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July 24, 2007
New York Times Covering the Scott Thomas Saga
The New York Times has a story today about The New Republic's continuing efforts to verify the stories told by Scott Thomas, the anonymous "Baghdad Diarist" whose stories of American GI's bad behavior have been called into question by a variety of sources.
Franklin Foer, the editor of The New Republic, will not reveal the author’s identity but says the magazine is investigating the accuracy of his articles. In the late 1990s, under different editors, the magazine fired an associate editor, Stephen Glass, for fabrications. First of all, it does the heart good to see that Mr. Foer is on the case trying to confirm the accuracy and veracity of Mr. Thomas. The problem is that he didn't ask those questions before he went to print with the stories as any good editor would have. To give him a hand, bloggers are doing some of his work for him. Michael Goldfarb who blogs at The Weekly Standard received an email from a soldier who verifies some of what Thomas wrote about one of Thomas' fellow GI's parading around with a piece of a child's skull on his head:
“Now that these questions have been raised, we’ve launched an inquiry. We’re putting the full resources of the magazine to look into the story,” Mr. Foer said. “It’s taking me a little bit longer than I wish it did. The author, not to mention some of the participants in the anecdotes he described, are active duty soldiers and they’re on 20-hour active combat missions sometimes, and it’s very difficult for me to get them all on the phone to ask them the questions that I’d like to ask.” The diaries have described some shocking incidents of military life, including soldiers openly mocking a disfigured woman on their base and a private wearing a found piece of a child’s skull under his helmet.
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. Apparently, Thomas mistook an unmarked children's cemetery for a mass grave, an understandable mistake. But the idea of some goofy soldier wearing the bones of a child all day under his helmet was shot down rather convincingly.
The problems that The New Republic is having with the story are somewhat similar to the difficulties faced by another far left publication The Nation. That magazine published a 7,500 word article on American atrocities in Iraq gleaned from interviewing 50 soldiers - most of whom were made available by anti-war organizations. While The Nation tried to vet the stories using media reports and other means, the questions surrounding the accuracy of what occurred, told by soldiers (some of whom are suffering from psychological problems) cannot be dismissed out of hand.
I wrote this earlier today on my own site, summarizing the problems faced by both The New Republic and The Nation:
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. There's no doubt that war makes beasts of some men and that there have been atrocities in Iraq as there is in every war that has ever been fought. Are they as widespread as The Nation or The New Republic would have you believe? Is our entire military a "Killatary" as the diarist at Daily Kos said yesterday.
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.
We know the answer to that question. I wonder if Franklin Foer will find it too?