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The day last summer when The Weekly Standard decided to wage war against The New Republic I remember by the taste of glue. I was at the interns’ cubicle just down the hall from William Kristol’s office, licking my way through a pile of envelopes, when the tall and jovial Michael Goldfarb walked past me and knocked on the door of the managing editor’s office. Goldfarb ran The Weekly Standard blog from Boston, but he had traveled here today with a copy of The New Republic, which was turned—as many copies of that magazine were in July 2007—to the article “Shock Troops” that ran on the very last page. It had been submitted from Iraq by an active-duty soldier who wrote under the pseudonym Scott Thomas.

The piece was indeed shocking, conveying, as it did, a first-person account of the brutalities of war—and, more specifically, the brutality the war had instilled in the American soldiers fighting it. In his article, Thomas recounted a conversation that took place at the chow hall at his base in Iraq. There was a mysterious woman who ate lunch there. She wore contractors’ clothes and her face, on one side, had “more or less melted, along with all the hair on that side of her head.” Thomas described the cruel reaction of his fellow soldiers, and bravely confessed his own. “I love chicks that have been intimate—with IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices],” he had said loudly. “It really turns me on—melted skin, missing limbs, plastic noses....”

Why would Thomas be so heartless? “Am I a monster?” he asked, then answered that yes, yes he was, but don’t you see that the war had caused everyone in Iraq—even the sanest and sweetest among the Americans—to behave like brutes? He told the story of the soldier who dug up a child’s skull and “placed it on his head like a crown.” And the story about the soldier who took joy rides in his Bradley Fighting Vehicle; his joy was running over and shooting at dogs. It was not said, and yet it was clear, that Scott Thomas was not a happy warrior.

Richard Starr, the second in command at The Weekly Standard, was. Short, bespectacled, with curly hair, Starr ran the show at the magazine, even if he didn’t host it. He did much of the talking at the weekly editorial-board meetings and conjured up the juiciest headlines. He was also delightfully sociable—he invited me once to his office and read me a Philip Larkin poem—and so it was natural that Goldfarb should seek him out to discuss the Scott Thomas piece. In light of the history of The Weekly Standard and The New Republic, the matter would have to be handled delicately.

To begin with, the magazines occupied opposite corners of the political opinion-making market. The Weekly Standard was a magazine owned by Rupert Murdoch, and it was established in 1995 as a fresh conservative voice. The New Republic, by contrast, was one of the nation’s oldest liberal magazines. And though it had veered of late toward the center, it remained decisively on the neoliberal part of the political spectrum. What had further frozen their relations was that The New Republic, which had initially supported the United States’ invasion of Iraq, had since rethought its position, and its relatively new editor, the precocious Franklin Foer, had been chasing the waves of public sentiment back to a definitively anti-war stance. The Weekly Standard, under the command of the hawkish Bill Kristol, had swum against the waves.

The interns and assistant editors had no real say in the Scott Thomas matter—the official discussions were held in the offices of the senior editors; we were in cubicles—but that didn’t stop us from carrying on conversations of our own. The opinion of one assistant editor, that the story was “probably bullshit, but it’s too risky to call [The New Republic] out on it,” was the most popular.

Yet all discussions, whether in the offices or the cubicles, proceeded with the understanding that The Weekly Standard might have been on the verge of exposing “another Stephen Glass,” the young reporter who, in the late Nineties, had filled The New Republic’s pages with big, fantastic stories. Even amid great public suspicions—and eventually accusations—the magazine’s editors defended their writer, who continued to furnish new sources and notes as corroboration. But by 1998, it was obvious that Glass had fabricated not only his articles, but also his notes. He was fired, but too late, perhaps, for the magazine to save face with the public (although a subsequent film on the scandal, Shattered Glass, helped rehabilitate The New Republic’s image).

It was against the backdrop of that dark history that The Weekly Standard’s Michael Goldfarb wrote and senior editors approved a piece titled “Fact or Fiction?” which was posted on July 18 on The Weekly Standard blog.

For the time being, Goldfarb didn’t accuse; he merely questioned. Thomas had claimed to have humiliated an injured woman, but why, lacking knowledge of the woman’s post or seniority, would he take such a risk? Thomas had claimed that a child’s skull had been a “perfect fit” on the head of a fellow soldier, but “would a child’s skull fit on the head of a full-grown man?” Thomas had observed a soldier as he drove a Bradley Fighting Vehicle erratically through Iraqi streets, but why would that soldier have risked running into roadside bombs, which were widely scattered about the city?

