In January 1944, The New York Times Magazine published an essay by Arthur Koestler entitled “On Disbelieving Atrocities.” It conveyed his frustration at trying to communicate what he and others had seen taking place in Nazi-dominated Europe. The events that came to be known as the Holocaust were not unknown by this time, but they were not widely accepted as true. “I have been lecturing now for three years to the troops and their attitude is the same,” he wrote. “They don’t believe in concentration camps, they don’t believe in the starved children of Greece, in the shot hostages of France, in the mass-graves of Poland; they have never heard of Lidice, Treblinka or Belzec; you can convince them for an hour, then they shake themselves, their mental self-defence begins to work and in a week the shrug of incredulity has returned like a reflex temporarily weakened by a shock.”
Koestler blamed human psychology, an entrenched unwillingness to accept that something so heinous could be real. But he was also up against the legacy of the First World War. Three decades earlier, atrocity stories had been commonplace, and were generally believed. But postwar investigations found that the stories were either exaggerations or inventions, fanned by government propaganda offices to mobilize the population, and in the case of the British, to bring the United States into the conflict. The debunking of the notion of the “bloodthirsty Hun” supported the argument then prevalent that the U.S. had been tricked into the war, and reinforced isolationist sentiments. So when accounts of the depredations of the Nazi regime began to filter out of occupied Europe, the response was underwhelming. Even late in the war, while most people believed there was some truth behind the stories, few grasped the scope of the tragedy then underway. This all changed when the camps were liberated. Incredulity and dismissiveness were replaced with outrage and shame. It turned out that sometimes atrocities are real.
Invented atrocities usually demonize the enemy. That makes sense – it is normal in war to think that the bad guys are capable of anything. We are fortunate in the war on terrorism in being faced with an enemy we don’t have to stigmatize. Al Qaeda’s principle war-fighting method involves killing noncombatants en masse, and they further make the case for us by videotaping their acts of torture and brutality and posting them on the web. You don’t need a master propagandist to spin evil out of beheading helpless hostages.
But what to make of the recent spate of Americans claiming that they themselves participated in atrocities? Sure, one can easily conceive of soldiers bragging about killings they didn’t actually commit, told to shock or inspire a type of admiration, that of the tough guy, the steely-eyed killer. But those tales are told in the context of warfare, of taking down the bad guys. What I mean are those who falsify their personal participation in what would be considered atrocities, people who contrive evil acts to blemish themselves and their comrades, their service, and their country. Not as false braggadocio but faux confession.
There has been a spate of these people in this war. Jesse MacBeth claimed to be an Army Ranger, admitted to having executed children while interrogating their parents, shot down rock-throwing protesters, and slaughtered hundreds of worshippers in a mosque. None of that was true. Former Marine Jimmy Massey says he either killed children and civilians personally, witnessed the killings, or heard about them, depending on which story he is telling at the moment. Korean War Veteran Edward Lee Daily came forward in the 1990s claiming to be present at the killings at No Gun Ri, as well as being a lieutenant, a POW, and wounded by shrapnel, all lies. These men are spiritual descendants of the troops interviewed in Mark Lane’s 1970 shocker Conversations with Americans, the book that spurred the “Winter Solider” investigations that brought John Kerry to prominence. It contained a number of confessions by Vietnam veterans who had participated in a variety of gruesome activities, vividly portrayed. The problem was, the confessions were false, and the book was a sham. But it ushered in this new kind of invented atrocity story, aimed not at the enemy but at the United States.
The latest entrant is Scott Thomas Beauchamp, whose war stories have been featured in the New Republic. By comparison Beauchamp is a low rent fantasist, and the things to which he admitted can hardly be called “atrocities.” Running over dogs in an AFV, playing with the remains of children, mocking a wounded female soldier — these are a few steps above boys being boys. If not exactly criminal they are extremely embarrassing, and I would think Beauchamp would want to admit that he lied, especially for the mockery incident, which depicts him as utterly contemptible.
But why should he or anyone lie this way in the first place? It is a perverse bid for attention. It fills a complex psychological need, to be seen as both victimizer and victim, to be acclaimed for coming forward and thus absolved of the crime. One publicly confesses a great sin is praised for the nerve to confess rather than condemned for the sin itself. There appears to be no shame in it. In the “victimization” culture individuals are not responsible for what they do; write it off to the “brutalization of war.” The person committing the atrocity is a casualty of the people who sent him to war in the first place. (This line worked much better in the days when we had a draft.)
The reward for this act of bravery is fame, travel, maybe a book contract. There is an antiwar industry and politicians out there ready to help, since telling these kinds of stories serves their interests. Back in Koestler’s time people were blind to clear evidence of real atrocities; today they jump at stories clearly fabricated or exaggerated. Yes, it hurts the war effort, besmirches the rest of the unit, and further demeans the United States in the eyes of the world, but who cares? You can make your name more quickly and easily that way than by lying about being a hero. No one wants to read about heroes. Running directly into enemy fire to break up an ambush even though shot twice in the leg like Army Captain Brennan Goltry? Feh. Single handedly assaulting an enemy cave emplacement and engaging in a three to four hour firefight while wounded like Marine Staff Sgt. Anthony L. Viggiani? OK, whatever. Running over dogs in an AFV? Oh the humanities! Stop the presses! Now that’s a story!
Yet as Beauchamp is learning, reality has its champions. There are consequences to publicly claiming to have participated in activities that are either immoral or criminal, and that violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This isn’t the moral universe of some college bull session or a debate between bloggers where the guy with the most linkbacks wins. The military justice system is not morally vacant; it recognizes that certain things are wrong. It has the tools to conduct investigations in which people must testify under oath, and it can punish those who lie. Moral relativism doesn’t cut it under the UCMJ, and neither does artistic license. Beauchamp’s chief error was writing while still in uniform. Had he waited until he got out he could have invented all manner of surreal tales and faced no tangible consequences.
It is a shame that in a conflict filled with stories of valor and charity, of service and sacrifice, so many column inches are being devoted to a self-absorbed soldier who seems to have accomplished little more than showing up and nurturing a crummy attitude. Our country, our military, is so much better than that. So while it is necessary, even critical, to expose the fraudulent tales and those who tell them, take time also to promote the stories of the men and women who are going above and beyond the call of duty. Celebrate that which affirms the human spirit in the face of those who seek to tear it down. For every exaggerated tale of the brutal or bizarre, there are a hundred true accounts of bravery and benevolence that more clearly and accurately represent the spirit of our fighting forces. Maybe that is not news, but it should be.
– James S. Robbins is the Director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University, Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.