Howard Kurtz’s shorthand

And the New Republic controversy

Howard Kurtz weighs in again today on the story that a soldier in Iraq who wrote a series of articles about his deployment for The New Republic was making things up. Kurtz says that Pvt. Scott Beauchamp’s “writing was challenged by The Weekly Standard and conservative bloggers after he wrote vividly, and profanely, of soldiers mocking a woman disfigured by an injury, getting their kicks by running over dogs with Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and playing with Iraqi children’s skulls taken from a mass grave.”

The idea that Beauchamp claimed to find a “mass grave” has gotten a lot of traction, and leaving aside whether or not his story is true, choosing those two words twists what he actually wrote. For a refresher, lets look at how Beauchamp phrased it in his piece:

We spent a few weeks constructing a combat outpost, and, in the process, we did a lot of digging. At first, we found only household objects like silverware and cups. Then we dug deeper and found children’s clothes: sandals, sweatpants, sweaters. Like a strange archeological dig of the recent past, the deeper we went, the more personal the objects we discovered. And, eventually, we reached the bones. All children’s bones: tiny cracked tibias and shoulder blades. We found pieces of hands and fingers. We found skull fragments. No one cared to speculate what, exactly, had happened here, but it was clearly a Saddam-era dumping ground of some sort.

It might seem nitpicky to argue over one phrase, but putting words in someone’s mouth—especially when those words are written down—is lazy. What’s more, anecdotal evidence (which should be taken with a large grain of salt) shows that maybe there was indeed an unmarked children’s cemetery near the base. Someone writing in to the Weekly Standard blog claiming to be a soldier at FOB Falcon “who asked that his name be withheld” writes that “I recall the child cemetery that was uncovered in our sector while constructing a Combat Outpost.”

Does this small point move the debate forward? Not really. But language matters, and if we can’t rely on press critics to get it right, then we’re all in trouble.

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