Wednesday, July 25, 2007


War Stories

John Barnes speculates about the true identity and motivations of The New Republic’s fabulist Scott Thomas at the Amazon Blog using a rather unusual tool: semiotic analysis. Barnes also offers valuable insight into the likely vulnerability of Franklin Foer, editor of TNR, to fabulist tales and other propaganda with which he may sympathize.

I am among those MILBLOGGERS who took up Michael Goldfarb’s challenge to consider the likely accuracy of Thomas’s slanders against the military. Military veterans see the small inaccuracies and great incongruities of Thomas’s unlikely accounts compared to our experiences in Iraq, and with our fellow soldiers. Thomas’s accounts just don’t pass the smell test. Barnes’s explanation of semiotic analysis and the results of his analysis give analytic basis to what many of us already believe: Thomas is a phony.

Here’s an extended excerpt from Barnes’s analysis:

Anyway, the particular variant I do, which has considerable commercial application in advertising and marketing and so forth, is statistical semiotics.  I get paid to use various semiotic methods to encode enormous databases of texts (e.g. samples of hundreds or thousands of blog entries) into a processable form, and then use various kinds of math to find patterns and regularities in the way that all those messages make meaning, use signs, alter significance, and so forth.  (The difference between a statistical semiotician and a regular semiotician is roughly the difference between an epidemologist or social psychologist and a doctor or counselor; there are also FrancoGerman types who call themselves semiologists, who are more like Freudian shrinkoanalysts or Tarot card readers, who helped to make sure semiotic studies would be isolated within the academy, irrelevant to life as lived, and unknown to the lay public except for occasional jokes, and I fart in their general direction).
So to sum up the angle from which I am coming at this problem: I have seen immense heaps of writing by writers at the beginnings of their careers as writers, and I have spent much of my working life staring into vast incoherent swarms of signs and learning to see the patterns in them.
Based on all that, here's how I read the text that is so far the only direct evidence most of us have about "Scott Thomas":
The text has the following characteristics –
1) Writing focused on a parade of cruelty and suffering.
2)   A rigorously flat affect that refuses any sort of emotional engagement – stone-faced reportage of the sort that bad thrillers and suspense movies have taught us to associate with the mental process of sociopaths.
3) Enormous sensitivity to physical detail; a great concern with writing down what things look and sound like, to some extent the things that are apt to upset some readers' stomachs, but also in general.  (As an agency reader I have seen writing of this kind in which literally more than 500 words are expended on describing drinking coffee).
4) Physical detail is mildly slanted toward the refined senses (sight and sound) rather than the vulgar senses (smell, taste, touch, and kinesthesia); the refined-sense details tend to be more specific, and the vulgar-sense details tend to be alluded to more than specifically named.  (I think this is caused by a lack of actual experience; in actual experience the vulgar senses are the strong ones, but in library research the refined senses are the ones easier to paraphrase to avoid being caught in plagiarism).
5) Disinterest and senselessness with regard to any emotional connection between people.
6) Lack of signs indicating what the intended point of any anecdote or individual story may be ("effacement of the author.")
7) Heavy use of brief, choppy, transition-less SVOs (subject-verb-object, the most basic kind of English declarative sentences), without much variation either for rhythm or for nuance, as in bad Hemingway parody or Raymond Carver or Chuck Palahniuk's fiction when either of them is badly off his game.
8) Raymond Chandler-style macabre wisecracks as the crescendo of a run of physical detail.
9) A peculiar cop-out in reported encounters with people who might be offended by the viewpoint character: the viewpoint character (who is of course the reported version of "Scott Thomas," as reported by "Scott Thomas," who reports himself to be the same soldier) is only rarely confronted with any reaction to his callousness.  In the type of writing I am talking about here, mostly other characters in the narrative are struck dumb by the narrator's callousness and stare off into space.  Occasionally (not in Thomas's text, except for the burn-victim woman) they may show small signs of emotional distress.  The narrator thus gets a free pass on sociopathic behavior, and the narrative proceeds without empathy and hence with only the viewpoint character feeling psychologically credible.  The narrator is always left with what is called, by semioticians, the "presence of an absence" in his reported feelings – after the victim or witnesses are out of the field of view there is an absolute emotional stillness in which a cold chuckle or an ostentatious yawn is implied but unstated.
I see manuscripts with all nine of these symptoms – you might think of it as one syndrome with nine common symptoms – about a half dozen times per year, generally from agents rather than as offers to book-doctor them since the creators usually have no money and the books have only limited commercial potential.  And they all come from pretty much the same sort of person:
He (it is always a he) is an MFA candidate or recent graduate at one of the big-name creative writing programs in the USA, sometimes in poetry, usually in fiction, and increasingly in "creative non-fiction" (the litsy byline that "feature writing" took on when it moved uptown, became significant, and stopped having lunch with its old buds at the newspapers).  Usually he is in his mid-twenties and is probably among the bright stars in the tiny constellation (and complicated pecking order) that MFA programs create.  His particular niche in that social ecology will be the Big Talent With Big Balls, a role that requires some claim to a "dangerous" or "edgy" past, meaning some connection to interpersonal violence and to having seen some gruesome sights.  (Being recently back from combat duty in Iraq, particularly if the young man is a reservist who will be going back for another hitch there, would certainly fit the bill nicely – at various times I have known such characters to claim to be motorcycle gang members, to have smuggled cocaine into the US in small boats, and to have competed as Ultimate Fighting professionals).
He will have a fetish for macho props and activities like guns and motorcycles or hunting and motor racing.  Generally he'll have a drinking problem, or at least give a very good exhibionistic performance of having a drinking problem.  (One teacher once said to me, "Some of these guys seem to think that if they can't write like F. Scott Fitzgerald, at least they can drink like him.")  They swagger through their programs in a haze of raw manliness, sometimes hang around for a year or two afterward in the same town, and then vanish into the "I could've been a great writer" pose somewhere.
I can't say that all of them are fakes and pretenders in their macho credentials; I haven't met all of them and I don't want to.  I can say that every single time I have been in a position to find out, the "used to be a cop," "I was a Green Beret," "I was a roof man for the Cleveland Fire Department," etc. etc. etc. has turned out to be a fake.  Not that there are not guys with adventurous and romantic backgrounds around writing programs or in professional writing – I've known, among others, highly talented writers who were one-time paramedics, professional boxers, police, private eyes, back-country prospectors, and so forth.  
But none of those guys wrote like "Scott Thomas". (For that matter they don't write much like each other, either).

