July 23, 2007

Doubting Thomas: Simple Questions for the New Republic

As time wears on, it seems increasingly unlikely that the writings of the pseudonym-shielded soldier "Scott Thomas" in the New Republic are anything other than works of macabre creative fiction.

"Thomas" has written three "dispatches" for the New Republic thus far, but once the Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb began questioning the veracity of claims made in Thomas' third story, experienced military veterans and observers in the blogosphere who read the account began to doubt that these claims took place.

In his third dispatch, Thomas claimed that he and another soldier openly, verbally assaulted the appearance of a severely burned woman who had survived a prior attack by an improvised explosive device, or IED. The alleged attack took place at the dining facility of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Falcon.

Presumably, this episode was meant to show the brutality and inhumanity of soldiers thoroughly desensitized to basic human decency and dignity because of the on-going violence of the Iraq War.

It is perhaps a "larger truth" that war does horrible things to the psyche of those who experience it. That some do and say horrible things as a direct or indirect result of their experiences during such turbulent circumstances, and sometimes for years afterward, is beyond dispute.

But though strong adverse reactions may indeed be true for some veterans who experience such brutality, it is by no means true for all.

It is also equally true that there seems to be very little concrete support for this specific allegation, and significant anecdotal evidence against it.

Major Kirk Luedeke, the Public Affairs Officer at FOB Falcon, categorically denies the presence of a woman with these unmistakable severe burns at the base. Another man who claims to be a soldier currently deployed to FOB Falcon states that:

In the 11 months I've been here I've never once seen a female contractor with a burned face. In a compact place like this with only one mess hall I or one of my guys would certainly have noticed someone like that. There are a few female contractors, I think maybe a dozen, but none fit the horrific description given in that article. Further, I've personally seen guys threatened with severe physical harm for making jokes of any kind about IED victims given the number of casualties all the units on this FOB have sustained. It is not a subject we take lightly.

Another claims:

I was based at Falcon last year for six months with the 101st Airborne. I never saw a woman who fits Thomas's description. That's not conclusive since I haven't been there for almost eight months.

Another soldier (an officer whose ID I have positively identified but whose name I do not have permission to publish) who has been at FOB Falcon since March describes the claims of Thomas as "total nonsense."

The New Republic must establish the following if they intend to continue claiming that this story of abuse by Thomas is true.

They must produce the year, month, and week that this attack took place, and make this time public knowledge.

If the New Republic cannot or will not release the time-frame during which the claimed assault took place, then there is no way for the military and agencies employing contractors at FOB Falcon to check their logs to prove or disprove the existence of a severely wounded soldier or contractor matching the description provided by Thomas.

The only reason for the New Republic not to release this information is to cover up the distinct possibility that Thomas' claims is false.

If the New Republic wants its readers to believe it is operating honestly and ethically, they cannot refuse to release the date of the alleged assault as precisely and as soon as possible.

Tuesday, July 24, while an arbitrary date, is a reasonable release date for this information, as the New Republic claims to have been investigating the claims made by Thomas for nearly a week, and they should have already acquired this information prior to the story's publication.

Another claim made by Thomas in his third dispatch to the New Republic is that his unit, while spending several weeks building a combat outpost southwest of Baghdad, uncovered a mass grave containing the remains of children, presumably from the time of Saddam Hussein's reign. Thomas then claims that an extended desecration of the bodies was perpetrated by a fellow soldier, without fellow soldiers, more senior enlisted men, of officers stepping in.

Returning once again to the blog of combat correspondent Matt Sanchez, we encounter the claim from FOB Falcon PAO Major Luedeke there were no mass graves uncovered during the construction of any combat outposts in the Rashid District, at any time.

This strong refutation is a definitive statement by a U.S. Army soldier, for the public record.

If the New Republic wishes to continue to stand behind this Thomas claim, they have no choice but to publicly publish the name and location of the combat outpost where the mass grave is supposed to exist.

I am fairly certain that if the New Republic were to make this information available, that the United States military would be very interested in exhuming those who fell at Saddam's brutal hands so that they could be given a proper, dignified burial. Further, I'm reasonably confident that the military would allow the media to document the exhumation and reburial... if such a mass grave exists.

