As anyone who has not been vacationing on the moon knows, The New Republic embarrassed itself this summer by publishing and defending a series of stories by one Scott Thomas Beauchamp, an active-duty soldier serving in Iraq. As we know, Beauchamp told of his comrades in Iraq mocking a woman horribly scarred by an IED, wrote of another wearing part of a human skull, and depicted yet another using a Bradley fighting vehicle to run over stray dogs. All of the stories have been discredited.
There’s not much I can add to the substance of the story. But what bothers me most about the whole dishonorable episode is what it says about the attitude of the media toward the American soldier. There is, as I have argued before, a troubling predisposition on the part of the press to believe the worst about those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is plenty of talk about supporting the troops, but it is a sham.
TNR gave the game away by admitting that the point of the series penned by Beauchamp was to illustrate “the morally and emotionally distorting effects of war.” In doing so, TNR was reinforcing the left-wing stereotype that has shaped popular opinion about soldiers since the Vietnam War: that they are dehumanized animals.
According to the conventional wisdom passed down from the anti-war left of the Sixties and Seventies and absorbed by the press — even those too young to remember it — Vietnam brutalized those who fought it. At first vilified by the anti-war left as war criminals and baby-killers, American soldiers soon evolved into victims—victimized first by their country, which made them poor and sent them off to fight an unjust war, then victimized again by a military that dehumanized them and turned them into killers. Beauchamp provided TNR that pre-approved narrative, facts be damned. This was Vietnam redux.
We remember well what critics of the Vietnam War said about the troops. In his infamous 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry said they had acted “in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan,” that they had “raped, cut off ears, cut off heads,” and done worse to civilians in the ravaged south. Kerry’s organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), wrote in a September 1970 flyer:
If you had been Vietnamese —
We might have burned your house
We might have shot your dog
We might have shot you
We might have raped your wife and daughter
We might have turned you over to the government for torture
We might have taken souvenirs from your property
We might have shot things up a bit
We might have done all these things to you and your whole town
And to this day, critics of that war invoke the specter of My Lai to prove that atrocities were widespread in Vietnam. Not too long ago, Ellis Henican of Newsday quoted the late Ron Ridenour, the soldier who publicized the My Lai massacre (even though he was not present): “My Lai was a whole lot more than one crazy lieutenant. And there were plenty of My Lais.”
But this is nonsense. Atrocities did occur in Vietnam, but they were far from widespread. Between 1965 and 1973, 201 soldiers and 77 Marines were convicted of serious crimes against the Vietnamese. Of course, the fact that many crimes, either in war or peace, go unreported, combined with the particular difficulties encountered by Americans fighting in Vietnam, suggest that more such acts were committed than reported or tried.