Stephen Glass Meets the Winter Soldiers

Mackubin T. Owens

July 1, 2007

As everyone knows by now, bloggers (including on National Review Online’s “The Tank” and “The Corner”) have begun to question the veracity of several The New Republic articles purportedly authored by an active-duty soldier serving in Iraq. The three articles by the pseudonymous “Scott Thomas” describe behavior by American soldiers that, while not rising to the level of atrocities, is nonetheless troubling. TNR’s “Baghdad Diarist” describes his mates mocking a woman horribly scarred by an IED, portrays another wearing part of a human skull, and depicts yet another using a Bradley fighting vehicle to run over stray dogs. What are we to make of these stories?

Michael Yon, perhaps the most reliable observer of troops in Iraq, labels the “Diarist’s” stories as “garbage.” Most of the other comments I have seen, especially by soldiers and Marines who are serving or have served in Iraq, describe the stories in less polite terms.

Nonetheless, the “Diarist’s” stories remind me of the sort of shocking and outrageous statements young men like to tell to credulous listeners. As the late Harry Summers, a veteran of two wars once remarked, such stories are intended to have the same impact as the sight of two Hell’s Angels French-kissing in front of a group of bystanders: shock and awe. They also remind me of the predisposition of the American press to believe the worst about American soldiers, a predisposition that dates to the Vietnam War.

Ashbrook readers may recall that I wrote a number of articles about atrocities, real and alleged, during the run up to the 2004 election. I was especially critical of John Kerry, who, despite honorable service during the Vietnam War, essentially smeared all of his comrades as war criminals after he left active duty. Who can forget his 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Here he invoked the so-called “Winter Soldier Investigation,” organized by such antiwar celebrities as Jane Fonda and conspiracy theorist Mark Lane, in which:

over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.… They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do. They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.

As with the TNR case today, most Vietnam veterans took these confessions with a grain of salt. When I read Mark Lane’s 1970 book, Conversations with Americans, and the transcripts of the Winter Soldiers Investigation, I was struck by how implausible most of the atrocity claims were. I was apparently not alone. Lane’s book was panned by James Reston Jr. and Neil Sheehan, not exactly known as war supporters; Sheehan demonstrated that many of Lane’s “eyewitnesses” either had never served in Vietnam or had not done so in the capacities they claimed.

In an earlier piece, I recounted a personal anecdote that made me question the Winter Soldier Investigation stories—and makes me skeptical of the “Scott Thomas” story being pushed by TNR. I began by noting that I didn’t commit or witness atrocities during my tour in Vietnam as a Marine infantry platoon leader. As far as I know, neither did the other officers in my regiment and battalion. But I heard of an atrocity just after I joined the unit. A Marine who was scheduled to rotate soon recounted an incident that he claimed had occurred shortly after he had arrived in the unit about a year earlier. According to his story, members of a sister company had killed some North Vietnamese soldiers after they had surrendered.

Some months later, I happened to overhear another Marine who had joined my platoon after I took it over relate exactly the same story to some newly arrived men, only now it involved me and my platoon. I had a little chat with him and he cleared things up with the new men. But that episode has always made me wonder how many of the stories have been recycled and how many accounts of atrocities are based on what veterans heard as opposed to committed or witnessed.

In Iraq, we have seen evidence of the press’s predisposition to believe the worst about American soldiers in its coverage of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, and most recently Hadithah. It is now on display, not only in the TNR story, but also in “The Other War: Iraq Veterans Bear Witness” in the July 30th issue of The Nation, which bills the Iraq war as “a dark and even depraved enterprise.” The article is based on interviews with some 50 Iraq war veterans and purportedly describes “disturbing patterns of behavior by American troops in Iraq.” According to the piece, the war has “led many troops to declare an open war on all Iraqis.”

I have news for the editors of The Nation: War, especially the sort of war we are waging in Iraq—a war in which a man or boy who waves at American troops during the day may plant an IED at night—can desensitize even the most decent individual. History proves that in the absence of leadership and enforced rules of engagement, war can lead one to the depths of moral depravity. But no military in history has attempted to limit civilian casualties and collateral damage to the extent that the U.S. military has. The Nation lays civilian casualties in Iraq at the feet of the US military. But this is nonsense. The very fact that Sunni sheiks in al Anbar province and elsewhere are turning against al Qaeda indicates that they know who kills indiscriminately, even if The Nation doesn’t.

Of course, the approved version of this predisposition is to attribute the bad behavior of troops in Iraq not to moral depravity per se, but to the policy that put them in Iraq in the first place. Thus John Murtha (D., Pa.), while publicly convicting Marines in Hadithah of “kill[ing] innocent civilians in cold blood,” then absolved them by claiming that the alleged incident “shows the tremendous pressure that these guys are under every day when they’re out in combat.”

TNR’s record on this sort of thing is not particularly good. There is of course, Stephen Glass. But the predisposition of which I speak was on full display in the September 6, 2004, issue of TNR. There Peter Beinart suggested in “Apocalypse Redux” that those who criticized Kerry were somehow denying that atrocities occurred in Vietnam. Beinart then went on to cite a number of historians who, sure enough, assured us that atrocities did occur in Vietnam. Of course, no one disputes the fact that Americans committed atrocities in Vietnam. But as Jim Webb observed at the time, the “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” (emphasis added).

The press’s predisposition to believe certain stories was nicely dissected by Rachael Smolkin’s piece on the Duke lacrosse rape story in the June/July issue of The American Journalism Review, “Justice Delayed.” She quotes Daniel Okrent, a former New York Times public editor, who, in words that apply directly to coverage of the war in Iraq, states that

[The Duke lacrosse story] was too delicious.… It conformed too well to too many preconceived notions of too many in the press: white over black, rich over poor, athletes over non-athletes, men over women, educated over non-educated. Wow. That’s a package of sins that really fit the preconceptions of a lot of us.

But then she gleans from Newsweek’s Evan Thomas an admission that captures the essence of what’s wrong with the American press when it comes to reporting not only on the Duke lacrosse case, but also on Iraq:

We fell into a stereotype of the Duke lacrosse players. It’s complicated because there is a strong stereotype [that] lacrosse players can be loutish, and there’s evidence to back that up. There’s even some evidence that that the Duke lacrosse players were loutish, and we were too quick to connect those dots. It was about race. Nifong’s motivations clearly were rooted in his need to win black votes. There were tensions between town and gown, that part was true. The narrative was properly about race, sex and class. #133; We went a beat too fast in assuming that a rape took place. #133; We just got the facts wrong. The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong (my emphasis).

Smolkin writes that “often, the preconceptions—rather than the facts—dictated not only the tone of the coverage but also its volume and prominence.” For TNR, “Scott Thomas” provides the approved, preconceived, narrative—facts be damned.

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and 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.