Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Old Breed. The New Breed.

Scott Thomas Beauchamp is an aspiring writer, serving in the infantry in Iraq, writing in diary form about observing and participating in cruel behavior during his active service. His pseudonymous work was polished and published by The New Republic, igniting a shit-storm in the right blogosphere, who cast doubt on his story and his very existence. When Beauchamp publicly identified himself, the narrative changed to questioning motivation and attacking him personally. He is now being investigated, his e-mail privileges suspended, his Sargeant labels his stories "fairy tales" and says Beauchamp has underlying issues. Currently favored left wing meme summarized by Digby and right wing meme summarized in these panels of DaybyDay:

Rick Moran thinks that both the right and left are missing the point and asks "Is there a larger truth about the war to be found in the writings of people like Yon, Totten, and even Beauchamp?" - meaning street-level, grunt-level reporting not often attempted by MSM. I think Moran has a point, and it is also useful putting Beauchamp's stories in an historical context. Lets look at one Beauchamp excerpt describing what is arguably the least disturbing of three incidents in Private Beauchamp's most recent effort - Shock Troops:
"We spent a few weeks constructing a combat outpost, and, in the process, we did a lot of digging... We found pieces of hands and fingers. We found skull fragments... One private, infamous as a joker and troublemaker, found the top part of a human skull, which was almost perfectly preserved. It even had chunks of hair, which were stiff and matted down with dirt. He squealed as he placed it on his head like a crown. It was a perfect fit. As he marched around with the skull on his head, people dropped shovels and sandbags, folding in half with laughter. No one thought to tell him to stop. No one was disgusted. Me included."
Cassandra of Villainous Company, writer, blogger, relentless advocate for the Iraq mission and those serving in the military (particularly Marines) raised some thoughtful questions about Private Beauchamp (excerpt below) before joining the lynch mob with her more recent posts.
"Desecration of a mass grave is a serious matter. What was his motivation in writing about it? Certainly this is not behavior sanctioned by the U.S. Army. The right course of action for anyone witnessing such a heinous act would be, if indeed it really happened, to report the perpetrators to the command. Someone who would desecrate the grave of a child, who would place a piece of a child's skull under their helmet and wear it for hours, is someone in need of psychological help. Did Private Beauchamp have no concern for this person's mental health, if not for the welfare of any innocent Iraqis who might be harmed by someone for whom the lines between right and wrong had so clearly been badly blurred? Assuming this account is true, (and considering so far no record of a mass grave has been unearthed in the vicinity of FOB Falcon, this requires a leap of faith) a crime was committed. His obligation was to report it. It is, possibly, understandable that loyalty might have prevented a young man from turning in his comrade, though this doesn't excuse him doing the wrong thing... This whole episode smacks of expediency, of an editor who believed a story because it aligned with what he wanted to believe and of a young man who, for whatever reason, wanted the freedom to say ugly things without the responsibility of backing them up. To this day, he is still ducking that responsibility, as are the editors of The New Republic. But the damage has been done. The grisly images of a soldier dancing insanely with the bits of a child's skull under his helmet, of a Bradley driver swerving to run over helpless dogs, of cruel soldiers mocking a scarred and crying woman, are seared... seared into our national consciousness."
There is much to ponder here. The question of recognizing right and wrong in extreme conditions in a war zone. The question of responsibility for action taken or not taken in the face of such recognition, made more difficult when the offenders are your comrades in arms, or even yourself. The question of a soldiers motivated to write truly what he sees and feels in a war. The question of whether ugly things should be written and published, in a time of war, even if true.

I'll return later to the bigger question and take a stab at the last question, first. Cassandra concludes that Beauchamp's motivations are suspect, that he should not have written what he saw (if true), but should have reported his comrade in arms, and in all cases TNR should not have published what he wrote. She apparently believes that the American public should be sheltered from the "searing images" of macabre and cruel behavior.