At the end of the post, Goldfarb called on the “milblogging community to do some digging of their own, and individual soldiers and veterans to come forward with relevant information—either about the specific events or their plausibility in general.”

In the meantime, Bill Kristol issued his opinions through a printed magazine editorial that asked far fewer questions and attempted to give many more answers. “But what is revealing about this mistake [of publishing Thomas] is that the editors must have wanted to suspend their disbelief in tales of gross misconduct by American troops. How else could they have published such a farrago of dubious tales?” he wrote. “Having turned against a war that some of them supported, the left is now turning against the troops they claim still to support.”

It is difficult here to make sense of the hurricane of claims and counterclaims that swept through the blogosphere, as scoops mixed with theories, theories with opinions and opinions with facts. A thick fog of war was slowly settling on Washington.

The interns watched with delight as military bloggers began to tear apart the story. Ian Kress, a former Bradley driver, took issue with the idea that a soldier could possibly run over a dog with a Bradley. “Dogs aren’t dumb. They get out of the way of a 23-ton armored vehicle,” he wrote. “The Bradley is not a Formula 1 race car either—the usual rolling speed is about 20-30 mph.” Lieutenant Colonel Kurt A. Schlichter wrote: “The skull-cap? From a little kid? Walking around with it on for a day? Nonsense.”

But the most common response of the military bloggers from Iraq concerned the disfigured woman, whom Thomas also called the “crypt keeper.” They said that no such woman was ever seen in Iraq. All these doubts gave Goldfarb the polemical courage to refer, in The Weekly Standard blog, to a “semiotics-based analysis” that showed that Thomas fit the profile of a graduate of a creative writing program. Some politicos suggested that Thomas wasn’t even a soldier. Perhaps he didn’t exist at all.

But Scott Thomas most assuredly existed. And on July 26, 2007, on the website of The New Republic, he revealed himself to be Scott Thomas Beauchamp. He was 23 and stationed at Forward Operating Base Falcon in Iraq. He stood by his statements. Yet, in the early hours of that same day, The New Republic found itself far less confident than the magazine’s website would suggest. A transcript of that morning’s instant-messaging, logged between a computer in Washington and a computer in Iraq, revealed great uncertainty about the facts surrounding Beauchamp’s crucial story about the “crypt keeper,” the injured woman whom he publicly ridiculed. The log was released by The New Republic, and it showed that Thomas had been wrong on at least one crucial count: the setting of his story.

TNR: where did you see the crypt keeper?
. . .
Beauchamp: the dfac on falcon or chow hall, as it is commonly called
TNR: what about Kuwait?
Beauchamp: brb [be right back]
. . .
Beauchamp: theyre taking away my laptop
TNR: fuck is this for communication?
Beauchamp: yeah and I’m fucked
TNR: they said that?
Beauchamp: because you’re right the crypt keep was in Kuwait

A few minutes later, Beauchamp signed off. The New Republic editors did not know at the time that the army had just completed its preliminary investigation, which found that “Private Beauchamp is not a credible source for making the allegations he wrote about in ‘Shock Troops’” and recommended that “Private Beauchamp have his computer/internet access revoked until the completion of a more detailed investigation.”

On August 2, 2007, the editors of The New Republic disclosed what they had learned in their July 26 chat with Beauchamp—that the “crypt keeper” episode didn’t happen in Iraq at all. They revealed also that Beauchamp had first made contact with The New Republic through one of the magazine’s yearlong researcher-reporters, Elspeth Reeve, who happened also to be Beauchamp’s girlfriend. And they publicized the fact that “late last week, the Army began its own investigation, short-circuiting our efforts. Beauchamp had his cell phone and computer taken away and is currently unable to speak to even his family. His fellow soldiers no longer feel comfortable communicating with reporters.”

Beau

 

TNR's power couple for a day: Researcher-reporter Elspeth Reeve and boyfriend (now husband) Scott Beauchamp

 

 

 

The Army now refused The New Republic’s requests to speak with Beauchamp; it preferred to deal with its de facto ally, The Weekly Standard. The following week, Michael Goldfarb claimed, on the magazine blog, that Scott Thomas Beauchamp had signed a sworn statement “admitting that all three articles he published in The New Republic were exaggerations and falsehoods.” He ridiculed what he charged was the magazine’s motive in publishing the Beauchamp piece: to illustrate the “morally and emotionally distorting effects of war.” The distorting effects of war, Goldfarb wrote, apparently had occurred not in Iraq during the war, but in Kuwait before Beauchamp ever went to war. Goldfarb ended his post with a challenge: “Beauchamp has recanted under oath. Does The New Republic still stand by his stories?”

