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July 25, 2007

Clarification: I Too Have "Near Certainity" "Scott Thomas" Is A Soldier

In case it wasn't clear, which it almost certainly wasn't. This post may seem like a ripoff of Allah's, but it's not quite. I got the same emails and tips and had been meaning to write a similar post. For what it's worth, here's my take on this.

Greyhawk sends this email:

Some time ago I advised folks not to focus on whether Jamil Hussein was actually an Iraqi police officer and instead concentrate on the accuracy of his claims. I'll now suggest avoiding the argument as to whether Thomas is or isn't a soldier. The exhumation of a graveyard has already been corroborated, that alone leads me to believe Thomas is indeed a soldier here. (This certainly doesn't prove a soldier pranced around wearing a "skull cap".) There probably have been dogs struck and killed by vehicles. There probably have been people insulted in DFACs. And there are assholes in the US Army. The New Republic wants people to believe those assholes are typical soldiers. I suggest my bottom line comments from my first take on the story might be useful. ...

Of course, if this guy is a soldier, he's going to face some repercussions for his actions. Although that will be for the behavior he confesses to, the media will try to construct a fiction that he's being persecuted for speaking out. Meanwhile, those who now claim Thomas isn't a soldier will perhaps find themselves described as naive, or part of a cover-up. Those who want to be "in front" of this story might prepare for that.

All true. I know from this blog that it's very hard to fake being a veteran. Trolls have tried it. But real vets just ask three or four simple questions and the fakers are unable to answer. "What's your M.O.S.?" seems to be a killer.

I still have no idea what an M.O.S. is, but I know all real military guys do and I know that almost all fakers don't. I can now spot a faker just by asking "What's your M.O.S.?" No idea what the answer should be, but the fakers won't have a good idea either.

There's a line from a Douglas Adams book -- the first Dirk Gently book -- that runs like this: "You are a very clever man, Mr. Gently. But like many other very clever men, you mistake everyone else for an idiot." The left, I think, makes this mistake all the time; innate intelligence being to their religion what virtue and piety are to standard religions, they are almost compelled to believe that the Unbelievers are lacking in it. They make this mistake all the time, and it usually results in their embarrassment or defeat.

On the right we make that mistake less often, or at least try not to. While I may call Franklin Foer an "idiot" or "moron" (though I'm not sure I have, but it wouldn't be out of character), of course he is neither. He's a 31 year old editor in chief of a small but influential policy magazine. His young staffers are all stars of semi-wonkish opinion journalism. The collective brainpower at TNR is nothing to be scoffed at, even if they occasional demonstrate the thought-patterns of perfect buffoons.

My focus on Foer's statement that he has "near certainty" that "Scott Thomas" is a soldier isn't intended to suggest it's terribly likely "Scott Thomas" is not a soldier. He almost certainly is -- and serving in Iraq, to boot.


How do I know this? Well, it proceeds from the fact that Franklin Foer is not, in fact, actually a moron, and further, that I assume he would like to still have a career when he reaches the advanced age of 32. Ergo, the details and bona fides "Scott Thomas" provided to him were probably pretty strong -- enough to provide him "near certainty" "Thomas" was a soldier, and probably enough to give skeptics "near certainty" he is a soldier, too.

The problem I have is this: "Near certainty" is not actual certainty, and I'm afraid in this case, near certainty is required.

Furthermore, if Foer only has "near certainty" the man is even a soldier, I think it stands to reason he has a considerably lower amount of certainty for what "Scott Thomas" is actually reporting.

Yes, it's fine and all that Foer questioned "Scott Thomas" enough to determine with "near certainty" he was a soldier at all (and indeed I'm nearly certain he's right on that score). This hardly proves what Thomas reports is true, and, further, if the most elemental fact here is only known "with near certainty," obviously TNR cannot possibly be verifying any of his distpatches with any greater certainty.

