Fog of War

By

For months, our magazine has been subject to accusations that
stories we published by an American soldier then serving in Iraq
were fabricated. When these accusations first arose, we promised
our readers a full account of our investigation. We spent the last
four-and-a-half months re-reporting his stories. These are our
findings.When Michael Goldfarb, a blogger for The Weekly Standard, left me a
message on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-July, I didn't know him or
his byline. And I certainly didn't anticipate that his message
would become the starting point for a controversy.

A day earlier, The New Republic had published a piece titled "Shock
Troops." It appeared on the magazine's back page, the "Diarist"
slot, which is reserved for short first-person meditations. "Shock
Troops" bore the byline Scott Thomas, which we identified as a
pseudonym for a soldier then serving in Iraq. Thomas described how
war distorts moral judgments. To illustrate his point, he narrated
three disturbing anecdotes. In one, he and his comrades cracked
vulgar jokes about a woman with a scarred face while she sat in
close proximity. In another, a soldier paraded around with the
fragment of an exhumed skull on his head. A final vignette
described a driver of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle who took pride in
running over dogs.

Goldfarb said he had been contacted by tipsters who thought these
scenarios sounded concocted by a writer with an overactive
imagination--or perhaps by a total fabulist. He asked for evidence
that might answer these complaints, "any details that would
reassure that this isn't fiction." Among other things, he wanted
the name of the base where the author had mocked the disfigured
woman.

The same afternoon, we contacted the author, asking permission to
answer Goldfarb's queries. We thought we could provide details that
might answer these concerns without revealing the author's identity
and violating the compact we formed when granting him a pseudonym.
He agreed. I told Goldfarb that the insults to the woman had
occurred at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Falcon. A day later,
Goldfarb sent a link to an item on the Standard blog. It quoted an
anonymous source who said the story sounded like a collection of the
"This is no bullshit ... stories soldiers like to tell." Goldfarb
called on the military blogosphere to do "some digging" and for
"individual soldiers and veterans to come forward with relevant
information."

By the weekend, the Standard's editor, William Kristol, published an
editorial that, without evidence, pronounced the Diarist an
open-and-shut case. Kristol wrote, "But what is revealing about
this mistake is that the editors must have wanted to suspend their
disbelief in tales of gross misconduct by American troops. How else
could they have published such a farrago of dubious tales? Having
turned against a war that some of them supported, the left is now
turning against the troops they claim still to support."

In prior months, our magazine had been coming under attack from the
left for criticizing the war but failing to champion withdrawal
(not to mention for initially supporting the war). So it was
disorienting to find ourselves criticized from the right, too, for
supposedly slandering the troops.

But, regardless of the Standard's ideological motives, the doubts
about "Shock Troops" resonated. All over the blogosphere, people
who presented themselves as experts claimed that the events
described in the piece could never have happened. Some of these
assertions were vague and meaningless-- "They are not 'Shock
Troops.' They are our best and bravest," Kristol wrote--as if our
soldiers were plaster saints immune from the traumas of war. But
others were more specific and troubling. Denizens of FOB Falcon
insisted that they had never seen a woman who matched Thomas's
description; some familiar with the Bradley asserted that it
couldn't be maneuvered to kill dogs; others claimed that any
exhumation of bones would be reported up the chain of command as a
matter of course.

Did we have a Jayson Blair on our hands--or, closer to home, another
Stephen Glass, the fabulist who did so much to tarnish this
magazine's reputation ten years ago? The facts in dispute would be
difficult to untangle: Our writer's identity required protection,
he was far away, and the events themselves occurred in a war zone.

We published an online statement pledging an investigation. That
weekend, members of the editorial staff assembled at my house to
divide up the task of re-reporting his stories. It was the
beginning of a project that, for long stretches, superseded our day
jobs--and led us to some uncomfortable conclusions.

By now, the identity of Scott Thomas is publicly known. He is Scott
Thomas Beauchamp, age 24. He first came to our attention nearly a
year ago by way of Elspeth Reeve, one of three reporter-researchers
who work at tnr as essentially yearlong interns and whose
responsibilities include factchecking. When she sent along a piece
from her friend Scott in Iraq, we were intrigued. The introspective
writings of a low-ranking soldier seemed valuable. When, before
publication, Beauchamp asked for a pseudonym, we granted it. We felt
that a soldier in a war zone could write most honestly about his
feelings and experiences under a penumbra of anonymity.

