Politics & Policy

Slandering the American Soldier

An American media tradition.


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.

But even Daniel Ellsberg, a severe critic of U.S. policy in Vietnam, rejected the argument that My Lai was in any way a normal event: “My Lai was beyond the bounds of permissible behavior, and that is recognizable by virtually every soldier in Vietnam. They know it was wrong. . . . The men who were at My Lai knew there were aspects out of the ordinary. That is why they tried to hide the event, talked about it to no one, discussed it very little even among themselves.”

Jim Webb, a Marine hero of the Vietnam War and junior senator from Virginia, got to the real heart of the matter concerning atrocities in the war and Kerry’s testimony in an NPR commentary several years ago: “. . . stories of atrocious conduct, repeated in lurid detail by Kerry before the Congress, represented not the typical experience of the American soldier, but its ugly extreme. That the articulate, urbane Kerry would validate such allegations helped to make life hell for many Vietnam veterans, for a very long time.”.

The media behaved similarly poorly in breaking the “Tailwind” story, a ludicrous claim that U.S. special forces used nerve gas during an operation in Vietnam intended to assassinate American defectors to the communists. Anyone with an ounce of sense could see that this story was ridiculous, and indeed, it began to fall apart almost from the instant it was reported, ultimately ruining a number of reputations at CNN and Time.

Would anyone have believed such a story about World War II and the “greatest generation?” Of course not, but many in the media have been willing to believe that U.S. servicemen in Vietnam were capable of any atrocity. This predisposition lives on today. Here’s our old friend, John Kerry, last year on Face the Nation. American troops, said Kerry, were “going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of night, terrorizing kids and children, you know, women, breaking sort of the customs of the — of, of, of historical customs, religious customs . . .”

And who can forget the bilious Rep. John Murtha (D., Penn.), a vociferous critic of the war, who claimed that Marines in Haditha had “killed innocent civilians in cold blood,” long before an investigation had been completed. Murtha contended that the incident “shows the tremendous pressure that these guys are under every day when they’re out in combat.” Murtha subsequently went further, claiming that the shootings in Haditha had been covered up. “Who covered it up, why did they cover it up, why did they wait so long? We don’t know how far it goes. It goes right up the chain of command.” As readers may know, the Haditha prosecutions have largely unraveled.

In both Vietnam and Iraq, news stories about soldiers have been largely negative. But heroism and sacrifice were far more prevalent in Vietnam than atrocities, and the same holds true today. The TNR-Beauchamp affair illustrates just how little things have changed since Vietnam. In April of 2005, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, U.S. Army, became the first soldier in the Iraq war to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He was killed in action when his outnumbered unit was attacked by Iraqi forces at the Baghdad airport on April 4, 2003, and is credited with saving hundreds of lives. Yet as Robert Kaplan observed in a piece in the Wall Street Journal that “according to LexisNexis, by June 2005, two months after his posthumous award, [Smith’s] stirring story had drawn only 90 media mentions, compared to 4,677 for the supposed Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay, and 5,159 for the court-martialed Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England.

To read of the abundant acts of heroism in Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. soldiers, all one has to do is read Bing West’s account of Fallujah, No True Glory; or the blogs of Michael Yon; or the remarkable story by Jeff Emanuel in the American Spectator, entitled “The Longest Morning,” an account of a battle in Samarra involving four paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division. Those paratroopers “became the object of a pre-planned, coordinated effort by dozens of al Qaeda to kidnap and slaughter American soldiers only days before General Petraeus’s internationally televised testimony to the U.S. Congress on the state of the war in Iraq. Not all survived — but those who did fought like heroes, saving each other and preserving the honor of their nation.”

In No True Glory, one can read about Marine major Douglas Zembiec, who as a captain was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions during the battle for Fallujah. After the battle, he said that his Marines had “fought like lions,” and himself became known as “the Lion of Fallujah.” Volunteering to return to Iraq before he was slated to do so, the 34-year-old Zembiec was killed on May 10. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates eulogized him this way:

In May, the Lion of Fallujah was laid to rest at Arlington [National Cemetery] and memorialized at his alma mater in Annapolis. The crowd of more than 1,000 included many enlisted Marines from his beloved Echo Company. An officer there told a reporter: “Your men have to follow your orders; they don’t have to go to your funeral.”

As Bing West has observed, “there will be no true glory for our soldiers in Iraq until they are recognized not as victims, but as aggressive warriors. Stories of their bravery deserve to be recorded and read by the next generation. Unsung, the noblest deeds will die.” On this Veterans Day, media folk predisposed to believe the worst about the American fighting man when the evidence is so clearly in his favor need to get out and meet a few more.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national-security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


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