As serendipity would have it, I am reading With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge - a memoir of a WWII marine private, recounting his first hand experience in the Pacific theater. The introduction by Colonel Joseph Alexander, USMC (Ret.) outlines the provenance of the memoir:
"He had maintained a series of surreptitious notes (personal diaries by front-line troops being strictly forbidden) in his New Testament throughout his oversea deployment. Immediately after both battles he collated the notes into a running narrative while the memories were still vivid.... Presidio Press published the first edition in 1981 ... Curiously, "With the Old Breed" did not receive universal acclaim from within Sledge's own extended family, the Marines. Some postwar officers, sensitive to the institution's public image, winced as Sledge recounted blunders, foibles, brutality, hatred and "friendly fire"... As a consequence some senior Marines regarded "With The Old Breed" to be more a liability than an asset when it first appeared. Fortunately, wiser heads have since prevailed... For all the books shocks and horrors, there is hardly a more profound paean to the abiding spirit of the United States Marine Corps than With the Old Breed. Today, in several Military schools, (including those of the U.S. Army) Sledge's book has become required reading for aspiring junior officers."
Two soldiers. Two privates. Two diarists. Two wars. Two generations. Brokaw's Greatest Generation and Malkin's 9/11 Generation (which - whether she likes it or not, includes Private Beauchamp) Today's exercise - compare and contrast. We've seen a gruesome example from Beauchamp, now a few examples from Sledge:
"At first glance the dead gunner appeared about to fire his deadly weapon. He still sat bolt upright in the proper firing position behind the breech of the machine gun... The crown of the gunner's skull had been blasted off, probably by one of our automatic weapons. His riddled steel helmet lay on the deck like a punctured tin can... As we talked, I noticed a fellow mortarman sitting next to me. He held a handful of coral pebbles in his left hand. With his right hand he idly tossed them into the open skull of the Japanese machine gunner. Each time his pitch was true I head a little splash of rainwater in the ghastly receptacle. My buddy tossed the coral chunks as casually as a boy casting pebbles into a puddle on a muddy road back home; there was nothing malicious in his action. The war had so brutalized us that it was beyond belief."

"During this lull the men stripped the packs and pockets of the enemy dead for souvenirs. This was a gruesome business, but Marines executed it in a most methodical manner. Helmet headbands were checked for flags, packs and pockets were emptied, and gold teeth were extracted. Sabers, pistols, and hari-kari knives were highly prized..."

"The men gloated over, compared, and often swapped their prizes. It was a brutal, ghastly ritual the like of which have occurred since ancient times on battlefields where the antagonists have possessed a profound mutual hatred. It was uncivilized, as is all war, and was carried out with that particular savagery that characterized the struggle between the Marines and the Japanese. It wasn't simply souvenir hunting or looting the enemy dead; it was more like Indian warriors taking scalps. While I was removing a bayonet and scabbard from a dead Japanese, I noticed a Marine near me. He wasn't in our mortar section but had happened by and wanted to get in on the spoils. He came up to me dragging what I assumed to be a corpse. But the Japanese wasn't dead. He had been wounded severely in the back and couldn't move his arms; otherwise he would have resisted to his last breath. The Japanese's mouth glowed with huge gold-crowned teeth, and his captor wanted them. He put the point of his kabar on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and and sank deeply into the victims mouth. The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheek open to each ear. He put his foot on the sufferer's lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldiers mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly. I shouted, "Put the man out of his misery." All I got for an answer was a cussing out. Another Marine ran up, put a bullet in the enemy soldiers brain and ended his agony. The scavenger grumbled and continued extracting his prizes undisturbed.

Such was the incredible cruelty that decent men could commit when reduced to a brutish existence in their fight for survival amid the violent death, terror, tension, fatigue and filth that was the infantryman's war. Our code of conduct toward the enemy differed dramatically from that prevailing back at the division CP."
More parallel entries in the war diaries before we look for contrast.