Which is evidence of great journalistic malpractice. I'm a blogger, and even I know better than to run various eye-catching, juicy tips in my email box that I believe "with near certainty." Even if Foer gets very lucky here, and it turns out that he eventually gets verification for each of Thomas' claims, does that absolve him from running these pieces, as he did, before having gotten any sort of confirmation on any of it at all?

If I claim, based on a tip, that, say, Robert Byrd "enjoys a colorful and far-ranging sex life," without actually confirming such a scurrilous rumor, and yet I get immensely lucky and three weeks later he's discovered fellating a marmoset, will the MSM give me a Pulitzer? I doubt it-- I didn't actually "know" what I claimed to have "known" when I wrote it, did I?

I got lucky, in that scenario. I passed off a very sketchy rumor I had no firm idea was true or not in order to get attention, and I just got lucky that my complete stab in the dark was later confirmed by pictures of a former Klansman blowing a small South American monkey.

I thought the standard practice was confirm first, publish second. Or it was, until the past five years have so radicalized the media they're willing to invert the usual order of things if it means "getting Bush."

If Foer's investigation now turns up confirmation, mostly, for "Scott Thomas'" claims, does that mean he wasn't negligent in running them before doing such basic work?

This leads to the "MFA" theory mentioned in Allah's post -- an editor writes that he finds "Scott Thomas'" writings to be of the sort written by MFA writing-course grad students who fancy themselves tough guys, and postulates that this is just a grad student pretending to be a soldier.

It reads nicely as a theory, but the guy seems to miss an obvious possibility: Sometimes actual soldiers with pretensions of being the next Phil Caputo may choose to ape that particular style, too. One can both be a soldier and also imitate that zero affect, thousand-yard-stare style one's read in hundred war journals/novels of war. Jim Webb was in Vietnam, after all, and he aped that style himself ("He flipped him over and put his penis in his mouth," etc.).

The guy claims that that the reason he thinks this is a pure faker is that he spends so much time describing sights and sounds -- stuff, he says, which can be easily paraphrased from accounts written by real veterans -- but not so much time describing the "vulgar senses" of touch, smell, taste, and, um, "kinesthetics." I don't know his reason for asserting the first two can be plagiarized from real accounts but the latter ones cannot, and I also know that the first two are more powerful, anyway. I know it's trendy to say that it's the senses other than sight that make a narrative evocative and compelling, but I still have to go with the common-sense rule of Fritz Leiber, as regards descriptions in literature: "The sense of sight is worth more than the other four combined." As it is in life, so it is in fiction.

I don't doubt this editor's bona fides or experience; if he says this reads like a crappy wannabe-tough-guy grad student's creative writing final paper, I believe it. But the army allows those sorts of people to serve as well, at least under a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

There's also a tendency that must be resisted to dismiss "Scott Thomas'" claims purely on the basis of the notion that "Our boys would never do such a thing." W ell, of course they would, at least some of them. There are 160,000 fighters in Iraq, and the law of large numbers says there must be fair number of borderline pscyopaths and run-of-the-mill assholes among them.

The problem is in the details -- many unconvincing, some difficult to believe.

For example, "Scott Thomas'" misidentification of a fairly commonplace children's cemetery as a "mass grave." If he was actually there, wouldn't he have known it was just a cemetery and not one of "Saddam's dumping grounds" at all? This whole episode stinks of second- or third-hand telephone-game information. Either he was there and deliberately misreported the cemetery as a "mass grave" for dramatic effect, or he simply heard about it from a friend and misreported it because he didn't know any better. Either way -- he was there and lied; he was not there and lied -- he lied.

I don't disbelieve that a soldier might play a macabre game with human remains; after all, medical students are supposed to treat their cadavers with respect, but once you've seen a couple of dozen corpses, many of the built-in taboos begin breaking down, and you just start seeing them as objects. I'm quite sure that a lot of sick pranks are played with cadavers' eyeballs and internal organs in med school; but the students playing games with dead things wouldn't view it as "sick." Those of us who have not seen piles of corpses might, but to med students they're just great opportunities for Wacky Student Hijinks.

