“I love chicks that have been intimate with IED’s,” he announced to his fellow soldiers sitting in the chow tent in Camp Falcon in Baghdad. “It really turns me on—melted skin, missing limbs, plastic noses.” The soldiers laughed so hard they almost fell from their chairs. They enjoy running over dogs in Bradley Fighting Vehicles, luring them in and then crushing their bones as they whelp. When a soldier comes upon a mass grave, he picks up a human skull, places it merrily on his head, and marches around.
This is from the now-famous “Baghdad Diaries,” in The New Republic, carrying the byline of soldier-writer Scott Thomas. They are an attempt to capture the tragedy and dehumanization of war, how it coarsens men in ways that you, safe in your bed, cannot fathom. They are a lost generation, battered by war, and struggling, with the real weapons of war’s survivors—mordant wit, pitiless humor, the final surrender to nihilism—to survive in a world they never made. Do I overwrite? Do I sound like an idiot? I’m just trying to fit in.
To read the Thomas pieces was, simply, to doubt them. And to wonder if its editors had ever actually met a soldier on his way to or from Iraq, or talked to any human being involved in the modern military.
The diaries appear to be another case of journalistic fabulism. This week came word, via the published transcript of a telephone conversation between “Thomas,” who is actually Scott Thomas Beauchamp, and his editors. It is actually painful to read. The editors almost plead with him to stand by his work, after months of critics’ picking them factually apart. He won’t do it. He doesn’t want to talk to “the media.” He’s said enough.
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Everyone in journalism thought first of Stephen Glass. I actually remember the day I read his New Republic piece on the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in 1997, a profile of young Republicans as crude and ignorant pot-smoking alcoholics in search of an orgy. It, um, startled me. After years of observation, I was inclined toward the view that there’s no such thing as a young Republican. More to the point, I’d been to the kind of convention Mr. Glass wrote about, and I thought it not remotely possible that the people he painted were real. I also thought: Man, this is way too convenient. The New Republic tends to think Republicans are hateful, and this reporter just happened to be welcomed into the private world of the most hateful Republicans in history.
On the Thomas stories, which I read not when they came out but when they began to come under scrutiny, I had a similar thought, or a variation of it. I thought: That’s not Iraq, that’s a Vietnam War movie. That’s not life as it’s being lived on the ground right now, that’s life as an editor absorbed it through media. That’s the dark world of Kubrick and Coppola and Oliver Stone, of the great Vietnam movies of the ’70s and ’80s.
If that’s what you absorbed during the past 20 or 30 years, it just might make sense to you, it would actually seem believable, if a fellow in Iraq wrote for you about taunting scarred women, shooting dogs, and wearing skulls as helmets. This is the offhand brutality of war. You know. You saw it in a movie.
If you’d had a broader array of references, and were less preoccupied by the media that is the great occupying force in our own country, and you were the editor of the Thomas pieces, you might have said, “Whoa.” Just whoa.
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I’ll jump here, or lurch I suppose, to something I am concerned about that I think I am observing accurately. It has to do with what sometimes seems to me to be the limited lives that have been or are being lived by the rising generation of American professionals in the arts, journalism, academia and business. They have had good lives, happy lives, but there is a sense with some of them that they didn’t so much live it as view it. That they learned too much from media and not enough from life’s difficulties. That they saw much of what they know in a film or play and picked up all the memes and themes.
In terms of personal difficulties, they seem to have had less real-life experience, or rather different experiences, than their rougher predecessors. They grew up affluent in a city or suburb, cosseted in material terms, and generally directed toward academic and material success. Their lives seem to have been not crowded or fearful, but relatively peaceful, at least until September 2001, which was very hard.
But this new leadership class, those roughly 35 to 40, grew up in a time when media dominated all. They studied, they entered a top-tier college, and then on to Washington or New York or Los Angeles. But their knowledge, their experience, is necessarily circumscribed. Too much is abstract to them, or symbolic. The education establishment did them few favors. They didn’t have to read Dostoevsky, they had to read critiques and deconstruction of Dostoevsky.
I’m not sure it’s always good to grow up surrounded by stability, immersed in affluence, and having had it drummed into you that you are entitled to be a member of the next leadership class. To have this background in the modern era is to come from a ghetto, the luckiest ghetto in the world, a golden ghetto beyond whose walls it can be hard to see. There’s much to be said for suffering, for being on the outside or the bottom, for having to have fought yourself up and through. It can leave you grounded. It can give you real knowledge not only of the world and of other men but of yourself. In some ways it can leave you less cynical. (Not everything comes down to money.) And in some ways it leaves you just cynical enough.
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Journalistically, I was lucky enough to work at CBS News when it was still shaped by the influence of the Murrow boys. They knew and taught that “everyone is entitled to his own opinions”—and they had them—”but not his own facts.” And I miss the rough old boys and girls of the front page, who’d greet FDR with “Snappy suit, Mr. President,” who’d bribe the guard to tell them what the prisoner said on the way to the chair, and who were not rich and important but performed an extremely important social function.
They found out who, what, where, when, why. And they would have looked at the half-baked, overcooked junior Hemingway of Scott Thomas Beauchamp and said, “That sounds like a buncha hooey.”