Controversies erupted recently, at both the liberal New Republic and conservative National Review Online, involving soldiers-turned-writers whose work contained now-admitted inaccuracies. Military historian Robert Bateman weighs in on the history of war stories as told by warriors.
BOB GARFIELD: This past summer on the last page of The New Republic in the so called "Diarist" section, several entries ran from a soldier serving in Iraq, bylined Scott Thomas. In one entry he described the sick things he and his fellow soldiers do to keep their sense of humor, including intentionally killing dogs with Bradley vehicles, making fun of a woman in the mess hall who had been disfigured by an IED and making a skull cap out of an actual piece of skull.
Writers and bloggers, especially on the right, were immediately skeptical and flagged the pieces as dubious.
This month Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, finally responded with a detailed account of what happened. In the end, the very end, he concluded that they should not have printed the pieces or put that soldier, whose real name was Scott Thomas Beauchamp and who was married to The New Republic's fact checker, in that position.
One of the groups leading the chorus of condemnation against The New Republic was The National Review Online, and it too has run into trouble recently with its own soldier turned reporter. Retired Marine W. Thomas Smith, Junior reported on The National Review's blog that, among other things, between 4,000 and 5,000 Hezbollah gunmen had been deployed to the Christian areas in Beirut. No one else reported that because it didn't happen.
The National Review eventually admitted that it shouldn't have posted Smith's reporting without more substantiation. And last week, Smith and The National Review Online parted ways.
Both cases highlight the difficulties of including the informal accounts of soldiers alongside the work of professional journalists. Military historian Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bateman says there's nothing new about news outlets enlisting soldiers as scribes nor the arguments that ensue. ROBERT BATEMAN: Certainly the medium of the Internet is new, but in the American Civil War, when we had so many thousands upon thousands of local newspapers, obviously no local newspaper could afford a journalist to go cover the local regimen. And so, editors used to pay local soldiers to send home letters to the local newspaper. That really was how most Americans learned about war.
But when you had a, basically, a private writing home to his hometown paper and saying this happened at the Battle of Gettysburg, six or seven years later, you may see disputes inside that small town where two guys [LAUGHS] disagreed about what happened.
The difference from then to today is then it took seven years for those disputes to come to the air; now it takes maybe 70 minutes. BOB GARFIELD: So you read these pieces by Beauchamp. What was your first thought? ROBERT BATEMAN: I'm an infantry officer and have studied infantrymen at least back 2 or 300 years, and I can comfortably assert that we are not a nice crowd. [LAUGHS]
I thought this is not beyond the pale, but the details related to what he described, they set off my alarms that all was not as it appeared. BOB GARFIELD: Now, in his expansive explanation of what went wrong at The New Republic it ran to 14 pages, Franklin Foer mentioned more than once that it was very, very difficult to verify any of the things that Scott Thomas Beauchamp was saying because, after all, it was taking place in a theater of war. Do you buy that? ROBERT BATEMAN: I don't buy it at all. Now, I understand that my profession with our [LAUGHS] public affairs officers has not covered itself in glory with regards to getting access to people who have queries.
But on the flip side of that same coin, what really distresses me is that there was not a single person, apparently, at The New Republic who had any personal relationship with a career military person, who [LAUGHS] could tell them, yo, you're being fed a line here [LAUGHS] and then help them figure out what was really going on. BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that Scott Thomas Beauchamp and Thomas Smith committed similar but not necessarily identical sins here. Can you characterize who you believe was the worst offender? ROBERT BATEMAN: No. I think both are equally, in different ways, journalistically dangerous. One depicts a scenario which, were it true, would have resulted in civil war and perhaps regional war. BOB GARFIELD: That's the Hezbollah marching through Christian Beirut. ROBERT BATEMAN: Which was patently false. The other painted a scenario or scenarios which are possible and indeed probable in some situations. But if you think about the movie Platoon this was a 1980s movie that depicted a whole series of horrific events that occurred inside a single unit at a single time well, all of those things occurred but almost none of them all occurred inside of a single small unit inside of a single year.
I think what Scott Thomas Beauchamp was doing was something similar to that. BOB GARFIELD: Now, people like Oliver Stone have said that there're the nominal facts and then there's the larger truth. Is there anything to an argument that, well, it doesn't really matter if they're getting the details a little wrong or if they're combining incidents to heighten their drama; that ultimately the underlying truth is still being served? ROBERT BATEMAN: Within academia, we acknowledge the existence of the capital T truth, the truth which transcends the facts on the ground. But mostly that is the purview of people like Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut and James Jones.
Now, their fiction may capture the capital T truth, but they're not depicted as journalists. Scott Thomas Beauchamp may well be his generation's Kurt Vonnegut, but I don't think he can be trusted to write journalistic accounts. BOB GARFIELD: Bob, thank you so very much. ROBERT BATEMAN: [LAUGHS] Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Military historian Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bateman spoke as an individual, not as a representative of the Department of Defense.