Cindy Sheehan, mother of a soldier who was killed in Iraq, emerged on the American political scene two years ago. Distraught and unstable, she was shamelessly exploited by opponents of George W. Bush and the war while such exploitation seemed to pay political benefits. When she became an embarrassment, she, like others before her, was tossed onto the trash heap of history by her progressive minders.
Sheehan was useful to the antiwar left in a particular way. As Jonathan Cohn put it in the September 12, 2005, New Republic, "Sheehan's value isn't as a barometer of public opinion or as a source of foreign policy wisdom. It's as proof of one very simple point: that a person can criticize the war and still support the troops."
It's unclear that Sheehan was particularly interested in "supporting the troops"--unless one means by that lamenting the fate of the troops as victims. The fact that relatively few soldiers see themselves as victims, the fact that few families understand their loved ones' service and sacrifices in that light--that didn't matter. What mattered to the left was that it was dangerous politically not to "support the troops." Of course the antiwar left hated what the troops were doing, fighting the enemy in Iraq, and they hated the troops' goal, victory in Iraq. So "supporting the troops" meant feeling sorry for them, or pretending to--something antiwar politicians and media did with great hand-wringing and hoopla.
With the ongoing progress of the surge, and the obvious fact that the vast majority of the troops want to fight and win the war, the "support-the-troops-but-oppose-what-they're-doing" position has become increasingly untenable. How can you say with a straight face that you support the troops while advancing legislation that would undercut their mission and strengthen their enemies?
You can't. So those on the cutting edge of progressive opinion are beginning to give up on even pretending to support the troops. Instead, they now slander the troops.
Two progressive magazines have taken complementary approaches in this effort. In its July 30 issue, the Nation has a 24-page article based on interviews with 50 Iraq veterans. The piece allegedly reveals "disturbing patterns of behavior by American troops in Iraq"--indeed, it claims that the war has "led many troops to declare an open war on all Iraqis." Needless to say, the anecdotal evidence in the article comes nowhere close to supporting this claim. There are a few instances of out-of-control behavior, some routine fog-of-war and brutality-of-war incidents, and much that is simply trivial. The picture is unpleasant, as one would expect--but it comes nowhere close to living up to the authors' billing: "The war the vets described is a dark and even depraved enterprise."
Since the Nation has held this view of every American war (except when we were fighting side-by-side with Stalin's Soviet Union), and loves nothing more than accounts of American war crimes, its story is no surprise. At least they interviewed real soldiers on the record. The New Republic, in its July 23 issue, takes a different tack. Its slander of American soldiers appears to be fiction presented as fact, behind a convenient screen of anonymity.
A column entitled "Shock Troops" is said to be the work of "Scott Thomas"--"the pseudonym for a soldier currently serving in Baghdad." "Thomas" colorfully describes three sets of alleged misdeeds he and his buddies committed in Baghdad: They humiliate a woman in a military dining hall who has been disfigured in an IED explosion (the woman "wore an unrecognizable tan uniform, so I couldn't really tell whether she was a soldier or a civilian contractor"); they discover human remains and one private spends a day and night playing around with a child's skull ("which even had chunks of hair"), amusing his fellow soldiers; and one private routinely drives a Bradley Fighting Vehicle recklessly and uses the vehicle to kill stray dogs.
My colleague Michael Goldfarb raised questions about this account in a July 18 post on THE WEEKLY STANDARD website, asking for assistance from soldiers and veterans in assessing the truth of the stories told by "Scott Thomas." Within a day, dozens of active duty soldiers and veterans had come forward to point out errors, implausibility, and indeed the well-nigh-impossibility (in the case of the Bradley) of what was claimed. The editors of the New Republic provided to Goldfarb a couple of allegedly corroborating details--for example, the name of the Forward Operating Base, FOB Falcon, where the taunting of the badly disfigured female IED victim was said to have taken place. Soldiers who served at the base have come forward to say no such woman has been seen there. As we go to press on July 20, the New Republic has said they are investigating their own story, and the mainstream media seem to be hoping against hope that they won't have to cover yet another embarrassing episode of journalistic malpractice.
We at THE WEEKLY STANDARD are well aware that editors make mistakes. We have made our share. 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. They sense that history is progressing away from them--that these soldiers, fighting courageously in a just cause, could still win the war, that they are proud of their service, and that they will be future leaders of this country. They are not "Shock Troops." They are our best and bravest, fighting for all of us against a brutal enemy in a difficult and frustrating war. They are the 9/11 generation. The left slanders them. We support them. More than that, we admire them.