The Curious Incident of the Dogs in Baghdad

Megan McArdle asks: "Did John Quiggin just write that it doesn’t matter whether the New Republic ran a false story?" The short answer is ‘no’. The long answer is over the fold.

The whole thing starts with a story about dogs dying in Baghdad.

What false story?

Last month The New Republic published ‘Shock Troops‘, a story by American soldier Scott Beauchamp. Beauchamp related a number of anecdotes about his experiences in Iraq including this one:

I know another private who really only enjoyed driving Bradley Fighting Vehicles because it gave him the opportunity to run things over. He took out curbs, concrete barriers, corners of buildings, stands in the market, and his favorite target: dogs. Occasionally, the brave ones would chase the Bradleys, barking at them like they bark at trash trucks in America–providing him with the perfect opportunity to suddenly swerve and catch a leg or a tail in the vehicle’s tracks. He kept a tally of his kills in a little green notebook that sat on the dashboard of the driver’s hatch. One particular day, he killed three dogs. He slowed the Bradley down to lure the first kill in, and, as the diesel engine grew quieter, the dog walked close enough for him to jerk the machine hard to the right and snag its leg under the tracks. The leg caught, and he dragged the dog for a little while, until it disengaged and lay twitching in the road. A roar of laughter broke out over the radio. Another notch for the book. The second kill was a straight shot: A dog that was lying in the street and bathing in the sun didn’t have enough time to get up and run away from the speeding Bradley. Its front half was completely severed from its rear, which was twitching wildly, and its head was still raised and smiling at the sun as if nothing had happened at all.

More than a few people were offended and some doubted that the story was true. The Weekly Standard’s Michael Goldfarb launched a campaign. He encouraged military bloggers to fact check the story:

…we believe that the best chance for getting at the truth is likely to come from the combined efforts of the blogosphere, which has, in the past, proven adept at determining the reliability of such claims. To that end we’d encourage the milblogging community to do some digging of their own, and individual soldiers and veterans to come forward with relevant information–either about the specific events or their plausibility in general.

As Quiggin writes, "The pro-war lobby has worn out dozens of keyboards seeking to discredit Beauchamp, his story and the very possibility of running over dogs in an armored vehicle." One blogger even contacted the manufacturer of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle to find out whether Beauchamp’s story was plausible given the vehicle’s design. And Beauchamp himself was attacked as a liberal activist who had worked for Howard Dean and "marched with pro-choice demonstrators in 2004."

Quiggin doesn’t care

Quiggin isn’t interested in Bradley Fighting Vehicles or whether they can be used to crush dogs by jerking them sharply to the right. If it turns out that Beauchamp made the whole thing up, Quiggin still isn’t interested. What he does care about is that "the Iraq war has been a catastrophic failure, and that US media coverage, far from being overly pessimistic, failed to alert the US public to these disasters as they unraveled."

And his point is…?

Quiggin is complaining that pro-war bloggers and opinion writers are obsessed with fact-checking stories that challenge their view of the world but completely uninterested in doing the same for stories which support conclusions they like. His argument is that, if they cared really about truth, they wouldn’t be so ready to suspend their scepticism when they come across a story that says that the war is going well.

As an example, Quiggin refers to a story by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack which supported the idea that the surge was working. Where was the scepticism then? Where was the obsessive fact checking? If Beauchamp can’t be trusted because he has supported liberal causes in the past, how can O’Hanlon and Pollack be trusted when "when everyone knows they are not only consistent war critics but (shudder!) Democrats."

According to Quiggin, the response to Beauchamp’s story has nothing to do with truth or a concern about journalistic integrity — it’s about politics. He says that the wingnutosphere’s real complaint is that "true or false, material like this is bad for the cause and shouldn’t be printed." Quiggin is questioning the motivation behind the obsessive fact checking and scepticism.

John Quiggin — enemy of truth?

Quiggin makes no comment about the New Republic’s decision to publish Beauchamp’s stories. He doesn’t say — or even imply — that it’s ok for magazines to publish stories that aren’t true.

And it’s odd for McArdle to suggest that Quiggin doesn’t care about truth. His post on Beauchamp includes a complaint against something he calls "right-wing postmodernism" — the idea that facts are constructed by ideologies and can be discredited by uncovering the writer’s political agenda. American columnist EJ Dionne put it this way:

Today’s conservative activists have become the new postmodernists. They shift attention away from the truth or falsity of specific facts and allegations — and move the discussion to the motives of the journalists and media organizations putting them forward.

Quiggin has been complaining about this so-called right-wing postmodernism for years. But in this context introducing it into the debate just confuses the issue. While some bloggers have tried to discredit Beauchamp by uncovering his political allegiances, most have focused on the truth value of his anecdotes. Quiggin’s real complaint is that they undertaking this delicate speck-removing operation with a large log in their eye. The war is a failure and the surge isn’t working. That’s a big truth. Whether a Bradley Fighting Vehicle driver killed three dogs in one day is not.

How did it all get so complicated?

Picture credit: Wingnut signal inspired by Gavin at http://www.sadlyno.com/archives/6877.html

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Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Great post Don.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
14 years ago

I agree.

The question is whether we should accept that politics must eventually model itself on the adversarial court system. Truth matters to the voter (juror), but all the information comes from advocates whose only interest, as far as truth goes, is in discrediting the other side. Will competition between these advocates necessarily drive the truth out into the open?

jimmythespiv
jimmythespiv
14 years ago

This just shows that the Quiggler is partisan and is prepared to overlook solidly based fax in order to illuminate political views that he likes. Sort of like Terry Lane, really.

Don Quixote
14 years ago

In fairness, I don’t think that political postmodernism is solely located in those that hail from the right. There certainly seems to be a stronger drive towards it on the right (although I’m a lefty, so my vision may be blinkered), but it is definitely present in left-wingers as well.

Down and Out of S
14 years ago

This is Iraq after Abu Gharib and Haditha and umpteen suicide bombers. At this point, whether a Bradley Fighting Vehicle driver killed dogs or not seems such a trivial question for the right to pursue. It’s just like the Jamil Hussein controversy.