Franklin Foer, Editor of The New Republic is still trying desperately to confirm many of the details of bad behavior by US troops in Iraq related in the Scott Thomas stories. He really needn’t worry that much; blogs appear to be doing his work for him:
This information is from an anonymous soldier who served in the area described by Thomas. It partially confirms one of the more gruesome stories in the Thomas diaries - that of a soldier wearing the skull of a dead child that was unearthed by a mass grave:
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. There are many such unmarked cemeteries in and around Baghdad. The remains unearthed that day were transported to another location and reburied. While I was not there personally, and can not confirm or deny and actions taken by Soldiers that day, I can tell you that no Soldier put a human skull under his helmet and wore it around. The Army Combat Helmet (ACH) is form fitted to the head. Unlike the old Kevlar helmets, the ACH does not have a gap between the helmet and the liner, only pads. It would have been impossible for him to have placed and human skull, of any size, between his helmet and his head. Further more, no leader would have tolerated this type of behavior. This type of behavior is strictly forbidden in the U.S. Army and would have made the individual involved subject to UCMJ actions.
Not a “mass grave” as described by Thomas (the article said that Thomas and his mates “speculated” that it could have been a mass grave) but rather an unmarked children’s cemetery that the army then moved to another location. A difference worth quibbling about? Not to my mind. That much we can confirm about the story.
What about the soldier walking around wearing a part of a child’s skull? This may be a little more problematic for TNR as the soldier makes clear above. Is it possible some goof put the piece of bone on his head and paraded around for a few minutes or longer? This is possible. But spending an entire day with the skullbone underneath his helmet would seem to be an impossibility.
Score one for the blogs. And chalk up an embellishment to the author.
In the end, that’s what I think this story is going to be about; a real combat soldier who is serving in Iraq with a gift for writing and who didn’t mind spicing up his memoirs with some exaggerations and embellishments to the truth. The Bradley driver who targeted dogs with his vehicle will probably end up being someone who decided it was suicide to slow down in a combat zone to avoid hitting a dog or two. Did he joke about keeping track of how many dogs he ran over while trying to ease the tension you might find on a combat patrol? Other incidents related by Thomas may be composites of several different events that actually happened but for the sake of his “narrative,” he chose to combine various elements in order to make a seamless whole.
An excellent technique - if you’re writing fact-based fiction. Unfortunately for The New Republic, this isn’t the case.
The problem for Foer and TNR is that they presented this fellow Thomas as writing the unvarnished truth about his experiences in Iraq. In this case, embellishment of the facts surrounding any of the incidents mentioned is the same as lying. Publishing what they purport to be “journalism” as opposed to a story based on fact, TNR was obligated to vet carefully anything that appeared in those articles before the fact. The idea that Foer is just now getting around to that little detail is astonishing - especially after the Stephen Glass fiasco.
I’m not sure why but Matthew Yglesias doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with this:
. . but amidst The Weekly Standard’s huffing and puffing about how “Scott Thomas” couldn’t possibly have come across a mass grave in a particular area of operations where he allegedly said he came across one (crucially, he didn’t actually say that), they inadvertently corroborated the story. Thomas said he and other soldiers found a bunch of skeletons during the construction of a combat outpost. One of the article’s detractors concedes that “There was a children’s cemetery unearthed while constructing a Combat Outpost (COP) in the farm land south of Baghdad International Airport” and then gets very insistent that it was no mass grave. The article, however, just said they found a bunch of bones and then speculated idly that it might have been a mass grave. Well, turns out it was a children’s cemetary.
Meanwhile, the case that nobody could possibly have driven around in his Bradley Fighting Vehicle killing dogs seems to essentially come down to the fact that “This would violate standard operating procedure (SOP) and make the convoy more susceptible to attack.” I don’t, however, think anyone ever argued that killing dogs was SOP, the claim was that it happened. Surely the Standard is prepared to concede that SOP, though standard, is sometimes violated.