I find Barnes’s analysis convincing, his introduction to semiotic analysis compelling, and his writing very entertaining. He may well have his target spot on, and I think he’ll be proven right.

I wonder what my writing would reveal in semiotic analysis. As readers here know, I am a 1SG who went on a dozen convoys (not many, none resulting in IED or other combat), experienced the rather mundane random mortar or rocket on the FOB (only two incidents caused injuries in 10 months), and otherwise served in a distinctly non-combat role. Given my leadership position, concern for OPSEC, and desire to contribute something authentic, I stuck to profiles of the men and women around me (non-combat).

I can see the temptation to gain audience or capture attention. I've seen it in some of the MILBLOGS, and over the least couple of years had my doubts about a couple.

In the same way that a young ideologue like Foer can blind himself to possible fakes, I think many in the MILBLOG or military communities overlook potential warning signs when military writers support the consensus view (pro-victory, pro-US, pro-military). We often fall for what we want to believe, don't we?

That said, most of the MILBLOGGERS write for ourselves, to capture our experiences, and maybe in a small way help write the first draft of whatever history will survive the politics. And phony creative writing pieces that slander the military in this particular way -- Vietnam era stereotypes -- are particularly offensive.

Since the story against the stories broke, many MILBLOGGERS have criticized TNR for running the clearly unsubstantiated stories from Thomas, as well as a related anti-war hit piece authored by The Nation.

I can’t dismiss the anti-war voices in The Nation piece, but I can quickly surmise that many of the soldiers interviewed are anti-war careerists, who have attached themselves to groups like Code Pink or Iraqi Veterans Against the War (IVAW). I can also state with absolute conviction that among those who make the most damning assertions about US military conduct have no first hand basis for their assertions.