Once again, the only plausible reason for the New Republic to not release the name of the combat outpost and the location of the mass grave in question, is to obfuscate whether or not Thomas is providing the New Republic with an accurate account, or a clever work of fiction.

As the New Republic should probably have already obtained the name of the base and the location of the alleged mass grave prior to publication, and would certainly ask for this information during the course of their investigation into Thomas' claims, a Tuesday, July 24 deadline to publish this information seems quite reasonable.

In my mind, Thomas' third claim, that a private took great joy in smashing a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) through curbs, concrete barriers, and market stalls, along with using the vehicle to deftly attack and kill dogs with the vehicle's tracks, is too absurd to even need further refutation.

While apparently a claim that the New Republic was willing to publish based upon Thomas' credibility, it ignores the fact that Bradley drivers are not left unattended to use their vehicles as destructive playthings as they see fit. A driver follows the orders of his vehicle commander, who must protect the lives of his crew and the soldiers in the fire team the IFV carries. Further, Bradley IFVs rarely, if ever, operate alone.

Bradleys typically operate in the support of larger American formations involving other Bradley IFVs, American Abrams tanks, Stryker armored vehicles, Humvees, other medium and heavy trucks, and squads, platoons, and companies of soldiers.

For Thomas' claims to be true regarding this driver, it would probably require that dozens of soldiers and their commanders repeatedly allow their lives to be needlessly risked and their mission subverted, so that one sadistic, destructive driver could attempt canine homicide.

Thomas' story would also require that the driver and vehicle perform at or beyond a Bradley IFV's upper limits of performance, stealth, vision, maneuverability, and structural strengths.

There is no evidence that the New Republic can produce to substantiate this claimed series of atrocities short of unedited videotaped footage showing the vehicle and driver performing these incredible acts.

And so we we are left asking the New Republic to answer two very basic, very simple questions that any journalism student should have been able to answer before publishing a similar story:

  • When did the verbal assault take place on the badly-burned woman at FOB Falcon?
  • What was the name and location of the combat outpost where a mass grave was discovered?

If the New Republic cannot or will not specifically answer these quite reasonable and very basic journalistic questions, then we will be forced to ask the magazine's senior editors and its publisher far more probing questions in the near future.

Update: Via Sitemeter, I noticed three different visitors from the New Republic dropped by early this afternoon in the span of half an hour. Obviously, they got the message, and it only remains to be seen whether or not they will provide a response.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at July 23, 2007 12:50 AM

I'm one of the TNR subscribers who took Scott Thomas' essay at face value. After reading the back page of that issue, I thought, "How depressing!" It didn't occur to me that the story might be fabricated.

CY, thanks for boiling it down to two key questions. Editor Franklin Foer needs to answer them frankly and completely, or my subscription ends. If Scott Thomas' reports are faked, it means that TNR has learned nothing from the Steven Glass forgery episodes.

How depressing.

Posted by: AMac at July 23, 2007 11:12 AM

At this writing, the most recent "The Plank" (TNR's in-house blog) post on 'Scott Thomas,' dated 7/20/07, is Note to Readers, penned by TNR Editor Franklin Foer. A repost of Confederate Yankee's questions and a link to this post are now there, as comment 142 (2007-07-23 12:22pm).

We will see what happens next.

Posted by: AMac at July 23, 2007 11:30 AM

I'm sure our left wing friends here will no doubt continue to provide cover for this, under their contention that "he's just mistaken".

Posted by: Conservative CBU at July 23, 2007 11:34 AM

More like fake but accurate

Posted by: Capitalist Infidel at July 23, 2007 11:50 AM

Thomas, formerly an Iraqi policeman unnoficially reporting for the AP, has transferred to the US Army, and is now unnoficially reporting for TNR.

Posted by: davod at July 23, 2007 12:14 PM

Excellent questions, Bob. I linked.

Posted by: Bill Faith at July 23, 2007 01:18 PM


Excellent response to the "nothing to see here folks" comments. I was surprised at the number of people who kept referring to errors/lies of conservatives as if that excused the startling lack of journalistic integrity on the part of TNR in this matter.

Posted by: iconoclast at July 23, 2007 01:48 PM

There are some interesting comments on the TNR board. Quite a few people claiming the Fake But Accurate / but Bush lied and he is the Debil defense, but many others just want to get to the bottom of the story. Although I do object to the comment that most of the blogs questioning the story are "conservative", rather I think most of the blogs are "pro-military".

