For a month, the veracity of The New Republic’s Scott Thomas Beauchamp, the Army private who has been sending dispatches from the front in Iraq, has been in dispute. His latest “Baghdad Diarist” (July 13) recounted three incidents of American soldiers engaged in acts of unusual callousness. The stories were meant to shock. And they did.
In one, the driver of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle amused himself by running over dogs, crippling and killing them. In another, a fellow soldier wore on his head and under his helmet a part of a child’s skull dug from a grave. The most ghastly tale, however, was about the author himself mocking a woman that he said he saw “nearly every time I went to dinner in the chow hall at my base in Iraq.” She was horribly disfigured, half her face melted by a roadside bomb. As she sat nearby, Beauchamp said loudly, “I love chicks that have been intimate — with IEDs. It really turns me on — melted skin, missing limbs, plastic noses.” As his mess hall buddy doubled over in laughter, Beauchamp continued: “In fact, I was thinking of getting some girls together and doing a photo shoot. Maybe for a calendar? ‘IED Babes.’” The woman fled. [...]
[Trouble is,] it all happened before Beauchamp arrived in Iraq. But the whole point of that story was to demonstrate how the war had turned an otherwise sensitive soul into a monster. Indeed, in the precious, highly self-conscious literary style of an aspiring writer trying out for a New Yorker gig, Beauchamp follows the terrible tale of his cruelty to the disfigured woman by asking, “Am I a monster?” And answering with satisfaction that the very fact that he could ask this question after (the reader has been led to believe) having been so hardened and brutalized by war, shows that there is a kernel of humanity left in him.
But oh, how much was lost. In the past, you see, he was a sensitive soul with “compassion for those with disabilities.” In a particularly treacly passage, he tells us he once worked in a summer camp with disabled children and in college helped a colleague with cerebral palsy. Then this delicate compassionate youth is transformed into an unfeeling animal by war.
Except that it is now revealed that the mess hall incident happened before he even got to the war. On which point, the whole story — and the whole morality tale it was meant to suggest — collapses.
And it makes the rest of the narrative banal and uninteresting. It’s the story of a disgusting human being, a mocker of the disfigured, who then goes to Iraq, and, as such human beings are wont to do, finds the company of other such human beings who kill dogs for sport, wear the bones of dead children on their heads, and find amusement in mocking the disfigured.