I have trouble, however, imagining a soldier was able to fit a child's skull upon his own, and further, beneath a tight-fitting helmet, and further further, was permitted to prance around with his skull-cap, as it were, for an entire day without anyone telling him, "Joke's over, put the goddamn thing down already."

Do I think a few drivers might run down dogs? Sure... if it were possible. Dogs aren't so much fast as quick; you can catch a dog (at least an average dog) in a straight-line run. But of course dogs don't run in straight lines; the moment they hear footsteps, they make a turn of such a tight radius you blow right past them. Anyone who's played with a dog who doesn't understand he's supposed to give you the tennis ball back after retrieving it knows all about the incredible turning radius of dogs.

And yet a lumbering thirty-ton vehicle is able to catch these dogs? Really? And catch them moreover in the vehicle's massive blind spot to the right? Really?

Finally, as so many others have pointed out, it's not terribly believable that soldiers would loudly mock an injured female soldier's IED-burned/scarred face with the intention she would hear it. Put aside the moral horror of this, and the unlikelihood of soldiers mocking a fellow soldier for injuries they themselves might endure the following week. As many milbloggers have pointed out -- How on earth did they not know she wasn't a superior officer? How could they mock someone viciously for her facial scarring without even determining that she was not, in fact, a captain who would immediately send them all to the brig?

Again, these last two episodes have that "I heard this from this guy who heard it from this guy" quality to them -- they sound superficially plausible, until one starts thinking about them. If one were actually present for the Great Iraqi Dog Run-Down, say, one might appreciate that it's very hard for a slow, clumsy vehicle to run down a dog. But if one wasn't there, of course, one is free to imagine the scenario any way one wishes.

It seems that "Scott Thomas" got himself a nice little gig at TNR -- a possible stepping stone to bigger and better things, like a literary agent and first-time-novelist's advance of $100,000 -- but he had one problem: He had nothing actually interesting to report. The routine relocation of bodies from a cemetery to a new resting place wasn't going to get him that advance, after all.

So, as any budding writer would do, he used the power of imagination to make it all seem much more interesting than it actually was.

And TNR fell for it, of course. They wanted the prestige of having an actual reporter on the ground in Baghdad, and of course they wanted the stories coming from that correspondent to be as horrific and morale-killing as possible. They wanted to believe, and so they did.

And "Scott Thomas" made the mistake that Dirk Gently did. He's probably a fairly clever guy -- and, like most fairly clever liberal guys, he assumes everyone else is stupid, and that no one is quite smart enough to figure out he's fabricating, embellishing, and flat-out lying.

Thomas? Mr. Scott Thomas?

I'm A Cold Splash Of Reality. It's time we... talked.


Sherlock Said It Earlier: I remember him writing this and it was a good point then and a good point now.

That is what allowed the AP to skate on Jamail Hussein - the goalposts got moved to whether he existed, not whether what he said happened. So then they pointed at a guy and said "that's him", and even though he wasn't named JH, and denied being him, they more or less got a pass on it with help from their MSM buddies.

And of course the "Burning Six" story was retracted, stealthily, through a series of "walk-backs" making less and less dramatic claims. I believe in their last report they said they had "strong confirmation" that a goat-arbitrager named Ahmad burned his moustache on a Korean knock-off Zippo.

Forgot to mention that. Allah mentions it, too. Care must be taken to not allow TNR to sucker us into a mere debate over whether "Scott Thomas" is actually in Baghdad. He probably is. In fact, I have "near certainty" on this score.

For the rest... they'll have to confirm what should have been confirmed before publishing. But they cannot simply be allowed to prove "Scott Thomas" is a soldier and claim that ends the debate.

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posted by Ace at 01:57 PM

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