The New Republic, Pvt. Beauchamp and the propaganda war
Over recent years, the blogosphere has been its own theater in a propaganda war that has centered on the significance of such individuals as "Jesse Macbeth," "Aidan Hajj" and "Jamil Hussein." These people, and the veracity of their stories, have served as proxies in the fight between bloggers who support U.S. efforts in Iraq and the Middle East and those who oppose them. In July, this fight leapt into the mainstream media when The New Republic published what was purported to be a soldier’s firsthand account of his deployment in Iraq.
The article, "Shock Troops," was written by "Scott Thomas," a pseudonym for a soldier who The New Republic said was serving in Iraq at Forward Operating Base Falcon and who described scenes of callous brutality. According to Thomas, he and his cohorts publicly mocked a female IED victim on a crowded day at their base’s chow hall; wore a child’s skull found in a mass grave as a hat for more than a day; and used a Bradley fighting vehicle to run down dogs in the streets of Baghdad, killing three in one day. The piece is worth quoting at some length to give a sense of both its style and substance:
"One private, infamous as a joker and troublemaker, found the top part of a human skull, which was almost perfectly preserved. It even had chunks of hair, which were stiff and matted down with dirt. He squealed as he placed it on his head like a crown. It was a perfect fit. As he marched around with the skull on his head, people dropped shovels and sandbags, folding in half with laughter. No one thought to tell him to stop. No one was disgusted. Me included."
The "Baghdad Diarist" immediately caused murmurs in the blogosphere but only became the center of a larger fight July 18 when Weekly Standard blogger Michael Goldfarb posted excerpts and challenged the milblogging community to investigate the author’s claims. Within three days, milbloggers had pointed out a series of apparent holes in the story: Soldiers who had been at FOB Falcon at the same time as "Thomas" and denied that any woman with the wounds he described existed; one soldier mentioned that a children’s cemetery had been discovered by FOB Falcon troops, but the remains were moved without incident; and a series of Bradley drivers described how the combination of blind spots, maneuvering difficulties and operations in an IED-rich environment would have prevented such a canine killing spree.
The most impressive reporting on the affair was by J.D. Johannes, a Marine Corps veteran, reporter and documentarian in Iraq, who has spent time at FOB Falcon and posted a July 21 message to the Baghdad diarist on his blog, "Outside the Wire": "I really don’t care who you are but I spent a little time around Falcon and I think I know how to find you. I’m guessing you are a member of the 1-18 Infantry. They are the primary unit out of Falcon with Brads. As for the archaeological dig. My guess is that was at COP Ellis. Most of the other outposts are so urban, there is nothing much to dig. With the Brads and Archaeology, that may put you as Alpha 1/18 attached to Combat 1-28 Infantry. If my guess is correct, that narrows it down to about 100 guys and your organic C.O. is Captain Robby Johnson."
Five days after Johannes’ posting and additional pressure from other bloggers, The New Republic posted a statement from the author on its own blog, "The Plank": "I am private Scott Thomas Beauchamp, a member of Alpha Company, 1/18 Infantry, Second Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division. … I wanted Americans to have one soldier’s view of events in Iraq."
FACT OR FICTION
For Beauchamp, this is an affair that cannot end well. He is trapped in a dilemma in which he either witnessed or participated in events that may have violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice and chose to freelance them to The New Republic rather than report them in his command chain, or he is a fabulist who has slandered the Army.
Although bloggers have conducted some amusing pop-psychological analyses of Beauchamp, it appears most likely that his writings were a combination of fact and fiction. The description of the IED victim in the chow hall is eerily similar to a short story that Beauchamp wrote on his personal blog in 2006, and in a statement released by the magazine Aug. 2, the editors claim that although a second soldier corroborated the conversation, he said it took place in Kuwait, before Beauchamp arrived in Iraq. If this claim is true, then Beauchamp’s anecdote does not so much describe the dehumanizing effects of war as the constraints that being in a combat zone have placed on one individual’s sick sense of humor.
The Army says none of Beauchamp’s claims is true. In a statement to the Weekly Standard, Maj. Steven F. Lamb, a spokesman for Multi-National Division-Baghdad, said, "An investigation has been completed and the allegations made by Private Beauchamp were found to be false. His platoon and company were interviewed, and no one could substantiate the claims."
Goldfarb also said that, according to "a military source close to the investigation," Beauchamp "signed a sworn statement admitting that all three articles he published Tn the New Republic were exaggerations and falsehoods." Lamb later told The New Republic he was unaware of any statement by Beauchamp.
For his apparent mistakes and possible deceit, it seems unlikely that Beauchamp could have published his articles if The New Republic’s editors had exercised due diligence in their dealings with him. Editor Franklin Foer has argued that the article "was rigorously edited and fact-checked before it was published." But milbloggers point out that some of the obvious inaccuracies of Beauchamp’s writing could have been debunked by a simple Google search, let alone checking with a soldier at FOB Falcon — the public affairs officer, for example.
Moreover, given the 1998 scandal when New Republic writer Stephen Glass was caught fabricating articles, it seems that the magazine has an acute interest in avoiding this type of controversy. Jeff Emanuel, an Air Force veteran and conservative blogger, captured milblogger contempt for the magazine: "In [Beauchamp], 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." After such poor editorial judgment, it is no surprise that milbloggers would look for perniciousness at The New Republic. These suspicions were exacerbated when Foer acknowledged that Beauchamp is married to a New Republic staffer.
And the blogosphere keeps on spinning. While milbloggers punch holes in the "Baghdad Diary" stories, there is also a running fight online involving liberal bloggers who think that Beauchamp and The New Republic have been given an unfair rap. At the Columbia Journalism Review Web site, Paul McLeary accused the "conservative blogosphere and it’s [sic] kissin’ cousin, the milblogs community," of attacking the character of a soldier who is a liberal and criticized the war effort. Matthew Yglesias at The Atlantic Online likewise said that now that Beauchamp’s identity as a soldier has been established, the conservatives and milbloggers owe The New Republic an apology.
McLeary and Yglesias overlook the essential point of the "Baghdad Diary" story for most milbloggers: The fact that Beauchamp is a soldier only makes the story worse. If Beauchamp lied about his experiences in Iraq, he disgraced himself and slandered his brothers in arms. If he is telling the truth, then why did he not report these crimes to his chain of command?
This appears to be an instance where a young man lied for fame, and a gullible editor jumped on a story without checking its validity. The Beauchamp saga and its implications for the editorial staff at The New Republic may play out for some time, but in the blogosphere, it is just another campaign in the war of ideas.
How to find the blogs and articles mentioned in this article:
Columbia Journalism review
The Atlantic ONline