Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Journalism and Fiction

[posted by Callimachus]

I wouldn't make too much of this.

THE WEEKLY STANDARD has learned from a military source close to the investigation that Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp--author of the much-disputed "Shock Troops" article in the New Republic's July 23 issue as well as two previous "Baghdad Diarist" columns--signed a sworn statement admitting that all three articles he published in the New Republic were exaggerations and falsehoods--fabrications containing only "a smidgen of truth," in the words of our source.

Thanks to his own foolishness in publishing as he did while still on duty, Pvt. Beauchamp finds himself firmly in the grip of institutions that thrive on making other people miserable. They likely made him an offer he couldn't refuse, and as we already know by his own writings he lacks the firmness of will and sense of honor to endure the consequences. No doubt, after his discharge, he'll have a career recounting his horror stories of being threatened with Gitmo unless he signed, in a set speech made to anti-war and anti-military groups for as long as he can still fit in the old uniform.

Even if he later recants his alleged recantation, he's already admitted a huge error -- I can't believe it's not a fudge -- which points out what I think is the main problem with this young man's journalism:

The magazine's editors admitted on August 2 that one of the anecdotes Beauchamp stood by in its entirety--meant to illustrate the "morally and emotionally distorting effects of war"--took place (if at all) in Kuwait, before his tour of duty in Iraq began, and not, as he had claimed, in his mess hall in Iraq. That event was the public humiliation by Beauchamp and a comrade of a woman whose face had been "melted" by an IED.

Forgetting when and where a major scene in your story took place is not a common error. But rearranging reality to make it flow better into the constructive paths of narrative fiction is something done all the time. Pvt. Beauchamp was a creative writer. He treated his material as something that could be shaped and twisted to make the point. His article was no more "true" to his experience than "For Whom the Bell Tolls" or "A Farewell to Arms" was true to Hemigway's. It was. And it wasn't.

And it was untrue in just the ways journalistic writing demands veracity.

The puzzle of it is, Beauchamp's theme, the "morally and emotionally distorting effects of war," is such an old and easy one it's hard to believe he was too lazy to go and find authentic examples of it. Every army, whether it lures men with dreams of glory or booty, or drives them in at bayonet point with drafts and levies, includes some criminals and weak minds. Every experience of battle unhinges some otherwise decent men and allows their inner monsters to emerge. We've seen it in this war in Abu Ghraib and a few other places.

What's so infuriating to many who support the military and its work in Iraq is that some group of people here at home would go out of their way to disseminate false stories to compound the true ones. What good could that do? What higher motive could there be for that?

But what's surprising is that there haven't been more cases. Certainly the world is watching as it has never watched another army in action. And after more than four years of fighting such a brutalizing war, against such a ghastly enemy, amid a neutral-to-hostile population, perhaps the revelation in Pvt. Beauchamp is that a man who goes there to see what ought to be prevalent has to invent it to see it. Perhaps our troops really are that disciplined and that good. The professional armies of France and Germany in their glory never could have endured it so long without "going native."

Rick Moran has a typically read-worthy take on the whole thing.