Beauchamp (from the statement provided to TNR editors):
" I am Private Scott Thomas Beauchamp, a member of Alpha Company, 1/18 Infantry, Second Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division. My pieces were always intended to provide my discrete view of the war; they were never intended as a reflection of the entire U.S. Military. I wanted Americans to have one soldier's view of events in Iraq. "
Sledge (From the Preface):
"This book is an account of my World War II experience in training and in combat with company K, 3d Battalian, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division during the Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns. It is not history, and it is not my story alone. I have attempted rather to be the spokesman for my comrades , who were swept with me into the abyss of war. "
"It's been maddening, to say the least, to see the plausibility of events that I witnessed questioned by people who have never served in Iraq. I was initially reluctant to take the time out of my already insane schedule fighting an actual war in order to play some role in an ideological battle that I never wanted to join. That being said, my character, my experiences, and those of my comrades in arms have been called into question, and I believe that it is important to stand by my writing under my real name."
"To the noncombatants and those on the periphery of action, the war meant only boredom or occasional excitement; but to those who entered the meat grinder itself, the war was a nether world of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely as casualties mounted and the fighting dragged on and on. Time had no meaning; life had no meaning. The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all. We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines - service troops and civilians. "
Deep breath. Are these experiences really comparable? Is it right to compare the two? Is this just a long way to go to simply state the obvious about the nature of war and what it does to the rough men who fight those wars in our name? Or is it enough to simply say, as does Megan McArdle at Jane Galt:
"Undoubtedly, American soldiers are doing things that are either immoral, or disgusting, or both, because that's what happens when you give people guns and tanks and power, and the UCMJ can only reel that sort of thing in so far. American soldiers in World War II used to boil Japanese skulls and send them to their girlfiends, and yes, we were still the good guys in that one. War is hell, she said with unabashed clicheness."
There is indeed something more to learn here, but it is not to be found in the similarities between the Beauchamp and Sledge diaries, rather it is found in the differences. Here are a few:
  • As bad as things may seem to Beauchamp in Iraq, it is not even vaguely comparable to what Sledge and his fellow marines experienced at Peleliu and Okinawa - where an average of 3,000 lives a day were lost for the 12 weeks of the campaign.
  • Sledge and Beauchamp write unflinchingly of the horrors they see. But Sledge published his memoir 35 years after the war when it was unusable as propaganda by a defeated enemy. Beauchamp is publishing while he is still engaged in the mission. Perhps due to a different era with different technology, different media, and perhaps due to - different motivation.
  • Sledge is unflinching in describing the horror and the wasted lives, and does not hesitate to expose the bureaucratic and military bungling he experienced first hand, and the terrible cost of that bungling. But he also writes of heroism and triumph and of his pride of service, his pride in the corp, and his bond with his fellow warriors. Reading Beauchamp's three columns, I don't find anything resembling the same pride and esprit de corp in his work, which are unrelentingly cynical. That may be reflection of his attitude, or it may be a reflection of his writing style, or it may be a reflection of his editor and publishers politics. Without more from Beauchamp we cannot know.
There is another difference revealed when Sledge and Beauchamp are confronted with a choice between right and wrong, in a time and place that make it difficult to choose between the two.