His first piece, a Diarist titled "War Bonds" published in our
February 5 issue, described the woes of an Iraqi boy named Ali who
adopted the moniker "James Bond." Soon after James Bond chit-chats
with American soldiers, Beauchamp learns that thugs--most likely
insurgents--cut out his tongue. This first piece didn't receive
much attention, but the attention it did receive was positive.
Hawks, in particular, liked that it sympathetically described the
plight of sensitive young soldiers on the front line.

Several weeks passed before Beauchamp sent us another story--one
recounting dialogue between soldiers in a guard tower, which we
rejected. During that time, he took leave in Germany with Reeve.
The two had been casual friends at the University of Missouri and
resumed a relationship online, which quickly turned into something
serious. During Beauchamp's leave, he and Reeve left Germany and,
without telling anyone at the magazine, married at a lawyer's office
in Virginia. A day after the ceremony, Reeve returned to tnr's
office to share the news.

Beauchamp visited our office during his brief stay in Washington. We
shook hands, and I encouraged him to send more pieces. Soon after,
in May, another arrived. The story described what a fellow soldier
called the "zombie dogs" of Baghdad, the homeless mutts who
devoured human corpses, many of them victims of sectarian
violence.

Another piece followed, about wartime humor among soldiers--the
piece that ultimately became "Shock Troops." Beauchamp wrote that
humor was essential to the soldiers' humanity, but that "the jokes
were dark, violent, and would be seen by [my] former self, I
assume, as in bad taste." That draft included the story of mocking
the disfigured woman in the "chow hall." And it concluded with the
following paragraph featuring his pseudonymous friends:

There are other examples I could give of just how dark and sad humor
during a war can be. There was the time that Jibson wore the top of
a human skull as a hat during a mission. All of Short's dog hunting
stories (I think he's up to 17 kills). The time we hid a pink dildo
in a very conservative Christian kids gear before an inspection
(don't ask how we got a pink dildo in Iraq). The point remains,
each world is set on a sliding scale of morality that's determined
by setting and necessity. The only constant is the desire to laugh.
And sometimes, in certain situations, you'll laugh at anything no
matter what.

Naturally we wanted to learn more about the dog-hunting and the
skull-- although, in hindsight, the genesis of these anecdotes in
such a nonchalant aside should have provoked greater suspicion.
Beauchamp revised the piece, and we sanded down the prose. A month
after he submitted the first draft, after several revisions, it
entered into galleys.

Fact-checking is a process used by most magazines (but not most
newspapers) to independently verify what's in their articles.
Beauchamp's anonymity complicated this process. Because we promised
to protect his identity, we were reluctant to call Army public
affairs to review his claims. What's more, the fact-checking of
first-person articles about personal experiences necessarily relies
heavily on the author's word and description of events.

But there was one avoidable problem with our Beauchamp fact-check.
His wife, Reeve, was assigned a large role in checking his third
piece. While we believe she acted with good faith and
integrity--not just in this instance, but throughout this whole
ordeal--there was a clear conflict of interest. At the time, our
logic--in hindsight, obviously flawed--was that corresponding with
a soldier in Iraq is logistically difficult and Reeve was already
routinely speaking with him. It was a mistake--and we've imposed
new rules to prevent future fact-checking conflicts of interest.

Facing the difficulties of verifying the piece, but wanting to
ensure its plausibility before publication, we sent the piece to a
correspondent for a major newspaper who had spent many tours
embedded in Iraq. He had heard accounts of soldiers killing dogs
with Bradleys. These accounts stuck with him because they
represented a symbolic shift in the war. Iraqis regard dogs as
annoying pests. At the beginning of the conflict, Americans made
great efforts to befriend these mistreated mutts. It seemed telling
that Americans now treated dogs with as little regard as Iraqis
did. He considered Beauchamp's dog- hunting anecdote plausible.

But the reporter doubted the tale of the disfigured woman. What
would a woman with the disfigurements described by Beauchamp be
doing in a war zone? This became the focal point of our
fact-checking. We asked Reeve to push Beauchamp for corroboration
of this woman's existence. In an e-mail, she relayed his answer
(throughout this story, we've withheld the names of soldiers who
never gave us permission to use them):

OK, talked to Scott. He said it looked like the lady's injuries were
cosmetic, though he had no way of knowing her medical history, of
course. I asked him if there was anyone around who had seen her. He
was in the tower but he shouted over to his buddy [name withheld],
asking if he remembered the woman in the dfac with burns on her
face. I heard a guy shout yeah.

