An American media tradition.
November 12, 2007
By Mackubin Thomas Owens
As anyone who has not been vacationing on the moon knows, The New
Republic embarrassed itself this summer by publishing and defending a
series of stories by one Scott Thomas Beauchamp, an active-duty
soldier serving in Iraq. As we know, Beauchamp told of his comrades
in Iraq mocking a woman horribly scarred by an IED, wrote of another
wearing part of a human skull, and depicted yet another using a
Bradley fighting vehicle to run over stray dogs. All of the stories
have been discredited.
There's not much I can add to the substance of the story. But what
bothers me most about the whole dishonorable episode is what it says
about the attitude of the media toward the American soldier. There
is, as I have argued before, a troubling predisposition on the part
of the press to believe the worst about those fighting in Iraq and
Afghanistan. There is plenty of talk about supporting the troops, but
it is a sham.
TNR gave the game away by admitting that the point of the series
penned by Beauchamp was to illustrate "the morally and emotionally
distorting effects of war." In doing so, TNR was reinforcing the
left-wing stereotype that has shaped popular opinion about soldiers
since the Vietnam War: that they are dehumanized animals.
According to the conventional wisdom passed down from the anti-war
left of the Sixties and Seventies and absorbed by the press even
those too young to remember it Vietnam brutalized those who fought
it. At first vilified by the anti-war left as war criminals and
baby-killers, American soldiers soon evolved into victimsvictimized
first by their country, which made them poor and sent them off to
fight an unjust war, then victimized again by a military that
dehumanized them and turned them into killers. Beauchamp provided TNR
that pre-approved narrative, facts be damned. This was Vietnam redux.
We remember well what critics of the Vietnam War said about the
troops. In his infamous 1971 testimony before the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, John Kerry said they had acted "in a fashion
reminiscent of Genghis Khan," that they had "raped, cut off ears, cut
off heads," and done worse to civilians in the ravaged south. Kerry's
organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), wrote in a
September 1970 flyer:
If you had been Vietnamese
We might have burned your house
We might have shot your dog
We might have shot you
We might have raped your wife and daughter
We might have turned you over to the government for torture
We might have taken souvenirs from your property
We might have shot things up a bit
We might have done all these things to you and your whole town
And to this day, critics of that war invoke the specter of My Lai to
prove that atrocities were widespread in Vietnam. Not too long ago,
Ellis Henican of Newsday quoted the late Ron Ridenour, the soldier
who publicized the My Lai massacre (even though he was not present):
"My Lai was a whole lot more than one crazy lieutenant. And there
were plenty of My Lais."
But this is nonsense. Atrocities did occur in Vietnam, but they were
far from widespread. Between 1965 and 1973, 201 soldiers and 77
Marines were convicted of serious crimes against the Vietnamese. Of
course, the fact that many crimes, either in war or peace, go
unreported, combined with the particular difficulties encountered by
Americans fighting in Vietnam, suggest that more such acts were
committed than reported or tried.
But even Daniel Ellsberg, a severe critic of U.S. policy in Vietnam,
rejected the argument that My Lai was in any way a normal event: "My
Lai was beyond the bounds of permissible behavior, and that is
recognizable by virtually every soldier in Vietnam. They know it was
wrong. . . . The men who were at My Lai knew there were aspects out
of the ordinary. That is why they tried to hide the event, talked
about it to no one, discussed it very little even among themselves."
Jim Webb, a Marine hero of the Vietnam War and junior senator from
Virginia, got to the real heart of the matter concerning atrocities
in the war and Kerry's testimony in an NPR commentary several years
ago: ". . . 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. That the articulate,
urbane Kerry would validate such allegations helped to make life hell
for many Vietnam veterans, for a very long time.".
The media behaved similarly poorly in breaking the "Tailwind" story,
a ludicrous claim that U.S. special forces used nerve gas during an
operation in Vietnam intended to assassinate American defectors to
the communists. Anyone with an ounce of sense could see that this
story was ridiculous, and indeed, it began to fall apart almost from
the instant it was reported, ultimately ruining a number of
reputations at CNN and Time.
Would anyone have believed such a story about World War II and the
"greatest generation?" Of course not, but many in the media have been
willing to believe that U.S. servicemen in Vietnam were capable of
any atrocity. This predisposition lives on today. Here's our old
friend, John Kerry, last year on Face the Nation. American troops,
said Kerry, were "going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of
night, terrorizing kids and children, you know, women, breaking sort
of the customs of the of, of, of historical customs, religious customs . . ."
And who can forget the bilious Rep. John Murtha (D., Penn.), a
vociferous critic of the war, who claimed that Marines in Haditha had
"killed innocent civilians in cold blood," long before an
investigation had been completed. Murtha contended that the incident
"shows the tremendous pressure that these guys are under every day
when they're out in combat." Murtha subsequently went further,
claiming that the shootings in Haditha had been covered up. "Who
covered it up, why did they cover it up, why did they wait so long?
We don't know how far it goes. It goes right up the chain of
command." As readers may know, the Haditha prosecutions have largely unraveled.
In both Vietnam and Iraq, news stories about soldiers have been
largely negative. But heroism and sacrifice were far more prevalent
in Vietnam than atrocities, and the same holds true today. The
TNR-Beauchamp affair illustrates just how little things have changed
since Vietnam. In April of 2005, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, U.S.
Army, became the first soldier in the Iraq war to be awarded the
Medal of Honor. He was killed in action when his outnumbered unit was
attacked by Iraqi forces at the Baghdad airport on April 4, 2003, and
is credited with saving hundreds of lives. Yet as Robert Kaplan
observed in a piece in the Wall Street Journal that "according to
LexisNexis, by June 2005, two months after his posthumous award,
[Smith's] stirring story had drawn only 90 media mentions, compared
to 4,677 for the supposed Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay, and 5,159
for the court-martialed Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England.
To read of the abundant acts of heroism in Iraq and Afghanistan by
U.S. soldiers, all one has to do is read Bing West's account of
Fallujah, No True Glory; or the blogs of Michael Yon; or the
remarkable story by Jeff Emanuel in the American Spectator, entitled
"The Longest Morning," an account of a battle in Samarra involving
four paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division. Those paratroopers
"became the object of a pre-planned, coordinated effort by dozens of
al Qaeda to kidnap and slaughter American soldiers only days before
General Petraeus's internationally televised testimony to the U.S.
Congress on the state of the war in Iraq. Not all survived but
those who did fought like heroes, saving each other and preserving
the honor of their nation."
In No True Glory, one can read about Marine major Douglas Zembiec,
who as a captain was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions during
the battle for Fallujah. After the battle, he said that his Marines
had "fought like lions," and himself became known as "the Lion of
Fallujah." Volunteering to return to Iraq before he was slated to do
so, the 34-year-old Zembiec was killed on May 10. Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates eulogized him this way:
In May, the Lion of Fallujah was laid to rest at Arlington [National
Cemetery] and memorialized at his alma mater in Annapolis. The crowd
of more than 1,000 included many enlisted Marines from his beloved
Echo Company. An officer there told a reporter: "Your men have to
follow your orders; they don't have to go to your funeral."
As Bing West has observed, "there will be no true glory for our
soldiers in Iraq until they are recognized not as victims, but as
aggressive warriors. Stories of their bravery deserve to be recorded
and read by the next generation. Unsung, the noblest deeds will die."
On this Veterans Day, media folk predisposed to believe the worst
about the American fighting man when the evidence is so clearly in
his favor need to get out and meet a few more.
Mackubin Thomas Owens is 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.