The first casualty in wartime, famously, is truth. (Phillip Knightly’s book, The First Casualty, is an excellent resource in this area.) The military’s job, its very essence, revolves around the violation of the most fundamental moral principle we have (thou shalt not kill); it would be ludicrous to expect people steeped in that to bat an eye at the relatively minor transgression of bearing false witness. Or, to put it more charitably, for people who are engaged in an activity where the stakes are deemed to be high enough to justify the wholesale taking of human life, to balk at telling falsehoods would be ridiculous, even immoral (if morality could reasonably be applied to any aspect of such an undertaking, a point I’m not willing to stipulate).
There have been a couple of stories illustrating this lately. First was the case of “Scott Thomas”, a soldier in Iraq who wrote a piece (Shock Troops) for The New Republic, in which he talked about how his basic humanity had been eroded by the experience of fighting the war, recounting several icky-sounding actions allegedly carried out by himself and his fellow soldiers: mocking a woman with a disfigured face, taking a skull from a mass-grave and using it as a decoration, and intentionally running over dogs with a Bradley fighting vehicle. There was much howling from right-leaning bloggers that Scott Thomas must be a fake, since no real soldier would do, much less say, such things. Then it turned out that Scott Thomas was in fact Scott Thomas Beauchamp, a real soldier stationed in Iraq, at which point the focus shifted to whether or not Beauchamp’s statements were true. A great deal of blogging later, the question remains fairly murky; at a minimum, Beauchamp apparently got at least one significant detail wrong. But the actual truth of the matter, whatever it is, has been buried by an avalanche of self-serving theorizing and conclusion-jumping. The best source at this point is probably the fairly well scrummed (by which I mean, argued back and forth by partisans on each side, pruning away most of the bloggy snark and leaving only the principal pieces of published evidence behind) treatment at Wikipedia’s Scott Thomas Beauchamp article.
Making the truth murkier in this case is the fact that the military hierarchy is controlling the investigation, making Beauchamp stop talking to people and selectively releasing information to places like The Weekly Standard. Say what you will about the shortcomings of the media these days; even a fully functional media would have a tough time figuring out the truth in this context. One thing I’m sure of, at least, is that the military has not approached this from the perspective of an unbiased seeker of the truth.
The thing that got me about the Beauchamp story was that after reading all the reactions to it in the weblogs I frequent, I was surprised, when I finally got around to reading the original piece, that the actions it describes were actually as minor as they were. I mean, this is in a context of members of the military being successfully prosecuted for war crimes involving willfully killing unarmed civilians. But your outrage is reserved for a guy using his Bradley to run over dogs? I thought Philosoraptor’s take on that was pretty apt (even if the title puts me somewhat in mind of Jane Austen): The Scott Thomas (Beauchamp) Saga Draws to a Close? And Its Possible Effects on the War Debate With Comments on Memogate.
This is reminiscent of Memogate. It’s indisputable that Bush’s National Guard record stinks to high heaven. It’s very, very likely that something untoward went on there. But the Rather memo was a hoax. This single clear case in which the right was right goes proxy, in the minds of many, for all the other, more substantive debates about Bush’s Guard record. Having been right in one high-profile case, those eager to support him can tell themselves that they were right about the whole thing. Such a willingness to believe is the administration’s greatest ally on the right.
Anyway, moving on. The second story I’ve been thinking about lately that bears on the military’s trustworthiness concerns an op-ed piece that appeared on July 30 in the NY Times: A War We Just Might Win. It was written by Michael O’Hanlon and Ken Pollack, and describes their experiences on a military-hosted fact-finding mission in Iraq. In the wake of the piece’s appearance there has been much trumpeting by war supporters of the fact that even two liberal war critics now admit that the surge in Iraq is working. Here’s the key paragraph from the piece:
Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily “victory” but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.
There’s more, but the thing that gets me is how transparent the piece is at being a carefully planned opening salvo in the propaganda war that will surround Gen. Petraeus’ upcoming mid-September report on the state of the surge. Some background reading that helps put the piece in context:
Okay, ideological rugby players: The ball’s all yours. Have fun in the comments.