I asked Scott to ask [name withheld] to describe her. Scott shouts,
"Hey, can you say what you remember that woman looked like?" I
heard, "Yeah, I remember that butt-ugly woman in the dfac [dining
facility]." So there's that.

Scott said that if he had to guess, the woman was a contractor, and
had gone home after her injury and then decided to come back. Her
scars looked long- healed. But again, he stressed he had no way of
knowing her real story.

Reeve also asked a National Guard medic who had served in Iraq if he
had seen burn victims in chow halls. He replied, "[N]ot many ...
but a couple."

With first-person narratives, of course, especially in war zones,
there are limits to what can be independently verified. The editor
who worked on the piece spoke with Beauchamp to push him further on
the physical description. During a phone call, Beauchamp assured
the editor that he had accurately described the incident with the
woman. Because of his corroboration, and because he wrote two other
pieces with no apparent problems, we gave him the benefit of the
doubt.

I hadn't worked with Stephen Glass, who made up stories out of whole
cloth, but I knew the lessons derived from that scandal. Fabulists
are often nabbed by the little lies, the asides they assume that no
one will check. As we began our re-reporting of Beauchamp's pieces,
we searched for the easily verifiable bits of information that
would serve as crucial benchmarks. And, on the first full day of
our investigation, it didn't look good for Beauchamp.

In his second story, he described dogs eating the brain of a corpse.
He ended with a slice of dialogue with a soldier he called
Hernandez:

"I took his driver's license," I said.

"You did?" questioned Hernandez.

"Yeah. It said he was an organ donor."

We chuckled in the dark for a moment, and then looked out the window
into the night. We didn't talk again until we were back at our
base.

But do Iraqis have driver's licenses that allow for organ donation?
We called the Iraqi Embassy. Apparently, licenses have never
contained such information. The question then shifted: Was the
license the punchline to a joke? Or did Beauchamp intend the
sentence to be read literally?

We called him a day later. He answered on his cell phone, a fuzzy
connection with seemingly interminable delays.

tnr: "Tell me a little about the driver's license story with
Hernandez."

Beauchamp: "What exactly do you want to know about it?"

tnr: "I read it, but what was the deal there? What happened?"

Beauchamp: "We came across the body and the dogs were eating its
brains out, and it became obvious through, I guess, the shells we
found, that it was an I.P. [Iraqi police] execution, and that's
about basically the story."

tnr: "What about the driver's

license?"

Beauchamp: "Oh, that was just a joke I made."

He had survived one test. And, better than that, Reeve provided us
with a contemporaneous e-mail from him that described the same
event. Beauchamp wasn't a reporter, but these served the same
function as a reporter's notes.

There were other quick-and-dirty tests. In "Shock Troops," Beauchamp
tried to set his appalling behavior in autobiographical context:
"I've never thought of myself as a cruel person. ... I once worked
at a summer camp for developmentally disabled children, and, in
college, I devoted hours every week to helping a student with
cerebral palsy perform basic tasks like typing, eating, and going
to the bathroom." And, indeed, Teka McDonald in the human resources
department at the St. Louis-area Life Skills camp confirmed that
Beauchamp had worked there in the summers of 2004 and 2005. We spoke
with Andrew Hogan, who also helped take care of the student with
cerebral palsy. Beauchamp's account checked out. At this early
stage, we felt comfortable that, at the very least, we weren't
dealing with another Glass.

During the first week of the investigation, I reached Beauchamp with
regularity on his cell phone. My calls with him often began the same
way. "You're not a professional journalist," I would tell him. "If
you got anything wrong or exaggerated things, people will
understand; it's better to admit error than get caught in a lie."
Every time, he stood by his stories.

He also added details to his accounts. The woman Beauchamp said he
had mocked loomed large within his circle of friends. They called
her "Crypt Keeper" or "Mandrake's Bride." The bones, meanwhile, had
been uncovered while filling sandbags in a small section of his
combat outpost. (I received a photo of Beauchamp holding a bone in
one hand while obscuring the name on his uniform with the other.)
He provided us with the names of the soldier who wore the skull and
the driver who ran over dogs. And he solicited corroborating
accounts from five other soldiers.

