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New Republic Tosses a Few Bones

The fact-challenged publication's newly issued "Statement on Scott Thomas Beauchamp" fails to pass the smell test.

By 8.3.07

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The New Republic yesterday posted yet another editorial on the Scott Thomas Beauchamp situation and on its attempts to "re-report" his anecdotes with further investigation (always a great idea for a "journalistic" outlet that wishes to be respected).

According to the editors, Beauchamp was discovered by "Elspeth Reeve, a TNR reporter-researcher, whom he later married." What he had to say was believable because he was a soldier in Iraq and because "conservatives and liberals alike praised" his first essay. Further:

All of Beauchamp's essays were fact-checked before publication. We checked the plausibility of details with experts, contacted a corroborating witness, and pressed the author for further details. But publishing a first-person essay from a war zone requires a measure of faith in the writer. Given what we knew of Beauchamp, personally and professionally, we credited his report. After questions were raised about the veracity of his essay, TNR extensively re-reported Beauchamp's account.

As to the "Shock Troops" incident? In a nutshell: the story about the disfigured woman was (reportedly) true, but the location was wrong; rather than taking place at FOB Falcon in Baghdad, it now supposedly "occurred at Camp Buehring, in Kuwait, prior to the unit's arrival in Iraq." But this error (if it is the only one) is okay, because "Beauchamp acknowledged his error" and "we (TNR) sincerely regret this mistake."

TNR claims to have corroborated the other two incidents; however, if its editorial is to be taken at face value, then its again settled lazily for something that cast the shadow of truth on Beauchamp's far more detailed narrative, rather than actually (a) investigating further, or (b) owing up to having published a gross exaggeration.

Take, for example, the child's skull incident. Said Beauchamp in his essay (emphases added):

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 private wore the skull for the rest of the day and night. Even on a mission, he put his helmet over the skull. He observed that he was grateful his hair had just been cut--since it would make it easier to pick out the pieces of rotting flesh that were digging into his head.


And here's what TNR managed to find out: there was indeed a children's burial site (no surprise there; the 1-18 -- Beauchamp's unit -- was known to have found one while building their combat outpost); beyond that, this is all that it could extract from the "witnesses" who "laughed" at the supposed stunt:
One [soldier] wrote in an e-mail: "I can wholeheartedly verify the finding of the bones; U.S. troops (in my unit) discovered human remains in the manner described in 'Shock Troopers.' [sic] ... [We] did not report it; there was no need to. The bodies weren't freshly killed and thus the crime hadn't been committed while we were in control of the sector of operations." On the phone, this soldier later told us that he had witnessed another soldier wearing the skull fragment just as Beauchamp recounted: "It fit like a yarmulke," he said. A forensic anthropologist confirmed to us that it is possible for tufts of hair to be attached to a long-buried fragment of a human skull, as described in the piece.

Here is a classic case of moving the goal posts. The fact that a grave site was unearthed was never in dispute, no matter how much TNR wishes to use the fact that one was found (and that it could technically appear as Beauchamp described) -- much as it sought to use the fact that Beauchamp turned out to be a real soldier -- as proof positive that everything in the stories was true. The question here was the behavior of the soldier who supposedly "wore" the skull "for the rest of the day and night," including under his helmet -- something that "we all laughed" at, and that "nobody thought to tell him to stop" -- and the best TNR could do was to get one soldier to say that "he had witnessed another soldier wearing the skull fragment"?

THE THIRD STORY, that of the Bradley Fighting Vehicles being used to purposely run over dogs, still doesn't appear -- to me, who has very little experience in them, but who also has a decent amount of time on the roads around FOB Falcon and western Baghdad -- to pass the smell test. Part of the reason for this is the way that TNR went about "corroborating" the incident, reportedly speaking to the manufacturers of the Bradley about its driving specs, including its agility and acceleration. Further, had a soldier, who had allegedly "seen it done more than once," tell it how a dog is run over ("when you approach the dog in question, suddenly lurch the Bradley on the opposite side of the road the dog is on. The rear-end of the vehicle will then swing TOWARD the animal, scaring it into running out into the road. If it works, the dog is running into the center of the road as the driver swings his yoke back around the other way, and the dog becomes a chalk outline"). However, to me -- again, as someone who has been there -- this rings very, very hollow. After all, these kids are not in the states, it's not the "Back 40" of a military base, and there is still an NCO or officer in every vehicle -- not to mention, as a soldier from FOB Falcon told the Weekly Standard's Mike Goldfarb:

When the U.S. Army takes to the streets on patrols we do it deliberately, with task and purpose. "Thomas" describes the Bradley slowing down and 'jerking' suddenly to hit dogs. This just isn't possible. If he is slowing down, then the vehicles behind him are slowing down, and there is a gap created between him and the vehicles in front of him. This would violate standard operating procedure (SOP) and make the convoy more susceptible to attack.

