Carol Platt Liebau: The First Law of Holes

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The First Law of Holes

is that if you find yourself in one, stop digging. New Republic editor Franklin Foer has instead rented a steam shovel.

This is Jack Kelly, and I'll be fascinated to see how TNR's Baghdad Diarist flap ends.

When a New York Times reporter called the Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb last week (whose skepticism sparked this controversy), she said "this is the story that just won't die." It won't die because TNR will not let it rest in peace.

It's now pretty plain that Private Scott Thomas Beauchamp, the Baghdad Diarist, at a minimum greatly embellished the incidents he described in his three articles for the New Republic, and may have made up most of them entirely. The Army says it has interviewed every member of his platoon, and that all denied that the incidents Beauchamp describes ever took place. But maybe the best evidence that Beauchamp's story has fallen apart is that the trolls on the Web sites discussing the latest on the story are trying desperately to change the subject.

If TNR's editors had acknowledged early on that they'd goofed on their fact checking, this story would be over. But TNR's editors implied that Goldfarb was lying when he said he had confirmation Beauchamp had recanted his stories, or, alternatively, the Army had pressured Beauchamp into signing a statement that wasn't so. TNR acknowledged Beauchamp had signed a statement, but said it was "not inconsistent" with his stories for the magazine. But if Beauchamp's statement merely supported what he'd said in print, why would he feel pressure about signing it? TNR's own investigation -- which they said had been impeded by the Army -- supported the original stories, the editors said.

Two huge gusts of wind blew down TNR's house of cards this weekend.

First, over at Confederate Yankee, Bob Owens tracked down one of the experts TNR claims substantiated their story, and found he had done no such thing.

Second, the indefatigable and invaluable Bill Roggio received an email from Col. Steve Boylan (the top Army public affairs officer in Iraq) refuting TNR's claim that Beauchamp is being held incommunicado. Beauchamp is free to talk to TNR or any other media outlet, Boylan said, but has chosen not to.

Let's step back for a moment and assess why so many veterans are upset with Beauchamp and TNR. I'm sure that anyone who has read this far into this post already is familiar with the details of the controversy. But to summarize, in his July 13 commentary, "Shock Troops," describes three incidences of casual cruelty. In the first, Beauchamp makes fun of a woman who had been badly disfigured by an IED, to the amusement of his buddy. In the second, a soldier puts part of a child's skull on his head and prances around with it. In the third, the driver of a Bradley fighting vehicle runs over dogs for fun.

No one who was ever in the military doubts that there are within the ranks soldiers who are capable of such shocking and juvenile behavior. Soldiers and Marines have committed murder and rape in Iraq. What Beauchamp described is much less serious than that,or of what happened at Abu Ghraib. All of us have known soldiers like Beauchamp and his friends. There is a specific name for them, which I cannot repeat on the blog of so fine a lady as Carol, but it is the combination of a vulgar word for excrement, and a common name for fowl.

So none of us doubted that a excrementfowl like Beauchamp might have made fun of a woman whose face had been disfigured by an IED. What we found incredible is that he could have done so in a crowded mess hall on a small base without instantly having his attitude adjusted by officers and ncos present.

Similarly, it isn't hard for veterans to believe that there could be a jerk who would clown around with a piece of a child's skull. What we find incredible is that he could wear it "all day and all night" without being called on it by officers and ncos in his unit.

Finally, it's easy enough to believe that a soldier would be cruel enough to deliberately run over a dog with a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. What we find incredible is that a Bradley driver would be permitted to take out stalls in the market, corners of buildings, etc. without having the vehicle commander all over him.

Vets know there are excrementfowl in the ranks. The difference between most veterans and many liberals is that vets know the excrementfowl are the exception. Liberals -- those at TNR, anyway -- think the Army is made up of stupid rednecks (except, of course, for aspiring novelists married to TNR staffers), and that such behavior is typical of soldiers.

Because no one at TNR has worn a uniform since the Cub Scouts, the editors missed errors in Beauchamp's stories that made veterans wary. It is very difficult to believe that a woman who had been injured as badly as Beauchamp describes would still be at a forward operating base, and inconceivable that even as bad a soldier as Beauchamp would not be able to tell whether the woman sitting next to him was a soldier or a civilian. While there definitely could be a soldier cruel enough to deliberately run over a dog, it couldn't possibly be done in the manner Beauchamp described. The driver of a Bradley could not have seen a dog to his immediate right (the cooling vent of the engine blocks his view, even when traveling hatch open), and a dog struck by a Bradley could not be "cut in two." The part of the dog that got hit by the Bradley would be squashed flat.

Unlike my email buddy Dean Barnett at HughHewitt.com, I don't blame TNR's editors much with going with Beauchamp's fables to begin with. He was their kind of guy -- a twenty something liberal with literary pretensions -- who'd been vouched for by his wife, TNR staffer Elspeth Reeve, who apparently is well liked and well respected at the magazine. Because Beauchamp's stories fit their own views of what the military is like, they wouldn't have thought anything odd about them. And because they know nothing about the military, they wouldn't have noticed the red flags veterans saw popping up all over.

But once TNR's editors had the inconsistencies in Beauchamp's stories brought forcefully to their attention, they should have backed off. Instead, they themselves have engaged in dissimulation and deception to try to maintain the illusion the original stories were true. As Richard Nixon could have told them, it's the cover up that gets you.

Dean Barnett thinks the story will end with the dismissal of editor Franklin Foer, and has established a "dead pool" to pick the date when he'll be fired. I agree that Foer ought to be fired, but I doubt that it will happen. The reason is liberals today prefer their narratives to the truth. If what they want to believe is at odds with the facts, they'll ignore the facts and stick with the narrative. If Foer admitted error, he'd be in danger of losing more of TNR's dwindling readership than he will by sticking with Beauchamp's factually untenable stories.

14 Comments:

Blogger The Flomblog said...

First of all, sir, I think you owe Cub Scouting an apology. That being said.

Many years ago when a 21 year old E3 (me) was in a Bar in southeast asia, as a joke complained about not getting to loot, rape and pillage like any other military would have.

Before I knew what was happening I was standing at attention, in the Alleyway while a full-bird colonel, also in civies, was chewing me up one side and down the other.
And he was right!

I refuse to believe that today's military would allow such disgusting activities to go on. My opinion is that these young troops are far better than we were, and I say that with pride./

9:23 AM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

This piece suffers from two major flaws: presumption and prejudice.

The presumption that Mr. Beauchamp's stories are falsehoods permeates the piece, but at no point does the author offer proof that to that effect. He instead relies upon the Army's denials and the claim that other soldiers would not tolerate such behavior.

That the Army would deny these stories goes without saying; the Army has a vital interest in doing so. The author's assumption that the Army would never tell a lie to protect its reputation is naive. The Army's evidence should not be entirely dismissed, but neither should it be given unquestioning credence. At this point, the evidence available to us does not support any strong conclusion on the matter.

The author's second argument -- that other soldiers would not tolerate such behavior -- assumes that other soldiers witnessed such behavior. If Mr. Beauchamp had claimed that the behavior in question was witnessed by a large crowd of soldiers who took no action, the author's claims would be justified. But he made no such assertions and so the entire argument is pointless.

The greater flaw in this piece is the self-discrediting prejudice so casually sprinkled though it. For example, our author writes:

Liberals -- those at TNR, anyway -- think the Army is made up of stupid rednecks (except, of course, for aspiring novelists married to TNR staffers), and that such behavior is typical of soldiers.

By what miracle of extra-sensory perception does our author know the internal thoughts of TNR staffers? Indeed, does he even the names of all the TNR staffers who participated in the editorial deliberations on this story?

Here's another example of casual stupidity:

no one at TNR has worn a uniform since the Cub Scouts

I challenge our author to substantiate this assertion with the personal histories of all TNR staffers since the age of 12. We all know that he can't do so. He really doesn't know what he's talking about -- it's just a casual slander reflecting his own biases, having nothing whatever to do with reality.

And when it comes to reality, this particular belief -- that liberals have no military experience -- is a contemptible lie. I recall seeing a list of the military experience of members of Congress, and the Democrats compile more years of military service than the Republicans. Note also that the upper reaches of the Bush Administration are notable for the lack of military experience among their ranks. The term used by liberals to describe such people -- 'chickenhawks' -- is cruel but apt.

Lastly, I'm going to make a mountain out of the molehill in this quote:

He was their kind of guy -- a twenty something liberal with literary pretensions

It's that word 'pretensions' that I want to jump on. The word is apt only if the TNR staffers are demonstrably incompetent as writers. Our author offers no evidence to support his use of this word. It's just another casual, inappropriate slander. What struck me about it was the irony of its use. By using such an obviously inappropriate term, the author demonstrated that it is his own writing that is, in fact, pretentious.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Carol Platt Liebau said...

Coyote here.

I allowed the above comment despite some harsh language ("casual stupidity", "contempible lie") because the blogger was responding to a post that contained some rhetorical flourish.

I note what I think is some hairsplitting, or mountains from molehills, where such a flourish is taken at face value or a hypercritical interpretation made of a straightforward phrase. An example of the first is the Boy Scout issue. The second, relating to another post, concerns not conducting foreign policy by polls. A democracy should in part conduct foreign policy by elections, but I suspect most people agree that the vicissitudes of public opinion, combined with the often sloppy wording of poll questions, would be a poor way to direct foreign policy.

There is not much to be gained from setting up straw men just to knock them down.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

There is not much to be gained from setting up straw men just to knock them down.

It's not a straw man argument at all. The point at issue concerned the broadly expressed desire of the American people to end this war. While the polls show some confusion among the American people about exactly how this is to be accomplished (and such specifics should not be subject to opinion polls), the American system expects the government to honor the broad will of the people. The last election saw the people express their will by massively rejecting Republican candidates in favor of Democratic candidates. The next election will likely see much the same. In both cases, the reason for this is the fact that the government is not implementing the wishes of the people.

That's how democracies work. Supporters of the war may not like that, and they're welcome to complain about the way our democracy works, but in the end, that's the way we do things in America.

6:32 PM  
Blogger Carol Platt Liebau said...

Coyote here.

This comment is from GREG. It has been edited.

GREG writes: "You are guilty of the very sins you charge the author of this post of committing.

Your challenge to the author to substantiate his assertion regarding the personal histories of all TNR staffers implies that, without such substantiation, his point cannot be taken seriously.

You then go on to make an equally unsubstantiated assertion yourself:

"That the Army would deny these stories goes without saying; the Army has a vital interest in doing so. The author's assumption that the Army would never tell a lie to protect its reputation is naive."

This is a thinly veiled and unsubstantiated accusation about the Army's trustworthiness.

You fault the author for not providing proof that Beauchamp's stories are false, yet you say it goes without saying that the Army would lie to cover up anything that might embarass it.

The investigations, prosecutions, and convictions of military personnel in the Abu Ghraib and the rape and murder case clearly contradict your assertions.

[Paragraph deleted.]

I've also noticed in your latest postings on this topic you've avoided the point that it has been reported that Beauchamp signed a statement recanting his stories. Is this on purpose? Do you dispute this?

What about TNR's assertion that a spokesman from the manufacturer of the Bradley substantiated portions of Beauchamp's stories? That specific spokesman has been contacted. Apparently TNR's assertion in this regard is, at best, a stretch. Any comment?

12:31 PM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

Greg writes:

You fault the author for not providing proof that Beauchamp's stories are false, yet you say it goes without saying that the Army would lie to cover up anything that might embarass it.

Yes, I believe it's fair to assume that the Army would attempt to minimize stories that put it in a bad light. This is a general principle of organizational behavior, and the Army has demonstrated on numerous occasions that it is not immune to such temptations. Yes, sometimes the Army has done an exemplary job of coming clean. On other occasions, it has not been so forthcoming. Again, I would suggest that it is naive to take the Army's word as gospel truth when its reputation is at stake.

I've also noticed in your latest postings on this topic you've avoided the point that it has been reported that Beauchamp signed a statement recanting his stories. Is this on purpose? Do you dispute this?

If the reports had substance, I'd give them serious consideration. For the time being, they are so vague as to be unworthy of such consideration. If some actual substantiation emerges (say, somebody produces the signed statement, or Beauchamp declares that he has signed such a statement), then we'll have something to go with. Right now, all we have is rumor.

What about TNR's assertion that a spokesman from the manufacturer of the Bradley substantiated portions of Beauchamp's stories? That specific spokesman has been contacted. Apparently TNR's assertion in this regard is, at best, a stretch. Any comment?

Again, when we have some actual information, rather than rumor, I'll comment.

6:46 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

You sidestepped the issue, Chepe. When asked to provide proof to back your assertions that the Army lies, you merely made more assertions that the Army cannot be trusted (after conceding that they have, on occasion, "come clean").

Also, regarding the spokesman for the company that manufactures the Bradley you said:

"... when we have some actual information, rather than rumor, I'll comment."

We have actual quotes from the spokesman himself. What other "actual" information do you need?

6:16 AM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

When asked to provide proof to back your assertions that the Army lies, you merely made more assertions that the Army cannot be trusted

I had assumed that you would concede common knowledge, but since you won't, I'll cite the Pat Tillman case, the early failures to report Abu Ghraib for starters. There are lots more, but we needn't argue those -- these two cases are by themselves more than adequate to establish my point.

We have actual quotes from the spokesman himself. What other "actual" information do you need?

I was politely asking for a link. Have you one?

9:53 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Chepe,

I would be very surprised if you hadn't already heard about this.

5:46 AM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

I would be very surprised if you hadn't already heard about this.

What's so surprising about the fact that I don't read Confederate Yankee?

And now at least I can comment on the claims. My impression is that this piece reads like the old scholastic arguments over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It's a collection of strained attempts at tiny details. It certainly doesn't constitute disproof.

Read carefully what I'm writing here: I am NOT saying that Mr. Beauchamp's accusations have been proven. They remain the accusations of one person. I am saying that the arguments against those accusations do not, in my mind, constitute disproof. I demand solid evidence, not idle speculations or hair-splitting, before I draw solid conclusions.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

I wouldn't call it "hair splitting" to point out that TNR claimed an expert substatiated portions of the stories when, in fact, that expert did no such thing.

Me thinks you require much more than solid evidence, Chepe.

7:29 PM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

I wouldn't call it "hair splitting" to point out that TNR claimed an expert substatiated portions of the stories when, in fact, that expert did no such thing.

That's not how I read the statements. As I read them, the TNR claims were vague enough that the expert's assertions were not directly contradictory. You're squeezing the data too hard. If a criminal case hung on this point, no jury would ever convict.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

"That's not how I read the statements. As I read them, the TNR claims were vague enough that the expert's assertions were not directly contradictory."

That's it exactly!

When TNR was pressed to be - and really should have been - very specific (After all, this was supposed to be an exhaustive "re-reporting" of the story.), they instead chose to be vaugue.

There's a line in the movie, "Independence Day", that applies to TNR's actions:

"Two words, Mr. President, 'plausible deniability'."

Instead of coming clean, TNR decided to cover there hind quarters. In so doing, they've ridiculed themselves and further compromised what integrity they may have had.

8:07 AM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

Yes, vagueness could be indicative of prevarication. It could just as well be due to uncertainty or a perceived lack of need for specificity. Again, I don't think you have anything approaching a solid case here. You have established the clear possibility that TNR is lying. I don't think you've even established that as probable, much less proven.

9:57 AM  

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