During our first call, he passed the phone to a soldier who had
driven Bradley vehicles, the kind Beauchamp had written was used to
kill dogs. The driver would only talk to me after I assured him
that I would never print his name. He hadn't witnessed the specific
incident with the woman in the dining facility, although he had
frequently seen her. But he had watched the soldier wear the skull
fragment. "It fit like a yarmulke. It might still be floating
around," he told me. "We tossed it around each others' vehicles." He
also had witnessed dog-hunting: "I have seen [the driver that
Beauchamp wrote about] roll over dogs. I don't keep track of how
many times he's done it--but it was multiple times." In a series of
subsequent e-mails, this Bradley driver elaborated at great
length:

How you do this (I've seen it done more than once) is, when you
approach the dog in question, suddenly lurch the Bradley on the
opposite side of the road the dog is on. The rear-end of the
vehicle will then swing TOWARD the animal, scaring it into running
out into the road. If it works, the dog is running into the center
of the road as the driver swings his yoke back around the other
way, and the dog becomes a chalk outline. In this particular
instance, as a Humvee gunner, I was up out of the vehicle, able to
hear the dog actually scream as it was pulled into the tracks on
the left side of the Bradley; a paw got stuck in the front drive
sprocket, spinning like a stick caught in the spokes of a bicycle
for a few rotations before joining the rest of the wet, meaty mess
in the tracks. I can still verbally mimic the sound I heard the dog
made.

It was an overwritten message, to be sure. But it added to
Beauchamp's original description. We received other e-mails from
soldiers. The authors made it clear that they didn't want their
names appearing in print. They were only providing details because
Beauchamp had asked them to come forward. Some excerpts:

Soldier A: "I would like to say something about Mandrake's Bride.
... [W]e first saw the lady in Kuwait and it is very true. She had
burns on her head and its strange but in a way most people thought
it was humorous. It might sound sick but I guess that's all we
really have here is to laugh when we can and day dream of home."

Soldier B: "The crypt keeper, yes I saw her, the skin of her face
had something wrong with it, burn, maybe some sort of surgery and
her hair was like a thinning mullet with chunks missing, she was
wearing DCUs [Desert Camouflage Uniforms] if I remember correctly
but like Beauchamp said I can't remember seeing a unit patch on her
which makes me think she was a civilian."

Soldier A: "While digging we came across several bones and a guy
named [name withheld] said he was part Indian and danced around the
bones to show he was peaceful and he did a proper burial
procedure."

On another call, Beauchamp passed us to someone who identified
himself as a non-commissioned officer. Very nervously, the NCO told
us that he was aware of Beauchamp's article and that the men in his
unit were all very proud of him. When we asked him about the
soldier wearing the skull, he became silent. We asked him again. He
said that he couldn't comment. Answering the question, he said,
would reflect on his leadership. He then quickly ended the call.

The nature of these contacts wasn't ideal: Beauchamp was soliciting
his own witnesses. But, once Beauchamp established the initial
contact, we tried to communicate with these soldiers independently.
We always considered the possibility that they were lying to cover
for their friend, but there was no way for us to know that for
certain, and we couldn't dismiss what they told us. They were not
only Beauchamp's buddies, but, in some instances, the only
witnesses to the events described.

On the Standard website and elsewhere, there was speculation that
Scott Thomas might not be an active-duty soldier at all. The
Standard described a lengthy "semioticsbased analysis" arguing that
he "fits the profile of a creative writing program graduate." I
tried to convince Beauchamp that he could buy credibility and knock
down these specious claims with one gesture: revealing his name. A
week after the initial call from Goldfarb, Beauchamp finally
agreed.

In the early hours of July 26, we exchanged instant messages with
Beauchamp, who reported a meeting scheduled for later in the day
about wearing "skulls on their head in sector." Beauchamp didn't
know what to make of this session. But he wanted his statement,
which announced his identity and defended the factual basis of his
piece, posted as soon as possible. We published his statement on
our website at about 6 a.m. Thanks to instantmessaging, we watched
the early phase of the Army investigation in real time.

