Politics & Policy

Stephen Glass Goes to War

Why did The New Republic run it?

For a month, the veracity of The New Republic’s Scott Thomas Beauchamp, the Army private who has been sending dispatches from the front in Iraq, has been in dispute. His latest “Baghdad Diarist” (July 13) recounted three incidents of American soldiers engaged in acts of unusual callousness. The stories were meant to shock. And they did.

In one, the driver of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle amused himself by running over dogs, crippling and killing them. In another, a fellow soldier wore on his head and under his helmet a part of a child’s skull dug from a grave. The most ghastly tale, however, was about the author himself mocking a woman that he said he saw “nearly every time I went to dinner in the chow hall at my base in Iraq.” She was horribly disfigured, half her face melted by a roadside bomb. As she sat nearby, Beauchamp said loudly, “I love chicks that have been intimate — with IEDs. It really turns me on — melted skin, missing limbs, plastic noses.” As his mess hall buddy doubled over in laughter, Beauchamp continued: “In fact, I was thinking of getting some girls together and doing a photo shoot. Maybe for a calendar? ‘IED Babes.’” The woman fled.

After some commentators and soldiers raised questions about the plausibility of these tales, both the Army and The New Republic investigated. The Army issued a statement saying flatly that the stories were false. The New Republic claims that it had corroboration from unnamed soldiers. The Weekly Standard quoted an anonymous military source as saying that Beauchamp himself signed a statement recanting what he had written.

Amid these conflicting claims, one issue is not in dispute. When The New Republic did its initial investigation, it admitted that Beauchamp had erred on one “significant detail.” The disfigured woman incident happened not in Iraq, but in Kuwait.

That means it all happened before Beauchamp arrived in Iraq. But the whole point of that story was to demonstrate how the war had turned an otherwise sensitive soul into a monster. Indeed, in the precious, highly self-conscious literary style of an aspiring writer trying out for a New Yorker gig, Beauchamp follows the terrible tale of his cruelty to the disfigured woman by asking, “Am I a monster?” And answering with satisfaction that the very fact that he could ask this question after (the reader has been led to believe) having been so hardened and brutalized by war, shows that there is a kernel of humanity left in him.

But oh, how much was lost. In the past, you see, he was a sensitive soul with “compassion for those with disabilities.” In a particularly treacly passage, he tells us he once worked in a summer camp with disabled children and in college helped a colleague with cerebral palsy. Then this delicate compassionate youth is transformed into an unfeeling animal by war.

Except that it is now revealed that the mess hall incident happened before he even got to the war. On which point, the whole story — and the whole morality tale it was meant to suggest — collapses.

And it makes the rest of the narrative banal and uninteresting. It’s the story of a disgusting human being, a mocker of the disfigured, who then goes to Iraq, and, as such human beings are wont to do, finds the company of other such human beings who kill dogs for sport, wear the bones of dead children on their heads, and find amusement in mocking the disfigured.

We will soon learn if there actually was a dog killer or a bone wearer. But The New Republic seems not to have understood how the Kuwait “detail” undermines everything. After all, what made the purported story interesting enough to publish? Why did The New Republic run it?

Because it fits perfectly into the most virulent narrative of the antiwar Left. The Iraq war — “George Bush’s war,” as even Hillary Clinton, along with countless others who had actually endorsed the war, now calls it — has not only caused the sorrow and destruction that we read about every day. It has, most perniciously, caused invisible damage — now made visible by the soul-searching of one brave and gifted private: It has perverted and corrupted the young soldiers who went to Iraq, and now return morally ruined. Young soldiers like Scott Thomas Beauchamp.

We already knew from all of America’s armed conflicts — including Iraq — what war can make men do. The only thing we learn from Scott Thomas Beauchamp is what literary ambition can make men say.

©2007, The Washington Post Writers Group

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