Two weeks ago, TNR published a piece by their 'Baghdad Diarist', who writes under the pseudonym "Scott Thomas". It contains three stories about soldiers doing vile things in Iraq; in one, the person who does the vile thing is the writer. The point of the piece, as best I could tell, was that war does strange things to your sense of what's appropriate, and to try to describe these changes. Thus, "Scott Thomas" writes this, about the incident in which he figures:
"AM I A MONSTER? I have never thought of myself as a cruel person. Indeed, I have always had compassion for those with disabilities. I once worked at a summer camp for developmentally disabled children, and, in college, I devoted hours every week to helping a student with cerebral palsy perform basic tasks like typing, eating, and going to the bathroom. 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."
The piece launched a furor on the right, with bloggers falling all over themselves to try to find holes in it. Some of their attempts were pretty lame. For instance, one part of "Thomas"' piece involves finding part of a child's skull while constructing a command outpost. "Thomas" says:
"And, eventually, we reached the bones. All children's bones: tiny cracked tibias and shoulder blades. We found pieces of hands and fingers. We found skull fragments. No one cared to speculate what, exactly, had happened here, but it was clearly a Saddam-era dumping ground of some sort."
A soldier at the same base wrote this:
"There was a children's cemetery unearthed while constructing a Combat Outpost (COP) in the farm land south of Baghdad International Airport. It was not a mass grave. It was not the result of some inhumane genocide. It was an unmarked cometary where the locals had buried children some years back."
This was cited as having falsified "Scott Thomas"' claim that he and his comrades had found a mass grave, when in fact he had made no such claim. Similarly, just try to figure out what the big deal is here. Other objections were more substantive, though not, I thought, decisive. In particular, one incident described in the piece involved "Thomas" and his buddies making fun of a disfigured woman; soldiers from the FOB at which this was supposed to have happened deny ever seeing such a woman.
In general, though, the consensus on the right-wing blogs seems to be that this entire piece is an elaborate fantasy cooked up to slur the troops:
"Even if "Scott Thomas" actually exists, and is a soldier serving in Iraq (which most veterans highly doubt) the anti-war cadre of the New Republic intentionally turns off its minimal journalistic standards on this story simply because it hates America, and hates her sons and daughters who go in harm's way."
Now, "Scott Thomas" has come forward:
"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 discrete 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."
Discussion below the fold.
I have not written about this story before now (even when I wrote on part of an article prompted by it) because I had no idea whether or not it was true. On the one hand, some parts of it -- especially the ridiculing of the disfigured woman -- seemed to me implausible, not because it's implausible to think that soldiers might be cruel, but because this woman was on base, and was either a soldier or a contractor, and I would have imagined that making fun of people who are, or seem to be, their comrades, and making fun of a disfigurement they probably received in the line of duty, would be Just. Plain. Out. Though, of course, I really don't know that this is true; I have absolutely no idea what unwritten rules exist on a military base, and so my sense that this is implausible relies solely on my own imagination.
Which is, of course, the whole problem in a nutshell.
On the other hand, I did not find the rest of the article at all implausible. This is not because I think that "Our troops are mentally-disturbed, torturing, baby-killing psychopaths too stupid for college and unable to get work as a janitor, so they had to enlist in the military". It's because some people react this way to stress, especially to stress that involves having to make yourself callous in order to steamroll across what feel like moral norms and do things that you would never do in other situations. A few examples from non-military settings:
First case: in medical school, first-year anatomy students generally have to dissect a cadaver. People who donate their bodies for dissection are doing a wonderful thing that not many people would do, and if it weren't for them, doctors would have to chose between not doing dissections and relying on grave robbers, as they used to. According to my friends who have been to medical school, most people recognize this, and treat their cadavers with respect. But they also tell me that there is generally a group of students who don't: who make fun of their cadavers, make their dead hands and bodies do silly things, and in extreme cases desecrate them, if they think they can get away with it.