Beauchamp instant-messaged us that officers had "made people sign
sworn statements saying that brads don't intentionally hit dogs and
that no mass grave was found" at his combat outpost-- "in fact,
that no human remains at all were found there." Beauchamp said he
was under enormous stress. "[I] wanted to get out of the room
alive," he told us. He signed statements but tried to phrase them
carefully. "[I] think i worded it pretty well enough to buy me some
more time without contradicting myself."

Earlier that morning, we had received an e-mail from a soldier in
Beauchamp's unit who had mentioned seeing the disfigured woman in
Kuwait. It was the second time a soldier had placed her there.
During our instant- messaging, we pushed Beauchamp on this:

tnr: where did you see the crypt keeper?

Beauchamp: are you there?

tnr: yes

Beauchamp: the last thing i got was "where did you see the crypt
keeper"

tnr: yes

Beauchamp: the dfac on falcon or chow hall, as it IS commonly called

tnr: what about kuwait?

Beauchamp: brb [be right back]

Nine minutes of silence

tnr: you there?

Ten minutes of silence

Beauchamp: ok just did a sworn

statement

tnr: about?

Beauchamp: saying that i wrote the

articles

tnr: ok

Beauchamp: theyre taking away my

laptop

tnr: fuck is this it for communication?

Beauchamp: yeah and im fucked

tnr: they said that?

Beauchamp: because you're right the crypt keep WAS in Kuwait

FUCK FUCK FUCK

this is bad isnt it

tnr: yes

where in kuwait?

Beauchamp: it did happen in kuwait

Camp Beuhring

tnr: why didn't you tell us that?

Beauchamp: i thought it was on

falcon

till somebody here convinced me that it wasnt i just talked to
[Soldier A] and he convinced me that it was in kuwait when i
thought it was on falcon fuck

tnr: if what you're saying is true

it's not the end of the world

Beauchamp: ok

tnr: as long as we can confirm it

Beauchamp: good

i have to go like NOW though im so sorry

tnr: are you gonna be able to talk again?

Beauchamp: i hope so but i dont know

thank you again for everything

tnr: i didn't do anything

what did you sign?

After that, the Army, by its own admission, didn't permit Beauchamp
to speak to tnr for over a month. It was the worst moment to lose
contact. He had admitted a major mistake, using an event that
occurred in Kuwait before he ever set foot in Iraq to describe the
psychological impact of war. We published a statement announcing
this error soon after. But did it stem from an intentional
manipulation of fact or an innocent slip of memory, as his instant
message seemed to indicate? He had also gone from a pseudonym to a
soldier with a name and a face and a personal history--all of which
were about to become grist for the bloggers.

Within an hour of our instant-message exchange with Beauchamp, one
of the soldiers in his unit with whom we had previously spoken sent
an account of the Army's investigation:

[S]lew of events: initially, the whole platoon was called in and we
received certificates of having been instructed in some sort of
equal opportunity training we never got. Then everyone was
dismissed; everyone, of course, except the platoon's four Bradley
drivers. ...

What we had to do, then, was write and sign a sworn statement ...
saying that we'd never seen or committed the act of randomly
causing destruction with our Brads, and that we'd found no "mass
grave" site at [combat outpost] Ellis.

... [I]t bottomed out to us saying that we'd found "unidentified
remains." [Captain] cheerfully edged us into calling them "animal"
remains "so that there's no implication of them possibly being
human." I changed mine to what he wanted. SCOTT changed his to
"remains that people had said were animals."

A pattern began. Beauchamp's behavior was sometimes
suspicious--promising evidence that never arrived--but so was the
Army's. Beauchamp had corroboration, but his confusion over Iraq
and Kuwait was troubling. And we were running out of leads; one of
the few remaining was a former member of Beauchamp's unit named
Kristopher Kiple.

Beauchamp had described Kiple to me as the figure in his story who
stabs his mashed potatoes in disgust at the sight of the disfigured
woman and cracks jokes at her expense. When the "Shock Troops"
controversy emerged, Kiple was in the process of leaving the
military and was being held at a base in Germany. He told me the
Army had removed him from Iraq on mental health grounds. Once in
Germany, he had gotten into trouble for "out on the town stuff" and
"resisting arrest." We'd left messages on his MySpace page for him
to call. Several days after Beauchamp went incommunicado, Kiple
called me on a Saturday morning.