While no one that has been to Baghdad can deny that there are large packs of wild dogs roaming the streets, to think that that is all a Bradley crew is worried about is absurd. [Ed. Note: Here's the most important part:] The streets are also filled with IED's and EFP's. They line every street and every corner. They are the number one killer in Iraq. When we travel in convoys, dogs are not our concern. We watch the streets, we look at curbs, we look at rocks, we look at windows for snipers and trigger men, we don't look at wild dogs.

Also, if this guy is driving a Bradley, how is he marking his "dog kill count" in a green book. Again, any leader would have corrected this action immediately, not only because it is subject to UCMJ action, but mainly because it endangers the lives of every man in that convoy.
As I said, it still just doesn't pass the smell test.

What is going on here is very, very typical: when called on a story that, like Haditha, was simply "too good to be [thoroughly] checked," TNR backed off a bit, made a few minor concessions, and then pulled the classic Dan Ratheresque "those who have criticized aspects of our story have never criticized the major thrust of our report" -- which, of course, is far from accurate. As my RedState colleague Dan McLaughlin mentioned upon reading TNR's editorial, they "have made concessions on the very things that people flagged as factually unlikely."

The rest, they were simply lazy with -- or, as in the case of the "skullcap" (literally), they moved the goalposts (or obfuscated the point of that part of the essay), claiming that the factuality of a small part or underlying detail rendered the entire narrative accurate. The attitude displayed here (and the stages through which it has passed, from stolid defensiveness, to revealing details in hopes that the larger part will be accepted as factual without question, to minor concessions paired with defensiveness in hopes of the same) is poor, defensive journalism at its near-worst, and reflects a publication (which revels in accusations that others are lying) that values its short-term pride over honesty, accuracy, and long-term respectability.

TNR said in the editorial:

Over the course of the war, we have tried to provide our readers with a sense of Iraq as it is seen by the troops. Usually, these stories have been written by journalists who have traveled to Iraq and interviewed soldiers there, but last January Beauchamp sent us a first-person vignette that seemed a powerful contribution to the genre.

This statement is fraught with problems. First of all, if accuracy was really important, then why not deal with soldiers themselves, or with journalists who -- beyond sitting in safe areas interviewing soldiers -- have actually done real journalistic work, and have covered the soldiers in action? It is simply beyond dispute that these would be far better suited to provide an accurate perspective of operations and of the soldiers themselves.

Second, regardless of their attitude or journalistic "integrity," this one fact (as put by John of the milblog Op-For) is inexorably true:

None of this detracts from the fact that, of the 160k troops in Iraq, TNR choose a real dirtball to serve as their correspondent. When other soldiers are out building schools, providing medical care, and running security operations for the Iraqi people, TNR decided to highlight a real slug of a mechanic who mocks the disfigured and disrespects the dead for kicks.

This situation is still far from over, and the next step in the aforementioned progression is, of course, casting blame on others, which TNR unflinchingly and unfailingly did, saying:
Although we place great weight on the corroborations we have received, we wished to know more. But, late last week, the Army began its own investigation, short-circuiting our efforts. Beauchamp had his cell-phone and computer taken away and is currently unable to speak to even his family. His fellow soldiers no longer feel comfortable communicating with reporters. If further substantive information comes to light, TNR will, of course, share it with you.

That's right: it's the Army's fault. The same army, according to TNR, that condones the abuse of the dead, that laughs at reckless and deadly behavior, and in whose ranks Scott Thomas Beauchamps are the rule, rather than the exception, has enforced its own rules and is conducting an investigation into the alleged incidents of wrongdoing that TNR so desperately wants to believe are both commonplace and accepted in its day to day operations -- and it is a bad thing.

It's also a bad thing that an admittedly terrible person like Scott Thomas Beauchamp might actually be facing punishment. You see, in the army that TNR would have representing America, not only is Beauchamp not an exception, but his admittedly atrocious actions are condoned and accepted, not investigated or punished. To go against that would be to break the template, and that is a cardinal sin to the leftist niche media in this time of war.

Here's a thought, to build on the one expressed above: "If further substantive information comes to light," I, or JD Johannes, or Matt Sanchez, or David Beriain -- not TNR -- will share it with you.

We will be there in the next few weeks. Matt, in fact, is already there.

TNR had its chance -- more than once – and they blew it. It may be time to leave it to the aforementioned professionals now, who have two major advantages on them: (1) We are all right with reporting honestly, regardless of what the effects are, and (2) we actually know what the heck it is that we are talking about.

How does that sound?


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About the Author

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations military veteran, is a columnist, a combat journalist, and a director emeritus of conservative weblog RedState.com.