The comments to my previous post chug along, and like them, The Once and Future Literary Journalism Instructor Within keeps returning to the issue of what can and cannot be verified. You see, he spent terminable office hours wrangling with students over what sounds like a very simple question:
What do you know and what can you prove?
There are ways to incorporate what you know but can't prove into an article. Why would a journalist do that? Because sometimes what someone knows is important even if it can't be proven. For instance, it may well be that Beauchamp can't prove what he wrote in "Shock Troops" about the private who wears a skull under his helmet. It may well be, as an anonymous soldier writes to The Weekly Standard, that
[T]he [Army Combat Helmet] does not have a gap between the helmet and the liner, only pads. It would have been impossible for him to have placed and human skull, of any size, between his helmet and his head.
You’ll note, though, that Beauchamp says “[t]he private wore the skull for the rest of the day and night,” i.e. on his head, without his helmet. You can tell because it sets up the contrast in the next sentence: “[e]ven on a mission, he put his helmet over the skull.” No one would refute that a person can place a piece of skull on the crown of his head and walk around with it, so as the verifiable part of the story, Beauchamp is in the clear.
Furthermore, no one would refute that a person can’t see what someone else has on under his or her helmet. In the next sentence, Beauchamp relates that “[the private] observed that he was grateful his hair had just been cut.” In other words, the private is talking about wearing the fragment under his helmet. Whether he actually is is another matter entirely from him saying he is.
It may well be that Beauchamp was more concerned with the private's desire to have others believe he's wearing the skull beneath his helmet than with whether he actually is wearing it. This isn't to say—as someone will say I say it means momentarily—that the truth doesn't matter. It does. Think of it this way:
In my podcast, I admitted to lying about the existence of toys I didn't own. I claimed to have a Hasbro Death Star in my attic. I didn't. That I wanted people to think I did says something about it me. I was upset when I wasn't invited to play Star Wars with my friends because all I had was a X-wing and two Ewoks; which means I was aware, albeit dimly, of the influence of class on the constitution of social groups. The lies of the toddler may tell you some truths about the man.
Lies can signify. Desires are meaningful.
Which is only to say, sometimes you take people at their word even if you don't believe them, because the desires themselves are meaningful even if they don't correspond to reality. As for the rest of the evidence marshaled against Beauchamp:
First, there are the anonymous stories from soldiers currently stationed at FOB Falcon. They put “Scott Thomas” in quotation marks. This could mean many things: FOB Falcon is large enough that they don’t know Beauchamp, since they didn’t recognize his pseudonym. It is, after all, nothing but his name. If they don’t know Beauchamp, that suggests that there are enough people moving in and out of FOB Falcon that the woman Beauchamp described could have been there and been unknown to the people who also don’t know Beauchamp.
Second, the anonymous soldier writes:
IF there had been a woman with burns covering her face, and IF some undisciplined Soldier(s) had done something like described in this guys story, he would have been dealt with swiftly and harshly.
The anonymous contractor agrees:
Furthermore, even if such a female existed, any Joe would have adjusted the attitudes of those fictional soldiers. Mocking the wounded is simply not done. Period. Full stop. Do not pass “GO”. Do not collect 200 dollars. For a soldier to not only mock, but sexually harass a wounded woman would have brought down the wrath of every senior enlisted and officer in the mess hall.
They say this as if it refutes Beauchamp’s story. It doesn’t. Last we hear, “[t]he disfigured woman slammed her cup down and ran out of the chow hall, her half-finished tray of food nearly falling to the ground.” For all we know, the beatdown the two anonymous conrtibutors suggest should take place did take place. So that’s an evidentiary non-starter.
Third, Beauchamp claims to find “children’s bones: tiny cracked tibias and shoulder blades.” He continues: “[n]o one cared to speculate what, exactly happened here,” then he does exactly that, speculating that “it was clearly a Saddam-era dumping ground of some sort.” As to the evidence, the first anonymous correspondent verifies it as fact:
There was a children’s cemetery unearthed while constructing a Combat Outpost (COP) in the farm land south of Baghdad International Airport. It was not a mass grave. It was not the result of some inhumane genocide. It was an unmarked cemetery where the locals had buried children some years back.
Soldiers in Beauchamp’s unit did find the remains of children. The issue then is not whether Beauchamp is lying about what he found, but whether his interpretation of it is incorrect. So Beauchamp’s factually accurate, but he misinterprets the evidence. Is it possible that he was simply never corrected, i.e. that no one ever informed his unit that they’d found a cemetery instead of a dumping ground?
It most certainly is.
The matter of the turning radius of the Bradley is debatable—I’m still waiting to hear back from a friend who drives one, both about the possibility of doing what Beauchamp described and on the differences between Bradleys—so I’m reserving judgment on that one.
As it stands, there’s no proof Beauchamp lied, only that he may have wrong and/or misled. All the rest is speculation (as to the beatdown that did or did not follow the mockery), speculative character assassination ("He must be lying because he wants to be a writer," &c.), and bizarre wishful thinking ("Shit happens and there are bad apples, but the brass doesn't stand for it or them, so there are no bad apples and no shit happens").
Stay tuned! Tomorrow I'll write about literature again. I promise.