Sergeant Geoffrey Millard is one such soldier who makes claims beyond his experience in The Nation piece. Millard was assigned to the Rear Operations Center (ROC), 42nd Infantry Division at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Speicher in Tikrit. I also served with the 42nd, I am familiar with the ROC at Speicher, and know two officers who served in the ROC during the same period as Millard, one of whom I would say I have a casual acquaintance (and great respect). I served as his First Sergeant for a brief period when he was the HHC Commander.

After redeployment, I had a chance to get reacquainted with spent some time explaining to me what his section did, how they interacted with the Division HQ and the other 42nd ID Commands. Among other duties, the ROC tracked the convoys that exited and/or entered the FOB. Their mission included the tracking of IEDs and VBIEDs in the Area of Operations, supervising the proper submission and quality control of convoy paperwork – there’s always paperwork for everything -- and keeping command and staff informed of recent trends, updated threat assessments, and so forth. SGT Millard served as a staff NCO in an administrative section in the rear – what combat soldiers would correctly (if harshly) ridicule as a “Fobbit.” (I was a Fobbit too, though I complete about a dozen convoys off the FOB.)

In The Nation piece, Millard even reinforces the obvious distance from which he offers criticism of our military, as the “clicker” for a Command Powerpoint presentation on an unfortunate checkpoint shooting of a family. His beef in that instance? That a Colonel, briefing staff officers and commanders at what sounds to be like a weekly Commander’s brief, made the comment that “If these fucking hajis learned to drive, this shit wouldn’t happen.”

If that passes for scandal to anti-war types, we’ve come quite a ways from My Li.

Based on what I know of the 42nd in Tikrit and our Command structure, the Colonel Millard uses as example for US military callousness is likely a Brigade Commander, most probably from Artillery or one of the Infantry Brigades. These were some no sh**, can the nicety type commanders. But discipline is discipline, they knew the public relations and “hearts and minds” importance of their missions, and took extraordinary effort to prevent the kinds of unfortunately incident briefed in Millard’s powerpoint slides. The fact itself that they briefed the incident in detail speaks volumes about how important the command viewed these setbacks, as setbacks, to be avoided however possible.

What Millard didn’t add to this little anecdote was what happened next, based on this incident and others like it in theater: revised Rules of Engagement, follow-up training and briefings by Commanders and NCOs, and changes in procedures for Convoy drivers, truck commanders (TCs), and gunners. I know, because our guys bitched like hell every time some incident or another caused yet another command directive: Wave them off (or for a while, throw small stones at windshields), point the barrel of the M2 at them, and lastly, fire a warning shot on the pavement in front of the vehicle.

Sometimes that meant the round glanced back into the engine block, disabling the vehicle entirely – not good, now you have a broken down vehicle in your way – or even into the vehicle and causing injuries to driver or passengers.

Iraqi drivers obey a coda of traffic laws known only unto themselves, if at all, in peacetime. Adding the stresses and threats of insurgents, VBIEDS, US and Coalition Military, Iraqi Army, and Iraqi Police into the mix, they only get worse. So yes, for local commanders, if the locals would exercise a little more care and prudence, Commanders at all levels wouldn’t have any such incidents for which soldier correction would be required.

Just as at our FOB (Danger) down the road about 20 kilometers, FOB Speicher received its share of mortar and rocket attacks, the overwhelming majority of which were completely ineffective without causing any injuries. Yet SGT Millard, endearing himself to his anti-war audiences, makes it out like some Vietnam redux, only worse, with “pops of machine gun fire and the bangs of mortar rounds exploding all hours of the day and night.”

Our FOB was tiny in comparison to the square mileage of Speicher, so the net effect of any rounds impacting this great big patch of desert with great amounts of open space had to be even less intimidating.

Look, we had soldiers who were spooked by what little we experienced at Danger. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting poor Millard can’t be suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) -- if not from close physical contact with Cindy Sheehan, then from whatever he witnessed at Speicher (or was told about, or heard about in FOB gossip). But I would bet a month’s wages that, pressed top back up his claims, Millard like most of the other voices The Nation selected, they “heard about this kind of sh** from lots of guys.” (Especially after making themselves celebrities in the anti-war industry.)

