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.