Posted by: BohicaTwentyTwo at July 23, 2007 03:41 PM

A female contractor is badly burned by an IED in Iraq...and she is still there? still working? Her face was "melted" but her eyes, ears, and mouth were not damaged enough so she could just keep on working? What a remarkable recovery. Makes reporter Bob Woodruff look like a wuss. Good thing he came home so those mean soldiers couldn't make fun of him. I could belive they could have made fun of her if she was just ugly, but this?, knowing the next IED could be going off in their face? Or perhaps the fist of the beefy seargent sitting at the next table. This stuff is only for the people pre-disposed to belive it in the first place.

Posted by: G. Scott at July 23, 2007 04:02 PM

G Scott, you are entirely correct. The people who printed it wanted to believe it.

Posted by: Matt Sanchez at July 23, 2007 04:11 PM

Bob, I have some bad news.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at July 23, 2007 05:15 PM

Sounds like Eve Fairbanks is doing double duty at The New Republic. Google on "Fairbanksing" to see what I mean.

Posted by: Guy Montag at July 23, 2007 06:22 PM

I will personally vouch for the veracity of the Scott Thomas stories.

Posted by: Jesse MacBeth at July 23, 2007 07:34 PM

At "The Plank," commenter GinaRenee linked to a brief story (reg. req'd) in the 7/24/07 NYT.

--begin excerpt--

[Mr. Foer] said that he had met the writer and that he knows with “near certainty” that he is, in fact, a soldier.

--end excerpt--

Near certainty.

Posted by: AMac at July 23, 2007 09:37 PM

Humorously, the commenting software's antispam filter wouldn't let me post a longer quote from Mr. Foer from that article.


Posted by: AMac at July 23, 2007 09:46 PM

[BohicaTwentyTwo at July 23, 2007 03:41 PM]

There was a comment at The Plank early on that I thought very good, Bohica. It was this one (#9):

posted by Fithian on 2007-07-20 20:12:38

Posted by: Dusty at July 23, 2007 09:51 PM

Here is another question for TNR: Do you plan to publish articles by Scott Thomas in the future? If not, why not?

Posted by: pete Brown at July 23, 2007 10:17 PM

[Posted by: AMac at July 23, 2007 09:37 PM]

Amac, it seems weird to me that, 1) Scott Thomas is an "active duty soldier in Iraq doing 20-hour active combat missions" and 2) He [Foer] said that he had met the writer and that he knows with "near certainty" that he is, in fact, a soldier.

(to be continued)

Posted by: Dusty at July 23, 2007 10:22 PM

(rest after spam filter testing)

I'd say obviously that Foer does not know him as a friend or acquaintance because it's only a "near certainty". So he only knows of him but did meet him. Did he know of him before he met him? If so, how and by who? But more importantly, is when did he meet him. Before Thomas left for Iraq or did Foer go to Iraq to meet him? Maybe neither but so as to not leave any possibility unconsidered, did Foer meet Thomas by online video hookup?

Maybe the last is Foer's "near certainty". I hope so, because I doubt very much that Foer went to Iraq to meet Thomas and if I were Foer I wouldn't want to live through the effort of explaining that he met the guy sending TNR these dispatches before he left for Iraq.

Posted by: Dusty at July 23, 2007 10:24 PM


The narrative isn't holding together so well at this point. Mr. Foer seems to be trying to avoid the First Rule of Holes, but the pressure to say something seems to make that more difficult for him.

Yeah, "Fithian's" comment #9 at The Plank lists many of the things that the Non-Pajama-Clad ought to have done in this case... prior to publication. Obviously they didn't, or we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Especially galling for a highbrow magazine that's been repeatedly pwned on this very subject. How many lives do you get... fewer than nine, I expect. Averting the credibility plunge must be what the publisher and editors are wracking their brains about tonight.

Well, TNR still has some great book reviews, and essays from the likes of Paul Berman. They don't require fact-checking, anyway. At least not as much.

Posted by: AMac at July 23, 2007 10:42 PM

I cover the psychology involved here:

Posted by: John Ray at July 24, 2007 02:49 AM