Kiple understood that he didn't make the ideal witness, given his
current predicament. But he did recall the events Beauchamp
described. "I remember the woman," he told me. "She didn't go to
Iraq; she was in Kuwait. She was bald with strands of hair--her
hair was gray just a little bit. Her face was kind of mangled. It
looked it like it was scarred or something. It wasn't recent. It
happened in the past. She looked recovered. She wore a brown
uniform, BDU [Battle Dress Uniform], with pocketed pants. It didn't
have any rank. She looked like a civilian contractor or something.
She looked like an American. We saw her about every day or every
other day--maybe fourteen times. Usually, mostly during lunch
chow--twelve, one p.m. Yes, we called her Mandrake's Bride, some
crazy mythology that Scott and one of our buddies made up for her. I
don't remember some of the shit that they used to talk about her."

In his story, Beauchamp had written about a joke he and his buddies
had made suggesting that Mandrake's Bride appear in a calendar of
battle-scarred women, which Beauchamp dubbed "IED Babes." This had
become one of the most controversial parts of his account--would
soldiers really say something so despicable? Without my prompting,
Kiple raised the subject. "I remember the calendar distinctly--the
'IED Babes'--because I thought that was the funniest thing in the
world." I pushed him to describe the scene. "We were really poking
fun at her. It was just me and Scott Beauchamp the day that I made
that comment. We were pretty loud. She was sitting at the table
behind me. We were at the end of the table. I believe that there
were a few people a few feet to the right. We were pretty loud
about it. Nobody said anything. Mandrake's Bride heard it and got
up and left."

I told Kiple that if he was lying, it would only hurt his pal. He
replied, "I was nervous, questioning myself. Some of it's a blur.
But it happened." He told me that he was about to leave the Army,
and, when he did, we would have permission to quote him by name.

We had a hard time prodding members of Beauchamp's unit to talk
further. By coming down hard on Beauchamp, the Army clearly
provided a cautionary tale about the perils of cooperating with the
press. As soon as Beauchamp went public, according to Reeve, the
military immediately prevented him from calling even his family,
who enlisted the help of a home-state politician to restore a line
of communication; Beauchamp began working longer shifts and was
isolated from his comrades.

Without new evidence to be gleaned, we began to lay out the evidence
we had assembled. It wasn't just the testimonials from the soldiers
in his unit. Among others, we had called a forensic anthropologist
and a spokesman for the manufacturer of Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
Nothing in our conversations with them had dissuaded us of the
plausibility of Beauchamp's pieces.

But we also found some reason to doubt Beauchamp's reliability: In
2006, he had written a personal blog, Sir Real Scott Thomas, which
we only discovered after the controversy erupted. He appeared an
angst-ridden young man prone to paroxysms: "I shoot, move,
communicate, and kill ... the deaths that I inflict secure the
riches of the empire." With his excited prose and tendency toward
overstatement, his blog did not inspire journalistic confidence. We
had good reasons never to assign Beauchamp another piece. Overall,
however, when we considered the totality of what we had amassed, we
didn't have enough information to retract the ones we had
published. There was the one significant mistake, but we needed to
know more about how it had occurred. And that information could
only be obtained from another conversation with Beauchamp,
something the Army wouldn't allow. On August 2, we laid out what we
had learned in a second carefully worded statement on our website.

On August 1, six days after the "skulls on their head in sector"
meeting, the Army concluded its investigation. Two days later, a
public affairs officer announced that Beauchamp's piece had been
"refuted by members of his platoon and proven to be false." The
Army didn't announce this to The New York Times or even The Weekly
Standard, let alone in a public report. It first gave the story of
Beauchamp's supposed fraudulence to a former porn actor turned
blogger named Matt Sanchez. Apparently, the Army wanted the matter
to quietly fade away. Several days after Sanchez's scoop, the
Standard reported, based on an anonymous military source, that
Beauchamp had signed a statement admitting that all three of his
pieces were "fabrications containing only 'a smidgen' of truth. "

Many reporters who wrote stories about the Beauchamp affair noted
the thinness of the Army's report. Spokesmen from the military
curtly confirmed the findings to reporters. When pressed, they
declined to elaborate. Goldfarb's allegation that Scott had
recanted his stories, however, was more difficult to blunt. Both
the Times and The Washington Post repeated the Standard's
anonymously sourced accusation. Either the Army source had lied to
the Standard or Beauchamp had lied to us. When Beauchamp had
described his statements to us, it seemed like he was walking a
fine line, trying to satisfy his commanders while staying on the
side of the truth. But, without the actual documents in hand, we
had no way of judging. Through his wife and lawyer, we made the
first of many requests for these statements, which Beauchamp was
legally entitled to obtain for us.

