Monday 10 December 2007

Iraq through the eyes of soldiers: 'a fraught project'?

An American soldier who wrote articles for The New Republic Magazine has had his articles completely retracted after months of speculation in the blogopshere and in the mainstream media about the accuracy of his accounts.

For a brief overview of the saga you can click here. But in this post I'd like to discuss the problems these events raise for milblogging.

Near the end of an article for The New Republic magazine, editor Franklin Foer says this:
"Beauchamp's writings had originally appealed to us because we wanted to publish a soldier's introspections. We still believe in this journalistic mission, especially as the number of reporters embedded in Iraq dwindles. But, as these months of controversy have shown, telling the story of what is happening in Iraq through a soldier's eyes is a fraught project. The more we dug into Beauchamp's writings, the more clear it became that we might have been in the realm of war stories, a genre notoriously rife with embellishment."
Although Beauchamp was publishing through a magazine, his accounts are little different in style to what you find on many milblogs. One of the advantages of the blogging phenomenon was supposed to be access to first-hand accounts without the interference of the mainstream media or other sources.

But how useful can it possibly be if the account is made up, or at best factually inaccurate, and how can we as readers spot the errors?

Beauchamp wasn't a journalist. He was surprised when the TNR came back to him and made such a fuss about whether one of the incidents he described happened in Kuwait or in Iraq.
Here's what Foer said:
"...we finally had the opportunity to ask Beauchamp, without any of his supervisors on the line, about how he could mistake a dining hall in Kuwait for one in Iraq. He told us he considered the detail to be "mundane" given the far more horrific events he had witnessed. That's not a convincing explanation."
It certainly isn't. But an understandable one if you have no training. For Beauchamp, the difference between Iraq and Kuwait was negligible. For a trained journalist, it's a fundamental error - the sort any good journalist would try to completely eradicate.

Milbloggers helped bring the Beauchamp accounts down but where does it leave milblogging? How do we know that milblogs aren't filled with similar errors?

Can we rely on the milblogging community to sift out the chaff?
Do we not need good, trained embedded journalists after all or are they just as error-prone as bloggers?


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