What began as a controversy over the credibility of the New Republic's Baghdad Diarist is morphing into questions about the integrity of Franklin Foer, editor of the venerable liberal magazine.
The controversy began July 13 when the Diarist, a soldier in Iraq, wrote of three instances of shocking behavior:
In the first, the Diarist, who has been identified as Private Scott Thomas Beauchamp, described how he and a friend humiliated a woman on their base who had been disfigured:
"I love chicks that have been intimate with IEDs," Pvt. Beauchamp quoted himself as saying, loudly, to his buddies in the chow hall. "It really turns me on melted skin, missing limbs, plastic noses." His friend "practically fell out of his chair laughing," Pvt. Beauchamp said. "The disfigured woman slammed her cup down and ran out of the chow hall."
Next he described finding the remains of children in a Saddam-era mass grave: "One private...found the top part of a human skull...He marched around with the skull on his head...No one was disgusted."
Finally, Pvt. Beauchamp described another friend "who only really enjoyed driving Bradley Fighting Vehicles because it gave him the opportunity to run things over. He took out curbs, concrete barriers, stands in the market, and his favorite target: dogs."
Pvt. Beauchamp was outed after Mr. Foer told a skeptical Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard their Diarist was at Forward Operating Base Falcon in southeast Baghdad.
"An investigation of the charges was conducted by the command and found to be false," Col. Steven Boylan, public affairs officer for Gen. David Petraeus, told Web logger Bob Owens (Confederate Yankee) in an email Aug. 3. "Members of Thomas' platoon and company were all interviewed and no one could substantiate his claims."
The afternoon before, the New Republic claimed five soldiers (who it did not identify) had corroborated Pvt. Beauchamp's accounts. "Three soldiers with whom TNR has spoken have said they repeatedly saw the same facially disfigured woman."
The New Republic's editors did note that: "The recollections of these three soldiers did differ from Beauchamp's on one significant detail. They say the conversation took place at Camp Buehring in Kuwait, prior to the unit's arrival in Iraq."
The detail is significant because Pvt. Beauchamp claimed the shocking behavior he described was a product of the morally deadening effect of war: "That is how war works," he wrote. "It degrades every part of you, and your sense of humor is no exception."
But if Pvt. Beauchamp and his buddy harassed the poor woman before they got to the war zone, it proves only that they were jerks to begin with.
The revised version may be no more true than the original tale. Nobody at Camp Buehring remembers seeing a woman fitting the description Pvt. Beauchamp provided there either:
"We have not been able to find anyone to back it up," Major Renee Russo, the public affairs officer at Camp Buehring, emailed Mr. Owens. "Right now it is considered to be an urban legend or myth."
All the incidents he described in three articles in the New Republic were exaggerations and falsehoods fabrications containing only a "smidgen of truth," Pvt. Beauchamp told Army investigators, the Weekly Standard reported Tuesday, citing "a military source close to the investigation."
"According to the military source, Beauchamp's recantation was volunteered on the first day of the Army's investigation," Michael Goldfarb said.
On July 26, the New Republic published a statement by Pvt. Beauchamp in which he said: "I'm willing to stand by the entirety of my articles for the New Republic using my real name."
Pvt. Beauchamp lied either to Army investigators, or he lied to the magazine. There are criminal penalties for lying to Army investigators.
Some soldiers behave badly. But soldiers are much less likely to commit crimes than civilians are. Since January of 2006, there have been 59 courts martial for an average troop population in Iraq of about 140,000, Ralph Peters noted in his New York Post column Aug. 3. During the same period in the university town of Ann Arbor (population 113,000), 3,758 crimes which would have warranted courts martial were committed, he noted.
The Army has found Pvt. Beauchamp's tales to be false. That's good for Pvt. Beauchamp, but bad for the New Republic. In view of the Army's explicit denial and Pvt. Beauchamp's apparent recantation Mr. Foer can no longer rely on anonymous sources to justify implausible tales impugning our military.