My colleagues and I placed calls throughout the military's public
affairs apparatus in Baghdad and Washington, hoping to set up back
channels. We asked officials to provide us any conclusive evidence,
even off the record, that would give us faith in the Army's
findings.

We never received this cooperation. But conservative bloggers who
were fixated on this controversy--one arrived unannounced at tnr's
offices with a video camera, another later attempted to organize an
advertiser boycott of the magazine--were treated differently. After
we had posted an online statement explaining that we had been
unable to communicate with Beauchamp--who, according to Reeve, was
under orders not to speak with us--and pleading with the Army to
make him available to us, General David Petraeus's spokesman,
Steven Boylan, told the Standard, "We are not preventing [Beauchamp]
from speaking to tnr or anyone." One of our editors called Boylan's
office on a near- daily basis to set up a phone call with
Beauchamp; every time, they told us they were working on our
request. After several weeks, we stopped hearing back from them.
The Army later confirmed to us that it had, indeed, prevented
Beauchamp from speaking.

In the meantime, I told reporters from the Times and the Post that
we'd fully cooperate if they wanted to dig further and visit
Beauchamp's combat outpost. The Post never responded, and an
Iraq-based reporter from the Times declined.

On a Thursday morning in early September--over a month after that
final, hectic instant-messaging session--the Army finally brokered
a call with Beauchamp. Over in Iraq, Beauchamp sat in a room with
his squad leader and a public affairs officer. He spoke on
speakerphone.

In contrast to previous conversations, Beauchamp sounded uneasy, at
times even catatonic, as he repeated variations on the same: "I
just want to not think about this anymore and just basically do my
job. And that's all I really want to do." More worrisome, he
refused to even talk about his stories with us.

Since then, some have said that we shouldn't have continued with the
conversation under these conditions: Beauchamp was in an impossible
position. We were prodding him to confess in front of superiors who
might punish him. But tnr had been out of contact with him for six
weeks; we had to find out whatever we could.

Beauchamp told us that the Army had scheduled calls with other news
outlets in which he would say that he had no interest in further
discussing his article and to demonstrate that the Army wasn't
censoring him. We asked him to cancel those interviews, because we
believed that he owed us answers first. The exchange had left us
shaken. How could we stand by Beauchamp's story if he himself was
refusing to do so? We began to think that we had no choice but to
retract his story. But, then, Beauchamp reached out to us through
his wife. He said that, during our call, he'd spoken under duress.
We worried that Beauchamp was just conveying to us what we wanted
to hear, but his protestation did seem plausible: The statements he
made to us had seemed unusually formulaic and coached. (Our
suspicions about the latter were later borne out when the Army
included what seemed to be talking points at the end of a transcript
of our call, which was leaked to the Drudge Report: "official
statement: I don't want to do any more interviews. I want to
concentrate on my job as a Soldier right now. It's more important
to me and not only that--but it's more important to my country and
the other Soldiers around me. And that's what I'm going to do.")

Most importantly, Beauchamp said he might want to publish another
statement standing by his story. We put off any decision to retract
and began working out the timing and terms of our next conversation
with him.

The following Monday, September 10, the conservative blogger
Confederate Yankee posted an interview with Major John Cross, the
executive officer of Beauchamp's battalion who led the official
Army investigation. This surprised us: We had repeatedly requested
to speak to someone with substantive information on the
investigation and were never told of Cross's availability. After
reading the exchange with Confederate Yankee, we booked time with
him later in the week.

In our interview, surprisingly, Cross bolstered Beauchamp's
credibility. He stated that Beauchamp had never recanted, flatly
refuting what Goldfarb and others reported. In fact, he agreed that
Beauchamp had carefully crafted his signed statements in an attempt
to avoid contradictions. And he admitted that, in his
investigation, he had neglected to interview a substantial portion
of Beauchamp's platoon.

Then there were the underlying facts of the case. Even though he
argued the events in Beauchamp's articles never happened, Cross
conceded that bones were found in the area surrounding Beauchamp's
combat outpost. He guessed that the bones came from animal
carcasses. Bradleys, he told us, unintentionally hit dogs. Indeed,
dogs flock toward Bradleys. We weren't sure what to make of these
statements.

