READING PRIVATE BEAUCHAMP
A War Over War Stories
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, 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 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 or falsity.
I am deeply skeptical about the veracity of Beauchamp's dispatches but disinclined to offer definitive pronouncements about them. Partisans on both ends of the political spectrum seem to harbor no such doubts. 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 in Iraq, an infantryman in one of the most violent parts of the country, just south of Baghdad. In his first dispatch, 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 a Shiite militia cut out his tongue. His second article describes scavenger dogs devouring bodies deposited around Baghdad. In his third report, 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.
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 questioned the author's combat credentials and experiences, even the fact that he was a soldier. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol wrote 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 week, 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 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 on Aug. 1, saying that they found sources in Beauchamp's unit who 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, as well as statements from outsiders.
In other words, both the Weekly Standard and the New Republic claimed that their versions were confirmed by anonymous military sources and by the same Army public affairs officer. In some circles, this could be called a draw.
In military circles, the reaction to Beauchamp's stories has been mixed. Some of my friends were disturbed by the article, but very few questioned its basic truth. 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 IED, especially an infantryman like Beauchamp who himself faced the dangers of these bombs. But as an old combat veteran reminded me last week, American soldiers have certainly done worse in wars past. 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 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. The New Republic erred in granting Beauchamp a pseudonym. His personal credibility as a combat infantryman would have bolstered his reports immeasurably.
Second, when journalists do use anonymous sources to report critically about the military, they must do so with the greatest care. Seymour Hersh could 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.
Fewer than 1 percent of Americans serve 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 garbage from both sides of the aisle. The American public needs to know the truth about the wars it 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. No one cares anymore about the troops, the truth of their reports from Iraq or the serious issues of professional journalism raised by these dispatches. 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.
Phillip Carter, an Iraq veteran, is a lawyer at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP.