In an interview with the New York Observer earlier today, New Republic editor Frank Foer singles out THE WEEKLY STANDARD for recklessness in raising questions about a pseudonymous column by a soldier in Iraq, Scott Thomas Beauchamp, published two weeks ago in the New Republic. Foer's accusation is misleading and unwarranted.
The article in question, "Shock Troops," was a collection of first-person "vignettes" (TNR's term) that described the author's cruelty and that of his fellow soldiers. The point, according to the New Republic, was to depict "the morally and emotionally distorting effects of war."
The Observer's Michael Calderone writes: "Of the Weekly Standard in particular, Mr. Foer said he did not assist in their reporting when contacted because of 'the reckless way they handled their investigation.'"
This is preposterous. Foer did in fact assist us in our reporting, whatever he now says to the contrary. However, a key corroborating detail that he obtained from the author and passed along to me--before I ever published a word about Scott Thomas Beauchamp--turns out now to have been false.
Before publicly raising questions about Beauchamp's reliability as a narrator of war stories, I interviewed Foer by phone on the afternoon of July 17. His description of the "fact-checking" process for Beauchamp's article did not inspire confidence. Here is how he described the New Republic's due diligence in his interview with me:
"We sent [the article] to a reporter who was embedded in Iraq . . . to see if it all smelled right."
"We pressed this guy for corroborating evidence, and we were satisfied that he provided enough details that everything felt compelling."
"We had a fact-checker talk to a medic who had served in Iraq to make sure that it all smelled right" (referring to the description of the disfigured woman in the mess hall).
After our conversation, Foer followed up with several emails. Here is our entire exchange, with only the email addresses edited out:
From: Frank Foer
Sent: Tuesday, July 17, 2007 4:14 PM
To: Michael Goldfarb
I have met the writer and know the answers to many of your questions. But when I agreed to publish him pseudonymously, I agreed to protect his identity. He is, after all, currently serving. To go into greater detail would, I fear, violate the terms of my relationship with this writer. I hope you understand.
From: Michael Goldfarb
Sent: Tuesday, July 17, 2007 4:42 PM
To: Frank Foer
I want to assure you we've no interest in revealing the name, unit, etc. of your author. But I'd like to ask one more time if it's possible to get any corroborating details, i.e. the base, the place where the bones were dug up, the rank of the woman or whether she is a contractor any details that would reassure that this isn't fiction.
From: Frank Foer
Sent: Tuesday, July 17, 2007 5:45 PM
To: Michael Goldfarb
Those are reasonable questions and I'll get you answers shortly.
From: Frank Foer
Sent: Tuesday, July 17, 2007 6:39 PM
To: Michael Goldfarb
Here are some answers to you questions:
The first incident--the scarred woman--took place on Forward Operating Base Falcon.
The second incident--the skull--took place a couple miles south of Baghdad International Airport in farmland.
And the third question is answered in the piece. We just asked the author about it again, and he reaffirmed what he said in the piece: that he thinks she was probably a contractor, but he's not sure.
Let me know if you need anything else,
Only after that exchange did I publish my first piece on the subject--a request to the "milblogging community to do some digging of their own, and individual soldiers and veterans to come forward with relevant information--either about the specific events or their plausibility in general."
The reader can judge who was reckless here.
But let's look again at that final email from Foer. The clear implication is that the New Republic has been in contact with Beauchamp on July 17, and that Beauchamp now knows that his work is being closely scrutinized. And yet he reiterates that the scarred woman was at his base in Iraq, FOB Falcon. Indeed, this was the scene that led his piece, and he certainly seems to recall vividly every detail:
"I saw her nearly every time I went to dinner in the chow hall at my base in Iraq. She wore an unrecognizable tan uniform, so I couldn't really tell whether she was a soldier or a civilian contractor. The thing that stood out about her, though, wasn't her strange uniform but the fact that nearly half her face was severely scarred. Or, rather, it had more or less melted, along with all the hair on that side of her head. She was always alone, and I never saw her talk to anyone. Members of my platoon had seen her before but had never really acknowledged her.
Then, on one especially crowded day in the chow hall, she sat down next to us. We were already halfway through our meals when she arrived. After a minute or two of eating in silence, one of my friends stabbed his spoon violently into his pile of mashed potatoes and left it there.
"Man, I can't eat like this," he said. "Like what?" I said. "Chow hall food getting to you?"
"No--with that fucking freak behind us!" he exclaimed, loud enough for not only her to hear us, but everyone at the surrounding tables. I looked over at the woman, and she was intently staring into each forkful of food before it entered her half-melted mouth.
"Are you kidding? I think she's fucking hot!" I blurted out.
"What?" said my friend, half-smiling. "Yeah man," I continued. "I love chicks that have been intimate--with IEDs. It really turns me on--melted skin, missing limbs, plastic noses . . . ."
"You're crazy, man!" my friend said, doubling over with laughter. I took it as my cue to continue.
"In fact, I was thinking of getting some girls together and doing a photo shoot. Maybe for a calendar? 'IED Babes.' We could have them pose in thongs and bikinis on top of the hoods of their blown-up vehicles."
My friend was practically falling out of his chair laughing. The disfigured woman slammed her cup down and ran out of the chow hall, her half-finished tray of food nearly falling to the ground."
Am I a monster? I have never thought of myself as a cruel person Even as I was reveling in the laughter my words had provoked, I was simultaneously horrified and ashamed at what I had just said. In a strange way, though, I found the shame comforting. I was relieved to still be shocked by my own cruelty--to still be able to recognize that the things we soldiers found funny were not, in fact, funny.
Today, the New Republic says, "Three soldiers with whom TNR has spoken have said they repeatedly saw the same facially disfigured woman. ... The recollections of these three soldiers differ from Beauchamp's on one significant detail (the only fact in the piece that we have determined to be inaccurate): They say the conversation occurred at Camp Buehring, in Kuwait, prior to the unit's arrival in Iraq. When presented with this important discrepancy, Beauchamp acknowledged his error."
Acknowledged his error? How about confessed that he made something up? How about, misled his editors when they pressed him for corroborating details on July 17, after the piece was published? And how do we reconcile this with Foer's own statements over the past two weeks, including one to ABC News claiming corroboration of the account:
"We showed the stories to people who'd been embedded in Iraq to make sure that it all smelled good. We talked to one of the members of his unit to confirm the woman, a female contractor. We talked to a medic who'd served in Iraq to make sure that a woman could be in an FOB. We spent a lot of time with him on the phone asking hard questions."
The New Republic is correct about one thing: the detail is significant. If the incident happened in Kuwait, it eliminates their editorial rationale for publishing the piece. It means Private Beauchamp had suffered "the morally and emotionally distorting effects of war" before ever going to war.
The only recklessness in this sorry story was the New Republic's decision to publish the piece, and Foer's decision to stand by it.
Michael Goldfarb is the online editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.