Fog of War: The Story Of Our Baghdad Diarist
By Franklin Foer
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."