First, why must Yglesias do his own bit of exaggerating here? The Standard didn’t “inadvertently” corroborate the information about the children’s cemetery. That’s absurd. Is Yglesias saying that Goldfarb is such a dolt he forgot to exclude exculpatory evidence that would prove Thomas correct? Evidently yes. No mention of debunking the child’s skullbone on the head of the soldier story by Yglesias. Looks like he “inadvertently” left that out.
As for the Bradley deliberately targeting dogs, it is evident that Yglesias is a little behind the information curve. Several vets who have driven or a currently driving Bradleys point out the impossibility of targeting anything given the location of the hatch as well as the range of vision afforded the driver. This would seem to supersede Yglesias’ contention that judging the veracity of the incident came down to a question of SOP.
Another “inadvertent” omission by Yglesias? I guess so. I think Matthew would probably fit in wonderfully at The New Republic.
Debunking or confirming specific incidents related by Scott Thomas is important but at the same time, we mustn’t lose sight of the overall picture of the military being painted by the left recently; and that is, the US army is chock full of kooks, crazies, gun nuts, latent serial killers, rapists, psychologically disturbed, violence prone killers who are careening around Iraq firing indiscriminately at civilians, killing kids for sport, and hating their hosts with a genocidal passion.
I have no doubt that war turns men into beasts, that no amount of training can prepare young men for the horror of combat, and that the stress of numerous deployments has taken its toll on the psychological health of many in the military.
But articles like those written by Scott Thomas and the 7500 word screed appearing this month in The Nation make no effort to avoid generalizing the behavior of the few into what amounts to an indictment of the entire US military.
That’s their intent, of course. Being anti-war has its perks, not the least of which is the right to talk out one side of your mouth claiming support for the troops while dishing dirt on the military out of the other side. And inadvertently or not, the effect is to tar the entire military serving in Iraq with the crimes of the few.
The article in The Nation is astonishing for its detailed recitation of some brutal atrocities as well as the casual - perhaps inhuman is a better word - manner in which the death of civilians was treated by the military. The graphic descriptions of war crimes come from 50 ex-military people who served in Iraq between 2003-2005.
Many of these young men are undergoing psychological treatment for the things they did as well as incidents they witnessed first hand. For them, as well as no doubt thousands of others who the experts say will need counseling when their tours are over, let us wish them well and hope that they can recover and adjust to living among civilians.
Does the fact that many of those interviewed for the article - if not the overwhelming majority - come from anti-war groups or were recommended by them cast doubt on their stories? We don’t know. Wherever possible, The Nation included press reports that confirmed the soldiers’ stories. But that fact raises other questions of media contamination as well as the simple, human penchant for remembering things differently from the way they actually occurred. And then there is the experience we in the United States have had with these types of forums, specifically the Viet Nam era “Winter Soldier” confabs. To avoid the worst errors made by the organizers of that anti-military get together - it turns out many of the testimonials of atrocities were given by people either never in the military or who couldn’t possibly have witnessed what they were describing - The Nation was careful in only interviewing genuine ex-servicemen. Whether they served in areas that would have put them in a position to actually witness the events they describe is up to the reader to decide.
The problem for The Nation is the same one facing The New Republic; how do you vet stories in a combat zone, months or years after the fact? Given the anti-war agenda of both publications as well as their reputation for advocacy journalism, questions should always be raised about their sources and methods. And despite arguments by the left to the contrary - that even if partly true, the stories confirm a “larger truth” about Iraq and the military - the standards for publication should be at least as strict as those used when publishing any other news story in those magazines.
Where is the truth in all of this? In the eye of the beholder, naturally. Subjective vs. objective truth will always fight it out when issues that enjoin the passions of the people are discussed and debated. It might be helpful if we remember however, that smearing the reputations of honorable people for political profit reserves a special level in hell for the practitioners - something both publications might want to keep in mind when printing stories about the United States military.