No doubt, there are many stories my colleague (the officer, not Millard) can share about what he saw in the ROC, about the difficulties he had in getting command to recognize IED trends and initiate effective interdiction, or about the infractions and violations of regulation or policies that are a part of every military throughout history. But in no way would he tolerate, nor would he be silent about, the kinds of abuses exaggerated in the Nation report.

The Nation can at least be credited with quoting actual military Veterans sharing their honest assessments of the war, albeit with a Nation-generated 9 to 1 anti-war weighting in viewpoints. TNR appears to have swallowed some rather outlandish tales full gulp, without so much as putting their Scott Thomas war stories in front of credible military experts for a sniff or two.

Also commenting:

Mackubin Thomas Owens at NRO:

In Iraq, we have seen evidence of the press’s predisposition to believe the worst about American soldiers in its coverage of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, and most recently Hadithah. It is now on display, not only in the TNR story, but also in “The Other War: Iraq Veterans Bear Witness“ in the July 30th issue of The Nation, which bills the Iraq war as “a dark and even depraved enterprise.” The article is based on interviews with some 50 Iraq war veterans and purportedly describes “disturbing patterns of behavior by American troops in Iraq.” According to the piece, the war has “led many troops to declare an open war on all Iraqis.”
I have news for the editors of The Nation: War, especially the sort of war we are waging in Iraq — a war in which a man or boy who waves at American troops during the day may plant an IED at night — can desensitize even the most decent individual. History proves that in the absence of leadership and enforced rules of engagement, war can lead one to the depths of moral depravity. But no military in history has attempted to limit civilian casualties and collateral damage to the extent that the U.S. military has. The Nation lays civilian casualties in Iraq at the feet of the US military. But this is nonsense. The very fact that Sunni sheiks in al Anbar province and elsewhere are turning against al Qaeda indicates that they know who kills indiscriminately, even if The Nation doesn’t.

John Podhoretz at The Corner:

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that if what's in there is in any way true, TNR would know it by now. Or maybe TNR is just too busy getting the New York Times to change its copy around multiple times on the question of the epistemological certainty of Editor Franklin Foer's knowledge of whether Scott Thomas is actually a soldier.

Laughing Wolf at Blackfive:

Given the stonewalling and such going on with TNR (and supporters), I am not ready to call check fire on this one. Frankly, I think we need to arclight TNR and Scott Thomas.

Dean Barnett at Townhall:

I’M NOT SAYING THAT SOMEONE who has only written for a living can’t produce important and brilliant work. But a professional writer who thinks he knows everything? That’s as useless a creature that has ever wandered the earth.

There are reasons that guys like Andy Ferguson and Malcolm Gladwell are writers that other writers look up to. Ferguson and Gladwell learn about their subjects inside and out. They look at things critically and skeptically. Each one of their projects looks like they’ve jammed 10 pounds of reporting into a 5 pound bag. They don’t go into a project assuming they know everything there is to know, and that their job is to merely “explicate” the obvious to the less mentally acute.

On the other hand, you have guys like Franklin Foer. To take one example of his ignorance, Foer clearly doesn’t understand military terminology or military equipment. There’s no great sin in that. Since I’ve been writing, I’ve learned obvious things like the words “former” and “Marine” should never be juxtaposed. Why, just in the past week, I’ve learned the difference between a Dining Facility (DFAC) and a “Chow hall.”

Foer’s problem is, since he thinks he knows everything, his job is merely to “explicate ideas” to less knowledgeable and insightful people. If he admitted to himself that he doesn’t know jack about military matters, he would have run Scott Thomas’ pieces by someone who did.

Alas, that brings us back to where we started. The reason Foer suspended the skeptical nature he probably deploys when reading a Defense Department press release is that the collected works of Scott Thomas did a wonderful job of “explicating ideas” that Franklin Foer found hospitable. Whether said explication was accurate or trustworthy were clearly matters beneath Franklin Foer’s pay grade.

Links via Memeorandum and Instapundit.


Another take provided by Greyhawk over at Mudville Gazette, who thinks the TNR needs to turn Scott Johnson into military authorities for punishment, unless they condone the behavior to which he confesses.

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