"I was thinking of getting some girls together and doing a photo shoot. Maybe for a calendar? IED Babes.' We could have them pose in thongs and bikinis on top of the hoods of their blown-up vehicles." My friend was practically falling out of his chair laughing. The disfigured woman slammed her cup down and ran out of the chow hall, her half-finished tray of food nearly falling to the ground. Am I a monster? I have never thought of myself as a cruel person. Indeed, I have always had compassion for those with disabilities. 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. Even as I was reveling in the laughter my words had provoked, I was simultaneously horrified and ashamed at what I had just said. In a strange way, though, I found the shame comforting. I was relieved to still be shocked by my own cruelty--to still be able to recognize that the things we soldiers found funny were not, in fact, funny."
"I noticed gold teeth glistening brightly between the lips of several of the dead Japanese lying around us. Harvesting gold teeth was one facet of stripping enemy dead that I hadn't practiced so far. But stopping beside a corpse with a particularly tempting number of shining crowns, I took out my kabar and bent over to make the extractions. A hand grabbed me by the shoulder, and I straightened up to see who it was. "What are you gonna do, Sledghammer?" asked Doc Caswell. His expression was a mix of sadness and reproach as he looked intently at me. "Just thought I'd collect some gold teeth," I replied.
"Don't do it."
"Why not, Doc?"
"You don't want to do that sort of thing, what would our folks think if they knew?... the germs Sledghammer! You might get germs from them!" Reflecting on the episode after the war, I realized that Doc Caswell didn't really have germs in mind. He was a good friend, a fine genuine person whose sensitivity hadn't been crushed out by the war. He was merely helping me retain some of mine and not become completely callous and harsh."
Two soldiers under combat stress, trying to understand the distinction between right and wrong. One takes a wrong path, but takes comfort in the fact that he understands it is a wrong path. The other, with the help of a friend, takes the right path, but does not really understand it until years after the war.

Then there is my Uncle Ben. The reason I am reading E.B. Sledges book is because of my uncle. Uncle Ben served in the Navy as an anti-aircraft gunner on a landing craft at Okinawa, during the invasion that E.B Sledge recounts. My sister is an amateur genealogist and family historian. She records family history interviews on tape, transcribes then, then I help her post the stories to a family website. This is from a transcript of Uncle Ben recalling Okinawa:
"You see we dressed like Marines. We didn’t dress like sailors on Okinawa . We had Marine shoes, brown shirt and all that stuff. This guy and me we started together the two of us. We started with two hundred guys and I only wound up with one guy from Illinois. He was from Southern Illinois and he talked like a hillbilly. I said to him “you’re from Illinois”? He said “yeah”. He was from the southern end where they have the oil fields, he worked in the oil fields. I couldn’t get over the way he talked and he was from Illinois. So he says to me one day “What do you say we go look for some souvenirs”? I said “Lets go”.... He looks like the all American kid, blonde hair, blue eyes, he talked funny you know. So he sees this dead Jap and he picks up his rifle and goes like this ( lifting rifle like a hammer) I said “What are you doing”? He says “he’s got some gold teeth I’m gonna get em”. I said “Like hell your gonna get em”. I says ”You go to hit him, I’m gonna shoot you”. “You’d shoot me”? I said “You're god damn right I will. Your gonna take gold teeth from a dead man?!” He says “O.K. I wont do it.” He said to me “Would you have shot me?” I said “ Your god damn right I’d have shot you”! I couldn’t believe he could do a thing like that! For a gold tooth he was going to bust him…would you believe that? I still can't get over it when I think of this guy!"
So there is a lesson to be learned. It is certainly understandable and even expected that soldiers will become coarsened and inured to cruelty and horror in war. But even in the most extreme combat conditions, it does not mean that they must lose their humanity. Sledge did not. Uncle Ben did not. Beauchamp? I'm not sure.

Divided and Balanced.™ Now that is fair.


loogel said...

This was a really good post. I am not an expert on the Beauchamp issue, or the iraq war in general, but is it possible that Beauchamp thought that reporting the matters to the chain of command would not fix anything? or that he would be retailiated against? or that he actually did report it?

mw said...

loogel - Thanks for the kind words. All the scenarios you posit are possible, even probable.

Your questions point out the central problem with the whole Beauchamp debate. So much of this controversy is arguing about what is going on inside his head. What is his motivation? Is he primarily motivated to tell the truth about the Iraq he sees? Or is he motivated to tell stories that will get him published? Is he embellishing for the sake of making his writing more interesting? Or faithfully reporting events on the ground? Even questions about why he enlisted, his patriotism, his feelings for his fellow soldiers and unit seem relevant.

We won't know any of these things, until and unless he speaks for himself, and the army lets him do it. Perhaps after his discharge.