I have always assumed that this is a completely comprehensible, though vile, response to the fact that cutting up a human body is a profoundly uncomfortable thing to be doing. Your head might tell you that it's a fine thing to be doing in medical school, and that whatever your normal reasons for resisting the idea of cutting up a human body, they do not apply here; but we're not all head. And one of the things you might do with the rest of your emotions is to deny them by making fun of the thing that provokes them.
(Note: to their credit, medical schools generally go to considerable lengths to impress on their students that they should not do this, and to supervise their dissections.)
Second case: in 1984, the Animal Liberation Front stole some film from a UPenn lab that was doing head injury experiments, and used it to make the film 'Unnecessary Fuss'. From the Wikipedia entry on the film:
"After the injury is sustained, the baboon's head is dislodged from the helmet using a hammer and screwdriver. One sequence shows part of the baboon's ear being torn off along with the helmet. After pulling the baboon's head from the helmet, the researcher is heard to laugh, saying: "It's a boy," then, "Looks like I left a little ear behind."
The footage shows the researchers laughing at injured baboons, performing electrocautery on an apparently conscious baboon, smoking cigarettes and pipes during surgery, and playing loud music as the animals are injured. A researcher is seen holding a seriously injured baboon up to the camera, while others speak to the animal: "Don't be shy now, sir, nothing to be afraid of," followed by laughter, and "He says, 'you're gonna rescue me from this, aren't you? Aren't you?'," followed by more laughter.
While one baboon was being injured on the operating table by the hydraulic device, the camera panned to a brain-damaged, drooling monkey strapped into a high chair in a corner of the room, with the words "Cheerleading in the corner, we have B-10. B-10 wishes his counterpart well. As you can see, B-10 is still alive. B-10 is hoping for a good result," followed by laughter. In another sequence, one researcher is heard to say: "You better hope the ... anti-vivisection people don't get ahold of this film.""
When I saw this for the first time, I was furious for a number of reasons, foremost among them, obviously, the treatment of the animals. (In what follows, I'm not going to focus on the treatment of the baboons; please don't take that to indicate that I don't think it's just abhorrent.) But I was also furious because most of the people the Wikipedia entry describes as 'researchers' are, as best I can tell, students; and I was furious at their professors. The students seem to be of age, so it's not that I don't hold them responsible for what they did. But I think that the researchers not only completely failed to do right by the animals under their care; they also failed in their duty to do right by their students.
When you hire someone to strap baboons onto an operating table, snap their necks, and then do whatever experiments need to be done on them afterwards, you are putting them in a position in which, as with dissecting cadavers, they have to do things that would, under any normal circumstances, be abhorrent and cruel. (I think that what's shown in this video was abhorrent and cruel and wrong, but presumably the researchers themselves did not agree.) When you hire people to do that, especially people who are considerably younger than you are, and who would normally look up to you, you have (it seems to me) an obligation to help them find a way of dealing with what they are doing, precisely because you're not just asking them to grow cell cultures, or fill test tubes, but to traverse very dangerous moral terrain, in which it would be very, very easy to get lost.
Perhaps because I am a professor, when I saw these students making fun of the baboons, holding their hands in the air, zooming in on their stitched-up scalps, saying in baboon voices: "You're going to rescue me from this, aren't you? Aren't you?" I saw not only cruelty to animals, but also a profound failure on the part of the professors who should have been there to prevent this sort of thing from happening. Again: it's not that I didn't hold the students responsible; I did. But this reaction -- mocking and minimizing something you find profoundly disturbing -- is so completely comprehensible that I thought: anyone who puts a student in a morally dangerous situation like this has an obligation to try to see that they get out of it without moral injury. But no one did that for these students. They were left to find their way on their own. And that's just wrong.
