Sunday, December 02, 2007

Fog of Faux-Warriors

I just finished reading Franklin Foer's "Fog of War" piece, his final explanation of the entire Scott Beauchamp saga. After painstakingly documenting how the magazine checked and rechecked the story, Foer concluded that "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."

I don't think I ever blogged on this controversy before. I don't recall doing so, and a search through my archives for "Beauchamp" yielded nothing. I don't have a dog in this hunt. Hence, I feel like I was able to read Foer's article with a relatively open mind. It demonstrates the type of complete, thorough investigation conservative bloggers have been screaming for for months on end. Judging from their reaction, it is clear that a cohesive look into Beauchamp's articles is the last thing they wanted. (here's, e.g., Powerline, Malkin, Astute Blogger)

Let's be clear. TNR took a lot of heat on this story -- far more than was ever justified even if Beauchamp turned out to be a total liar. It would have been very easy for them to just throw him to the wolves entirely and watch the heat dissipate. Instead, they decided to actually try and figure out what happened -- no mean feat when the subject is first person accounts of events that occurred in a war-zone (a war which, it might bear repeating, is still on-going).

The results of their investigation make a few things clear. First, with the exception of keeping Elspeth Reeves as the primary fact-checker after she married Beauchamp (they were friends when he started writing for TNR, and married later), TNR did nothing wrong. They fact-checked the stories as best they could, they did the effort to corroborate them from outside sources. There are limits to what a magazine could reasonably have been expected to do, and The New Republic in no way cut corners on its journalistic responsibility.

Second, Beauchamp's stories are still quite plausible. Even the one clear error -- the jokes about the woman with burns on her face at the forward base in Iraq -- looks to have been a genuine error, not a deliberate lie. The story was traced and corroborated to have occurred, only in Kuwait prior to the war, not Iraq. This is not a meaningless error, as the story was used to illustrate the way that war corrupts the minds of soldiers, and if it occurred prior to entering combat, this makes no sense. But the fact that the story likely did happen makes it more likely this was an innocent error with times mixed up than a deliberate effort at fabrication. Beyond that, none of Beauchamp's accounts have been shown to be wrong. They have in no way been "debunked" or proven false. As Foer said, Beauchamp's accounts were corroborated independently by nearly an entire company of fellow soldiers. By contrast, the supposed recantations were done under considerable duress -- there is simply no way to take seriously the kind of coerced statements the army managed to drag out of Beauchamp's platoon mates. I dare say that after reading Foer's reports, he did not have to retract the stories at all. This isn't to say we know what Beauchamp said is true -- in such a situation, we have no way of knowing, and the people who acted as if we were going to find out clear-as-day were deluding themselves. Foer's standard, "essential confidence" that every event Beauchamp described "occurred in exactly the manner that he described them," is laudably high -- indeed, likely impossible for a first-person war story to meet. Certainly, conceding that Beauchamp's tale did not reach it is hardly the same thing as calling him a liar. Hence, anybody who claims that TNR has "admitted" that Beauchamp is a liar or a fabricator is the only known liar or fabricator in the discussion.

Virtually none of the conservative bloggers I read on this story expressed the remotest interest in Foer's actual investigation. Far from it -- they mocked it incessantly. They accused him of simply trying to save his own skin (from who?), or of double-speak. Undoubtedly, this is because the investigation shows that TNR had more than enough evidence to run these pieces, and when faced with critique, they underwent a rigorous retrace of every pertinent detail to find the truth. Their conservative interlocutors, by contrast, showed no rigor and no interest in truth -- content to take selectively leaked military reports as dogma and amateur blogger investigations as articles of faith. It was embarrassing to read then, and it is even more embarrassing now, in the face of a true effort like Foer's.

From the start, I suspected that the conservative outrage over Beauchamp's articles stemmed from two primary sources, neither of which was particularly conducive to finding out the truth. The first was a desire to pin a liberal skull to their wall, and the second was a child-like belief that American soldiers could do no wrong -- the same mentality that led them to dismiss Abu Gharib, the same mentality that leads them to deny even today the overwhelming evidence of American complicity (if not outright participation) in torture. Their writings throughout these past few months have done nothing to dissuade me of that notion and a lot to strengthen it. It is immature, it is juvenile, and it is far more of a black mark on their integrity than anything The New Republic will come away with.

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