Last week the New Republic raised eyebrows across the Internet by publishing a “Baghdad Diarist” column titled “Shock Troops,” under the byline of “Scott Thomas,” identified as “a pseudonym for a freelance writer and soldier currently serving in Baghdad.” The piece made some startling claims about the behavior of U.S. troops in Iraq. “Thomas” wrote that he and men he knew had loudly and publicly mocked a badly-disfigured woman, desecrated children’s bones found during the construction of a combat outpost, and run over dogs with a Bradley Fighting Vehicle for sport.
As numerous bloggers and readers hashed out the details, the questions piled up.
Thomas wrote that the disfigured woman “wore an unrecognizable tan uniform, so I couldn’t really tell whether she was a soldier or a civilian contractor.” Wouldn’t a soldier in Iraq know that in-country military personnel, always in uniform and always armed, are easy to tell from civilian contractors?
TNR told Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard that their correspondent’s story took place at Forward Operating Base Falcon; why can’t anyone who has been stationed at FOB Falcon seem to remember seeing a badly disfigured woman, even though Thomas wrote that he “saw her nearly every time [he] went to dinner?” And would soldiers really dare to loudly mock a wounded woman, high school cafeteria-style, in the middle of a crowded dining facility at FOB Falcon?
How could a soldier wear a piece of skull on his head “for the rest of the day and night” without being reprimanded by a superior? And why was no mass grave reported found during the construction of COP Ellis, the only combat outpost that fits Thomas’s description?
How did the Bradley driver that Thomas writes of “jerk the machine hard to the right” to kill a dog, when a dog on the right of a Bradley would be in the driver’s blind-spot? As the Bradley isn’t designed to routinely break through concrete, how is it that this driver “took out curbs, concrete barriers, [and] corners of buildings?”
Scott Thomas’s byline appeared in the New Republic twice prior to “Shock Troops.” His first piece for the magazine was “War Bonds.” It tells the story of the author meeting an Iraqi child while “pulling security for a crew that’s changing a tire” in a sector “known unaffectionately as ‘Little Venice’ because of the dark brown rivers of sewage that backwash from broken pipes.” His second piece was called “Dead of Night,” and centered around the author and his fellow soldiers’ reactions to a dead body lying in the street, head split open, brain being eaten by dogs. Prompted by the controversy surrounding “Shock Troops,” bloggers (starting, I think, with me, at AmSpecBlog) began asking questions about Thomas’s earlier work. Where was this sewage-flooded “Little Venice,” and why would it have the same nickname as a neighborhood of villas in the Green Zone?
(Iraq veteran Major Dave Hanson of the US Army Reserve JAG Corps tells me that Thomas’s phrasing may mean that the “Little Venice” nickname is current only among a small circle of soldiers, and thus might cause less confusion than it sounds like it would, but he wonders why this sewage-flooding, which Thomas describes as if it’s a part of the landscape that locals are used to, wouldn’t be fairly quickly dealt with by the Commander’s Emergency Response Program. CERP, writes Hanson in an email, is supposed to “focus upon ’emergency need’ projects involving public health — or so I thought.”)
Why would soldiers stop to change a tire in a place where they had to “wade through the reeking fluids,” as Thomas puts it, when military Humvees are equipped with “run-flat” tires that (thanks to an inner band of solid rubber) can be driven for several miles when deflated?
And what about the 9mm shell casing “with a square back” that is described in “Dead of Night?” “The only shell casings that look like that belong to Glocks,” wrote Thomas. “And the only people who use Glocks are the Iraqi police.” A Glock firing pin leaves a rectangular dent, but why would that be described as “a square back?” And given how common the Glock is, isn’t it just flat wrong to say that Iraqi police are the only ones who carry them?
I HAVE REPEATEDLY ATTEMPTED to reach people at the New Republic to ask them to comment on all this. Editor Franklin Foer hasn’t returned my phone calls (I’ve left three messages over the last several days), nor has Editor-in-Chief Martin Peretz (I left him a message early Sunday evening). Staffers that I have been able to reach won’t speak on the record. Foer has spoken with Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, telling him that TNR is conducting an investigation, questioning the author and other soldiers who say they witnessed these events. Since Foer won’t return my calls, I pose these questions to him here:
Does TNR have the original first drafts of Thomas’s pieces? Some of these things could have been editing errors. The “square back” line is the most obvious candidate (perhaps the words “square on the back” were truncated), but bad edits could explain other things as well. Maybe, for example, Thomas wrote that he couldn’t tell who the woman worked for, and an editor changed that into not being able to tell if she was a civilian or not. Why not release the original drafts, if they’re still stored in an email somewhere?
Can Foer share the contact information (off the record, of course) for the author and others who back up his claims with reporters outside TNR? If not, can he at least pass along parts of their correspondences to be independently evaluated?
Many of my readers are entirely convinced that Thomas is a fraud. This wall of secrecy around the New Republic during this investigation is not helping that magazine’s reputation. Can’t you draw back the curtain even a sliver, Frank?