Since I think that it's comprehensible and normal, though wrong, for people who have to do things that would normally be wrong to react by ridiculing the things or people they are asked to do those things to, I have no problem believing that things like this happen in the military, not necessarily often, but sometimes. I do not believe that "our troops are mentally-disturbed, torturing, baby-killing psychopaths too stupid for college and unable to get work as a janitor." But I also don't believe that they are all saints to whom the baser human reactions are absolutely alien. And that is what I'd have to believe in order to assume that nothing like this ever happens.
(Note: one reason why I think it's really important not to confuse supporting the troops with thinking that they are all saints and heroes is that if one thought this, one would not see any need for the kinds of training and leadership that would help to keep them from reacting in this way. I said above that anyone who puts someone, especially someone they're in some sense responsible for, into a morally dangerous situation has an obligation to help them get through it without moral injury. If our soldiers were all saints, we wouldn't have to worry about that: saints all do the right thing no matter how morally dangerous the situation, and so we could safely drop them into any situation without having to worry about anything other than their physical safety.
It's precisely because they are not all saints, but normal human beings, that we need to provide them with the kind of leadership and training that will allow them to get through military service with not just their bodies but their souls intact. Failing to recognize the need for this is no more "supportive" of them than thinking that they are such total superheroes that they don't ever need to eat, and therefore neglecting to supply them with food.)
Still, as I said, I never thought I had any idea whether this story was true or not. I thought it was perfectly conceivable that it might happen, and not just because people do generic bad things in wartime, but because, for the reasons I tried to explain, some of the things in "Scott Thomas"' piece struck me as just the sort of things I'd expect that some soldiers might do in response to being asked to be constantly prepared to do things that people just don't do in normal life. On the other hand, as I said, some of the details struck me as off.
Fundamentally, I thought: I have no idea, really. Even my judgments about plausibility are based on extrapolating from situations like cadaver dissection and head injury research to the quite different circumstances of being in combat, with which I am (luckily) unfamiliar. So I took a pass on this one.
What I never really understood was why the various right-wing blogs, with the possible exception of military bloggers who had some knowledge of e.g. the actual bases in question, didn't take a pass as well. It seemed to me just obvious that the veracity of this story was just not the sort of thing that bloggers sitting in our studies were going to make a lot of progress on. (This was especially striking given some of those same bloggers' uncritical acceptance of Michael Yon's story about al Qaeda serving baked children to their parents. Michael Yon himself said only that he had heard this story, but that didn't prevent some bloggers from immediately assuming that it was true.)
What's interesting is that the right-wing blogs that just assumed that this was some sort of leftist smear job were doing exactly the same thing that they accused "Scott Thomas" and TNR of doing: namely, adopting a story because it fit their preconceptions, and despite having no good reason to think that it was true. There is no standard that I can think of that would imply that TNR was wrong to publish "Shock Troops" in the first place that would not also imply that it was wrong of those bloggers to impugn "Scott Thomas"' honesty and TNR's journalistic integrity based on the facts they had. None at all.
Now "Scott Thomas" has revealed himself. All sorts of people are psychoanalyzing his old blog; Blackfive has already figured out exactly what motivates him (hint: it's not good); Michael Goldberg at the Weekly Standard has plainly been Googling him, and is posting links to stories from his old college newspaper. Ace is investigating, well, everything. Jonah Goldberg thinks he's whiny, as does Baldilocks, and Mark Steyn wonders:
"Is this reportage? Or was he just doing a bit of imaginative fiction like the creative-writing classes teach? And into which category do his New Republic pieces fall?"
Dear right-wing bloggers: Stop. Think. Reread the original piece. It's not about how our soldiers are murderers and scumbags. It's not a vicious left-wing assault on them. It's trying to make some sense of how war makes you do things you wouldn't ordinarily do, and it's pretty obvious that what sparked it was that "Scott Thomas" saw himself doing these things. (As I said before: the anecdote that starts the piece off features Thomas himself, not someone else, doing something he knows is wrong.)