In a frustrated statement issued on its website on August 10, The New Republic replied, “We once again invite the Army to make public Beauchamp’s statements and the details of its investigation—and we ask the Army to let us (or any other media outlet, for that matter) speak to Beauchamp. Unless and until these things happen, we cannot fairly assess any of these reports about Beauchamp—and therefore, have no reason to change our own assessment of Beauchamp’s work.”

* * *

The war over Scott Thomas Beauchamp raged for weeks in the blogosphere. The Weekly Standard emerged without many casualties. When the summer generation of interns left in August 2007, basking in the reflected glory of our seniors, we had already seen our victory. But The New Republic continued its investigation, endeavoring now to confirm Beauchamp’s story with the soldiers who served with him. They knew they couldn’t confirm every detail; what they hoped to prove was that the story had the ring of truth. More than a month after they had last made contact with the Baghdad diarist, on September 7, Peter Scoblic, executive editor of the magazine, and Frank Foer got him back on the line. Though two military men were also in the room, Beauchamp seemed to speak his mind. But it was, as these Army transcripts demonstrate, a different mind:

Beauchamp: Well, I mean I...appreciate that you’ve defended me and, and I know that you guys have been through a lot too and I’ve been through a lot, but at the same time, I’m still going to...I don’t want any part of discussing anything with anyone anymore, really. I’m sorry if it’s disappointing on a personal level, but it’s not something I want to do. I don’t want to discuss anything with anyone.
. . .
Scoblic: Ah...you’re not going to be able to write anymore after this...You know that, right?

Beauchamp: I...I mean, I don’t really care at this point.

Whether Beauchamp’s sudden and suspicious indifference was ordered by the Army, we cannot be sure. My hunch is that the defamed soldier had only two options: First, to involve himself in a public media trial that he was bound to lose; second, to seek forgiveness from and peaceful coexistence with the Army, the institution he had effectively betrayed. The Army, I think, offered both a greater threat and a greater chance at redemption than the public—or Frank Foer—could.

In the next few months, Beauchamp was back in touch with The New Republic, saying, at times, that he wanted to stand by his article. But by December 2007, the patience of his editors had run out. In a 7,000-word piece titled “Fog of War” and subtitled “The story of our Baghdad diarist,” Frank Foer concluded:

When I last spoke with Beauchamp in early November, he continued to stand by his stories. Unfortunately, the standards of this magazine require more than that. And in light of the evidence available to us, after months of intensive re-reporting, we cannot be confident that the events in his pieces occurred in exactly the manner that he described them. Without that essential confidence, we cannot stand by these stories.

On that day, Michael Goldfarb posted a few lines on The Weekly Standard blog. He cited some conservative pundits who condemned Foer for his failure to apologize. He offered his own parenthetical opinion (“He never apologizes!—not to his readers, nor to his critics, whom he attacked and derided, but who were right, nor to the troops”) but, for the most part, his condemnation was modest.

After four and a half months of ferocious conflict, the Beauchamp story was finally over. The Weekly Standard had been right to suspect the story. Sometimes, as in the speculation that Beauchamp wasn’t even a soldier, its allies on the blogosphere had pursued their paranoia too far. The New Republic had been wrong to publish the stories—fact-checked, as they were, and as they themselves eventually revealed, by Beauchamp’s girlfriend—but that didn’t mean everything Beauchamp had written was false.

That great, long magazine war of summer 2007 had many casualties, not the least of which was that tidy narrative about the war in Iraq spun by a soldier who, according to his superiors’ report, dreamed of “becoming the next Hemingway.” The man caught in the storm he created, Scott Thomas Beauchamp, is now in Germany for his final two years of duty in the United States Army. He is joined there by Elspeth Reeve, the woman who befriended him, introduced him to Frank Foer, urged him to write, and who, when Beauchamp’s fate looked most wretched in the fall of 2007, married him.

Today Beauchamp is largely forgotten, both by the public and the editors who brought him into the spotlight of American contempt, and left him there. “I’ve pretty much exhausted myself on the topic,” Frank Foer wrote, in response to my interview request. “Thanks for the offer.” Michael Goldfarb was exhausted, too. And that is why, perhaps, if you were walking by The Weekly Standard’s offices on the day Foer issued his retraction, you would hear neither the uncorking of champagne nor the ring of a victory bell. “We beat the hell out of them for most of the summer,” Goldfarb explained. “They got so raked over the coals anyway.”

 



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