On Milblogs

A clarification, and a larger point

There was quite a bit of discussion, to put it mildly, over the weekend about my post from Friday concerning the mess The New Republic has gotten itself into with the pieces it published by Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp, who has been writing from Iraq.

In the piece, in response to the work that several blogs were doing to dig into Beauchamp’s past, painting him as liberal who signed up for the wrong reasons (he said that he joined the Army to write a book about his experiences) I wrote, “How dare a college grad and engaged citizen volunteer to join the Army to fight for his country! (Which is something that most of the brave souls who inhabit the milblog community prefer to leave to others.) While there are some very legitimate questions about what Beauchamp wrote, nothing, it’s worthy of note, has been proved false yet.”

A few notes of clarification:

I equated milblogs with the broader community of bloggers who focus on the war. This was, as I wrote to the milblog Blackfive and others, a careless bit of shorthand. As previous pieces I’ve written for CJR make clear—see the interview I did with Blackfive’s Matthew Currier Burden and the piece I wrote about the soldiers and Marines blogging for The New York Times—I do, contrary to what critics have said, understand the place milblogs have in the blogosphere, and that milbloggers are current or former members of the military. Along these same lines, I’ve also written about blogger Michael Yon and the up and down effort by the American military to get a handle on its press management—and the way that the press itself has missed opportunities to deliver more useful coverage of important events.

The point I was driving at, and obviously didn’t get across, was that the community of usually conservative blogs that often use milblogs as a touchstone for unfiltered reporting from Iraq have turned the TNR affair into a partisan battle by digging up all manner of factoids from Beauchamp’s past and assigning them dubious significance in the matter at hand. They’ve trolled his MySpace page, written about his “liberal” college paper, rallies he attended, and other things that give the impression that we can understand what is motivating Beauchamp based on these snippets of his life. These facts might put the whole story in some context, but reducing a person to a couple of months or years-old blog posts and college activities hardly gives the full measure of the man. It’s color, but it’s not the full story.

I would say, in fact, that this Google-search debate is actually a distraction from the main question: Is what Beauchamp wrote true?

What I didn’t say, but what I said in an earlier post, was that TNR needs to show some proof that Beauchamp’s stories are true. I wrote that his stories look like they “might be compelling inventions—or at least exaggerated composites,” and that even if TNR was right to think it could trust Beauchamp, “the larger question is whether Thomas is right about what he writes.” In the end, the onus is on Foer and TNR to either prove the truth of Beauchamp’s stories or acknowledge that they are, at least, serial exaggeration.

This is one of those moments that wouldn’t have existed even ten years ago. As we’ve seen with other stories, the blogosphere acts as another set of eyes and ears for the press, but in the process, tends at times to toss a whole bunch of ancillary information at the problem. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since it can illuminate some much-needed context, but it does create its own momentum.

In the end, this is TNR’s problem to solve. It’s never easy to fully check with absolute certainty everything a correspondent sends in from a war zone, for obvious reasons (distance, poor communication, the difficulty of finding secondary sources), but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. Add to this the tendency of some reporters—or soldiers or contractors for that matter—to try, consciously or not, to make their experiences sound more intense than they might have been and you have a combustible mix. I’ve seen this happen in some reports I’ve read from Iraq and New Orleans in the days just after Hurricane Katrina, both stories I experienced firsthand while on the ground. None of the stories were damaging, but from being in the same place at the same time—particularly with New Orleans—I was able to spot the slight exaggerations and literary flourishes that didn’t quite capture what was happening. Much the same, it seems, has been happening with soldiers who have read Beauchamps stories. There’s plenty of smoke, but as of yet, no fire. CJR is looking forward to the results of TNR’s and the Army’s investigations.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.