You have been impugning his honesty and TNR's integrity on the basis of very little evidence, and demanding that they prove to your satisfaction, as if that were possible, that he is who he says he is. Now he has come forward, and it turns out that despite some people's confident assertions that "most veterans highly doubt" that he's actually a soldier, he is. But he and TNR haven't yet done enough, according to Michael Goldfarb at the Weekly Standard:
"We still want to know:
1) Dates. When did he mock the woman at the mess hall? When was the soldier wearing and playing with the child's skull? With dates, these incidents can be verified.
2) Names. He can argue that he would get the dog-killer in trouble by naming him, but how about the names of soldiers who witnessed the event at the mess hall and those who saw the guy with the kid's skull? Real live witnesses can verify the incidents. "
To which I can only respond: Michael Goldfarb, the world does not revolve around you and your demands. TNR has spent a lot of time responding to charges against it that were made on the basis of very little evidence. "Scott Thomas" has come forward; I cannot imagine that this will have no consequences for him in the military, or for that matter that it will not harm other people, like his commanders. It's Jamal Hussein all over again: people move from the fact that they cannot verify something that is in its nature hard to verify, especially at a distance, to demands that news organizations drop everything to satisfy them, and that people who might have good reasons for wanting to be anonymous come forward, whatever the cost to themselves, simply because some bloggers think his story is not credible, and despite the fact that they don't have any real evidence for thinking so.
It's not that I have any particular brief for Scott Thomas Beauchamp (and I certainly don't have one for TNR.) I read Beauchamp's old blog, and I didn't find any reason to think I'd seek him out to be friends. But I completely agree with Matt Yglesias on this one:
"That's just crazy. All these people need to stop. They need to take a deep breath. They need to apologize to the people at TNR who've wasted huge amounts of time dealing with their nonsense. And they need to think a bit about the epistemic situation they're creating where information about Iraq that they don't want to hear -- even when published in a pro-war publication -- can just be immediately dismissed as fraudulent even though the misconduct it described was far, far less severe than all sorts of other well-document misconduct in Iraq."
UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan is interesting:
"So why the craziness?
Partly, I think, new media hatred of TNR. Partly that Thomas is obviously a liberal Democrat who's also a soldier. But mainly, it seems to me, the conservative blogosphere has taken such an almighty empirical beating this last year that they have an overwhelming psychic need to lash out at those still clinging to sanity on the war. This Scott Thomas story is a godsend for these people, a beautiful distraction from the reality they refuse to face.
It combines all the usual Weimar themes out there: treasonous MSM journalists, treasonous soldiers, stories of atrocities that undermine morale (regardless of whether they're true or not), and blanket ideological denial. We have to understand that some people still do not believe that the U.S. is torturing or has tortured detainees, still do not believe that torture or murder or rape occurred at Abu Ghraib, still believe that everyone at Gitmo is a dangerous terrorist captured by US forces, and still believe we're winning in Iraq. If you believe all this and face the mountains of evidence against you, you have to act ever more decisively and emphatically to refute any evidence that might undermine this worldview."
Hugh Hewitt, on the other hand, is currently in the lead in my "ridiculous grasping at straws" contest:
"I note that the second post on a blog believed to be Beauchamp's, the soldier notes "I'm reading On The Road again." Amazon.com notes that this book "is not only the soul of the Beat movement and literature, but one of the most important novels of the century. Like nearly all of Kerouac's writing, On The Road is thinly fictionalized autobiography, filled with a cast made of Kerouac's real life friends, lovers, and fellow travelers.""
OMG he read a thinly fictionalized autobiography over a year ago! STOP THE PRESSES!!!
Just to let you all know: I read Harry Potter over the weekend. That doesn't mean that whatever I write here is fiction. Nor does the fact that I once read Paradise Lost mean that my blog posts are actually an epic in very, very well-disguised blank verse.
Just in case anyone was wondering.