Was Beauchamp a liar? we asked.

"Well, I can't state, you know, when you talk about lying, it's
making a statement, oral or written, with the intent to deceive.
What I did, like I said before, was check into the veracity of the
allegations made."

We pressed him.

"I can't say whether or not he wanted to deceive people, and that's
as far as I'm going to say on that point."

Despite all the commotion he caused, Beauchamp had returned to
serving with his unit. We asked Cross how we should weigh the
testimonials we received from Beauchamp's unit.

He answered: "Yeah, I would definitely tell you it's a minefield.
Um, one that I wouldn't want to find myself in."

Beauchamp's writings had originally appealed to us because we wanted
to publish a soldier's introspections. We still believe in this
journalistic mission, especially as the number of reporters
embedded in Iraq dwindles. But, as these months of controversy have
shown, telling the story of what is happening in Iraq through a
soldier's eyes is a fraught project. The more we dug into
Beauchamp's writings, the more clear it became that we might have
been in the realm of war stories, a genre notoriously rife with
embellishment. It is telling that Beauchamp and his comrades gave
the disfigured woman mythological names--Crypt Keeper, Mandrake's
Bride--and made her the subject of telling and retelling.

For the past four-and-a-half months, we've been reluctant to retract
Beauchamp's stories. Substantial evidence supports his account. It
is difficult to imagine that he could enlist a conspiracy of
soldiers to lie on his behalf. And they didn't just vouch for
him--they added new details and admitted gaps in their own
knowledge. If they were simply lying to protect him, they likely
wouldn't have alerted us to Beauchamp's Kuwait mistake. Furthermore,
our conversation with Cross confirmed important underlying
premises--the existence of bones, Bradleys running over dogs.

Finally, we had obligations to the writer, whatever anxieties we
might have had about these pieces. For long stretches, the military
prevented Beauchamp from defending himself against his accusers.
Even when he was allowed to speak with us, he did so under obvious
duress. And the Army's behavior--its initial efforts to bury the
results of its investigation, not to mention the four months and
counting it has taken to process our Freedom of Information Act
request for those results--made us reluctant to rush to judgment.

But, after our re-reporting, some of our questions are still
unanswered. Did the driver intentionally run over dogs? Did he
record his kills in a little green notebook? We've never been able
to reach the driver. And Beauchamp told us that he'd procure a page
from the notebook, but that has not materialized. This is a
plausible anecdote, and several soldiers in Beauchamp's unit had
heard stories about dog-hunting, but only one had actually seen the
driver Beauchamp wrote about intentionally hit dogs. He is one of
Beauchamp's friends, and, over the course of a number of e-mail
exchanges with him, our faith in him has diminished.

Several weeks after the monitored call in September, we finally had
the opportunity to ask Beauchamp, without any of his supervisors on
the line, about how he could mistake a dining hall in Kuwait for
one in Iraq. He told us he considered the detail to be "mundane"
given the far more horrific events he had witnessed. That's not a
convincing explanation. If the event was so mundane, why did he
write about it--and with such vivid detail? In accounting for the
inaccuracy of a central fact, he sounded defensive and evasive.

Beauchamp has lived through this ordeal under the most trying of
conditions. He is facing pressures that we can only begin to
imagine. And, over the course of our dealings with him, we've tried
to give him the benefit of the doubt. Ever since August, we've
asked him, first though his wife and lawyer and later via direct
e-mail and phone calls, to personally obtain the sworn statements
that the military had him draft and sign on July 26. And, ever since
then, he has promised repeatedly to do just that. We are,
unfortunately, still waiting.

In retrospect, we never should have put Beauchamp in this situation.
He was a young soldier in a war zone, an untried writer without
journalistic training. We published his accounts of sensitive
events while granting him the shield of anonymity--which, in the
wrong hands, can become license to exaggerate, if not fabricate.

When I last spoke with Beauchamp in early November, he continued to
stand by his stories. Unfortunately, the standards of this magazine
require more than that. And, in light of the evidence available to
us, after months of intensive re-reporting, we cannot be confident
that the events in his pieces occurred in exactly the manner that
he described them. Without that essential confidence, we cannot
stand by these stories.

Loading Related Articles...
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.