round used by local law enforcement. His last piece described the way he and his comrades derided a disfigured woman in a mess hall, followed by an episode in which one soldier wore a newly-discovered skull on his head. That was followed by a hunting adventure involving a tank and some unlucky dogs.
Michael Goldfarb, online editor at The Weekly Standard, noticed something fishy about the stories and brought it to the attention of conservative bloggers. He also contacted TNR‘s editor, Frank Foer, whose responses revealed a skimpy fact-checking process — one not worth the vehement defense offered to the New York Observer. The writer revealed himself to be Scott Thomas Beauchamp, writing:
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.
Of course, why write in TNR in the first place?
And then a surprise — for some. Beauchamp recanted his stories shortly after the Army opened an investigation. TNR, unaware of this, refused to back down from their support for the writer, while promising to "re-report" the whole story. The investigation is sealed, so there’s no way of knowing just what was true and what wasn’t. But at that point, it doesn’t matter. The damage has been done.
Now, it’s a matter of course that a magazine would stand by its writers — that’s why journalists are able to take the risks they do. But the magazine assumes the risk because it has done everything in its power to make sure the writer is worth defending.
For example, if the writer was so desensitized by the war, how was he able to write about his feelings of guilt throughout the series?
Am I a monster? I have never thought of myself as a cruel person…Even as I was reveling in the laughter my words had provoked, I was simultaneously horrified and ashamed at what I had just said. In a strange way, though, I found the shame comforting. I was relieved to still be shocked by my own cruelty–to still be able to recognize that the things we soldiers found funny were not, in fact, funny.
That inconsistency didn’t register on TNR‘s radar. Even the re-reporting was shakey. When asked about the possibility of running dogs over with tanks, TNR wrote that, according to tank instructors, it was possible. But the question wasn’t "Can tanks run over dogs?" It’s "Did THIS tank run over THESE dogs?" Fact-checking isn’t about finding what’s possible — it’s about finding what happened.
Even supposing that the grisly evidence of the military’s top secret dog-killing technology was enough to go on, the real editorial stupidity was over whether the stories were worth the risk of trusting a writer with so many unknowns. The magazine defended the first article as revealing "the morally and emotionally distorting effects of war":
Over the course of the war, we have tried to provide our readers with a sense of Iraq as it is seen by the troops. Usually, these stories have been written by journalists who have traveled to Iraq and interviewed soldiers there, but last January Beauchamp sent us a first-person vignette that seemed a powerful contribution to the genre.
The evaluation of this piece as "powerful" should immediately garner suspicion. These are good, respected journalists who have a reputation to protect. How could they sidestep their natural skepticism to take such a risk? And what part made the piece so powerful? That the insurgents in Iraq are ruthless enough to maim a child? Or that American soldiers can be so cruel?
Either, both, it doesn’t matter. The Baghdad Diarist pieces were failures, not just because they could not be substantiated (though it certainly helps), but because they were expressly not powerful.
Nothing in the narratives provided anything worth holding on to. The pieces were vain. The writer is unable to confront the wrongs in which he participates. Instead he asks an audience for sympathy while taking his word for it that at least he’s aware of his misdeeds. Here, Pvt. Beauchamp sells short his audience, and most importantly, his comrades, by squandering an opportunity to show readers the true experience of a soldier on the ground.
These stories would have had no effect on those who firmly believe that American troops have a moral center, the same people who looked at Abu Ghraib as an aberration unrepresentative of how America wages war. Meanwhile, those who were anti-war all along would have used these articles to insist that war inevitably makes good men bad, and that this war in particular is especially efficient in doing so.
For that, The New Republic risked repeating, and did repeat, a past mistake. Rather than push back at critics, TNR should explain to readers that it was a bad decision to run a story that fit an ideology before finding out if it fit the facts. And then they should promise to never do it again.