The Scott Thomas Beauchamp brouhaha, if you have been following it, is a proverbial tempest in a teapot. The claims Beauchamp made (as the barely pseudonymous "Scott Thomas") in his "Baghdad Diarist" New Republic article about American soldiers behaving badly are fairly trivial; the war in Iraq does not stand or fall on their truthfulness. Nonetheless, the blogosphere's reaction to the story has been sharply divided along pro-war and anti-war lines almost from the start, and this across-the-board knee-jerk response is, perhaps, the most interesting (if depressing) aspect of the entire affair.
Right meme: it's a liberal media conspiracy to besmirch the war effort by encouraging a leftist literary poseur to publish fictional or embellished stories painting soldiers as depraved sociopaths. Left meme: it's a right-wing cyber-lynching of a soldier telling the ugly truth about the war. TNR's announcement that it has confirmed the story to its satisfaction has not changed any minds.
There is no question that some of the right-wing rhetoric directed at Beauchamp and at TNR was indeed shockingly ugly, violent, and paranoid (Beauchamp was a leftist mole who had deliberately infiltrated the military in order to destroy it from within!). But the defense of Beauchamp from the anti-war camp seems misguided. For one thing, the one detail that TNR admits he got wrong—the incident which opens his piece, in which Beauchamp and a buddy publicly mock a woman disfigured in an IED explosion, did not occur in Iraq but in Kuwait while awaiting deployment—is not a triviality. After all, with the correct location, the anecdote would not have fit into Beauchamp's narrative. His point was that war messes up one's moral compass, including his own. If this happened before he was in a war zone, there goes the moral of the story.
Far less attention has been paid to the curious matter of Beauchamp's first diarist piece, "War Bonds". In it, Beauchamp chats with a friendly Iraqi boy while changing a flat tire, only to find out the next day that the boy, who called himself "James Bond," had his tongue cut out by insurgents for talking to Americans. This horrifying tale abounds in improbabilities—above all, the fact that a month or two later Beauchamp sees the same kid back on the same streets, hanging around Americans and waiting for handouts, smiling happily and sprinting after a soccer ball. His spirits are apparently undampened by the mutilation or by fear of further reprisals, and his family has not thought to keep him off the streets, or maybe try to get out of that neighborhood. None of it rings true—though I'm certainly not denying that the insurgents could have done such a thing. (For more analysis of that piece, see my post at The Y-Files.) Of course, no one questioned that story because no one has a political or emotional stake in disproving atrocities by insurgents.
So yes, I think there are good reasons to question Beauchamp's accuracy, and neither TNR nor liberal bloggers are doing themselves any favors by coming uncritically to his defense. But conservative bloggers aren't covering themselves in glory either when they stridenly insist that TNR gave Beauchamp a platform in a nefarious plot to smear and slander the troops. TNR is not some far-left rag that revels in spitting on American soldiers; it is a centrist magazine that initially supported the war in Iraq. Indeed, while I think the story of the boy who had his tongue cut out raises further doubts about Beauchamp's credibility, it also points to the aburdity of claims that TNR editors were eager to publish Beauchamp because his writings put U.S. troops in Iraq in a bad light. I think Beauchamp wanted to write gritty, vivid, human-interest-rich accounts of the horrors of war, and TNR wanted to publish them.
I also think Andrew Sullivan probably has a point when he speculates that one reason for the Beauchamp brouhaha is that, unable to discredit the real bad news coming from Iraq, war supporters have targeted the Beauchamp story as a weak link. There are also far too many on the right who do not want to hear, or to accept, any bad news about the conduct or the morale of American troops.
But none of that changes the fact that a magazine like TNR owes its readers real accuracy, not just a "close enough." Truth in journalism matters; that's why the Beauchamp saga is not entirely trivial. And even those who are rightly disgusted by the hysteria about "slandering the troops" should not overlook this fact. In the end, Beauchamp and his persecutors may well deserve each other.
Extended version cross-posted at The Y-Files.