Every soldier has a story. Some are even true. As soldiers, we learn to hide our worst stories from people outside the brotherhood of the close fight. And so the picture of war that gets transmitted back to America is incomplete, always lacking in the awful, gory, human details that flesh out the narrative of combat. These stories are reserved for unit reunions and American Legion halls.
Army Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp broke that code when he pseudonymously wrote a series of colorful dispatches for the New Republic about his experiences as an infantryman in Iraq. He offered often gruesome details about the realities of war, details that have ignited a firestorm between left- and right-wing magazines willing to stake their reputations upon their truth and falsity.
One question today is whether Beauchamp’s dispatches are true. A second, more pressing question is how to better gather and report such stories, and how we should evaluate and verify them. I am deeply skeptical about the veracity of Beauchamp’s dispatches, particularly the last one, but disinclined to offer definitive pronouncements at this time. Partisans on both sides of the political spectrum seem to harbor no such doubts. Based solely on the content of these dispatches, some were happy to leap to conclusions about the author’s veracity without regard for the facts. And as the argument grows louder, each side turns toward the troops, using them to stand in for their own preconceived ideas about this war.
Beauchamp still serves as an infantryman in Iraq, assigned to one of the most violent parts of the country, just south of Baghdad. He writes in the style of Michael Herr’s Dispatches: a series of short, brutal vignettes about life in combat. The stories are ugly and profane, but that’s a reality of war often hidden from the people back home. In his first dispatch (subscription required), Beauchamp writes of a young boy who yearned so badly to come to America that he taught himself pidgin English and talked to American soldiers, until the day the Shiite militia came through and cut out his tongue. In his second piece, Beauchamp describes scavenger dogs devouring bodies deposited around Baghdad—the victims of sectarian violence, often killed with just one bullet to the head.
The author is careful to distance himself from these monstrosities, meticulously chronicling the horrors of this war without falling victim to them. But in his third report, Beauchamp breaks with this theme, writing that war has turned him into a monster as well. He describes a scene in which he and some buddies ridicule a badly deformed woman in the base dining hall—making fun of her injuries from an improvised explosive device—as well as two other incidents involving a buddy who wore parts of a child’s skull around his neck and another who mowed down dogs with his armored vehicle for sport.
Almost immediately after Beauchamp’s third story hit the newsstand in the July 23 issue, right-wing journalists and bloggers launched an offensive against the New Republic and the author, then still hidden behind the pseudonym of his first and middle names. Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard led a number of prominent conservative bloggers to question the author’s combat credentials, experiences, even the fact that he was a soldier. Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol charged the New Republic and TheNation (which had just run a front-page article on atrocities allegedly committed by troops in Iraq) with betraying the troops, writing that “those on the cutting edge of progressive opinion are beginning to give up on even pretending to support the troops. Instead, they now slander the troops.”
Last night, the Weekly Standard declared victory by claiming that Beauchamp had recanted, quoting an anonymous military source claiming his reports “were exaggerations and falsehoods—fabrications containing only ‘a smidgen of truth,’ in the words of our source.” Military spokesmen in Baghdad declined to confirm this or provide any more details to me about their investigation, saying only that interviews with Beauchamp’s unit found that “no one could substantiate his claims” and that this was a closed issue for his unit to handle administratively.
The New Republic’s editors countered the Weekly Standard’s attack with a bland statement on Aug. 1, a position by which they continue to stand. The magazine’s investigation found that sources in Beauchamp’s unit could in fact corroborate his stories but also determined that the dining-hall scene took place in Kuwait, not Iraq. The New Republic’s conclusions rested on anonymous corroboration from five other soldiers in Beauchamp’s company, a unit of about 150 men, as well as statements from outsiders.
In other words, both the Weekly Standard and the New Republic claim that their versions are now confirmed by anonymous military sources and by the same Army public affairs officer. In some circles, this could be called a draw.
Among military circles, the reaction to Beauchamp’s stories has been mixed. A number of my friends were disturbed by the article, especially what it implied about his unit and its leadership, but very few questioned its basic truth. Everyone’s war is different, and it’s nearly impossible to judge the veracity of another person’s combat experience. When I read Beauchamp’s first two articles, I was disturbed but not surprised. His tamer reports echoed my own experiences of Iraq and mirrored stories I’d heard from other soldiers there. The third dispatch, however, struck me as too fantastic to believe, in part because I could not imagine soldiers making fun of anyone who had been wounded by an improvised explosive device, especially an infantryman like Beauchamp who himself faced the dangers of these bombs. But, as was the case with the other veterans I spoke to, I could not rule out the truth of the articles. Every soldier experiences fragments of the larger war. Beauchamp’s tale was neither believable nor patently untrue on its face.
As an old combat veteran reminded me last week, American soldiers have certainly done worse. Nearly three generations removed, we forget the unspeakable savagery of the Pacific campaign during World War II. Paul Fussell, a combat veteran and historian, recounted 40 years later how the so-called greatest generation of American troops mounted Japanese skulls on the fenders of their combat vehicles, and how one Marine carried a severed Japanese hand with him, asking his mates, “How many Marines you reckon that hand pulled the trigger on?” Life magazine even printed a photo of this brutality in its May 22, 1943, issue, showing a young American woman with a boiled Japanese skull sent home to her by her boyfriend overseas.
The American military has changed over the decades, becoming a much more educated, professionalized, and disciplined force. Yet bad things still happen in war, and anyone who finds Beauchamp’s story incredible merely because it’s upsetting has no idea what war can do. The truth will eventually come out in this case, but larger questions about the credibility of incredible wartime narrative will remain.
How, then, should journalists (and here I lump together newspapers and opinion magazines like the New Republic, which frequently commissions reported pieces and first-person narratives) tell the story of what happens in wartime?
First, journalists must expect that their truths will be challenged when writing about a subject as divisive as Iraq. They must do everything possible to bolster their own credibility prior to publication. Although some of the greatest opinion journalism in American history has been written under a pseudonym, including the Federalist Papers and George Kennan’s famous essay on containment, those were not pieces of factual reporting. The New Republic erred in granting Beauchamp a pseudonym. In this instance, Beauchamp’s personal credibility as a combat infantryman would have bolstered his reports immeasurably.
Secondly, when journalists do use anonymous sources to report critically about the military, they must do so with the greatest care. Sy Hersh would not have broken the Abu Ghraib story but for anonymous sources, but he also took great care to obtain photographs and documents to corroborate what he was being told. Dana Priest’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on secret prisons has been so good because it has been so right. The lesson here is that in war reporting, as with all reporting, you can certainly use anonymous sources, but only with the proper due diligence. Further, editors should balance the need for anonymous sourcing with the value of a story published with named sources, like the Post’s series on the Walter Reed Medical Center, which relied almost exclusively on soldiers willing to stand by their stories.
Fewer than 1 percent of Americans serve today in uniform, and fewer still have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. At best, the American public is getting a filtered picture of the battlefield today, and at worst, it’s getting pure garbage from both sides of the aisle. The American public needs to know the truth about the wars its sends its sons and daughters to fight—even when it’s ugly.
The Beauchamp dispatches show the extent to which the discourse over Iraq has been poisoned and how quickly the left, the right, and the military were willing to go to the mat to defend their version of what is—or what they thought ought to be—true. No one cares anymore about the troops, the truth of their reports from Iraq, or the serious issues of professional journalism associated with a series of this type. The troops have become pawns in this debate; their stories a kind of Rorschach test that reveals more about how we view the war than its reality on the ground.