August 8, 2007

Casualty of the media war

The great shame of the Scott Beauchamp "Baghdad Diarist" dustup is not that The New Republic may have run a few false stories — that would be plenty bad, of course, though the jury is still out — it's that the media scandal has obscured a much more thorough, more credible and more damning article on the same themes that happened to come out at the same time as Beauchamp's final essay.

Consider. The New York Observer calls Beauchamp's stories "too bad to be true." And Slate says the lesson is that "when journalists do use anonymous sources to report critically about the military, they must do so with the greatest care." The right-wing blogosphere, naturally, is jumping with glee at having disproved the crazy notion that bad things happen in war.

And no one is talking about The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness, an article in The Nation by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian in which 50 veterans speak on the record about atrocities that are far worse than anything Beauchamp saw (or dreamed up).

Their stories, recorded and typed into thousands of pages of transcripts, reveal disturbing patterns of behavior by American troops in Iraq. Dozens of those interviewed witnessed Iraqi civilians, including children, dying from American firepower. Some participated in such killings; others treated or investigated civilian casualties after the fact. Many also heard such stories, in detail, from members of their unit. The soldiers, sailors and marines emphasized that not all troops took part in indiscriminate killings. Many said that these acts were perpetrated by a minority. But they nevertheless described such acts as common and said they often go unreported--and almost always go unpunished.

The unimpeachable article makes for disturbing reading. All those people who said Beauchamp must be a liar because there's no way American troops would desecrate corpses, as he described, should ask Hedges and Al-Arian to show them the photograph — yes, they have a photograph — of "an American soldier acting as if he is about to eat the spilled brains of a dead Iraqi man with his brown plastic Army-issue spoon."

The Other War is not an attack on soldiers — how could it be, as it's based on soldiers's own words? — but an assessment of the dehumanizing power of war and the inevitable disaster of occupation. It is the accounts in this article that the media and the blogosphere should really be grappling with, arguing over and taking seriously. Obviously magazines can't print false or exaggerated stories. But that's trivial compared to wartime brutality. Willfully ignoring genuine stories is a journalistic sin as well.

Update: Several of the troops quoted write letters condemning or applauding the article.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I think you're confusing "willfully ignoring" The Nation's story with simply not being nearly as impressed with it as you are. One of the first things written about TNR's article was this, by Bill Kristol, which attacked both The Nation and TNR. In my opinion Kristol got a little ahead of himself on TNR (the evidence that Beauchamp made most of what he wrote up was a lot weaker then than it is now), but his assessment of The Nation article is pretty much spot-on:

In its July 30 issue, the Nation has a 24-page article based on interviews with 50 Iraq veterans. The piece allegedly reveals "disturbing patterns of behavior by American troops in Iraq"--indeed, it claims that the war has "led many troops to declare an open war on all Iraqis." Needless to say, the anecdotal evidence in the article comes nowhere close to supporting this claim. There are a few instances of out-of-control behavior, some routine fog-of-war and brutality-of-war incidents, and much that is simply trivial. The picture is unpleasant, as one would expect--but it comes nowhere close to living up to the authors' billing: "The war the vets described is a dark and even depraved enterprise."

Oh, and I think there's another reason that people aren't buzzing that much about the Nation's investigation: It's really long. Before today I'd glanced at it but didn't really have the time for it; your link was the only reason I got around to reading the whole thing. That's why I haven't commented on it until now, and I suspect it's the same for lots of people.

Ha! Clearly Kristol was one of the people who didn't have time to read the whole thing either!

OK, so The Nation may have oversold the article in a couple of sentences -- but the Beauchamp critics' central point was that things such as he described couldn't possibly have happened, even "anecdotally." The Nation shows that they happen all the time. I would love to see Kristol go to the families of any of those civilians who were shot, hit by convoys and left for dead, or humiliated, and say to their faces that these events were "simply trivial."

Also, the actual "evidence" against Beauchamp is far weaker today than it was at the time. Back then there were at least questions that sounded reasonable. Now every one of those questions has been answered. Everything the critics said was impossible has now been corroborated and explained (and, in one case, corrected). The only difference is that the Army has issued a statement of denial -- for which they have provided no evidence at all.

You seem to be hung up on a bit of a strawman. Very few of the questions raised about Beauchamp's work came out of nothing more than a disbelief that bad things happen in war. They came out of very specific details in his reporting that don't make sense.

And you're just wrong that TNR has a better case now than it did a few weeks ago. TNR's statements have fallen miles short of answering all the questions that have been raised. We know for sure that at least one of their claims of expert corroboration was a bit overstated. Meanwhile, the more one learns about Beauchamp himself, the less trustworthy he seems.

One military source has said that Beauchamp signed a statement recanting most of his claims. The reason the Army hasn't officially gone into the details of their investigation is most likely because of how they interpret their legal obligations. The mentions in official statements about privacy and personnel matters, I'm pretty sure, are direct references to the exceptions written into the Freedom of Information Act. (I'm not 100% positive, but I think that all Beauchamp has to do is sign a waiver and the Army can release a lot more.) But assuming good faith on all fronts, the Army is in a better position to get at the truth than TNR is.

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