False Badge of Courage

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Suzanne Fields

Once a cer­tain tall sol­dier de­vel­oped virtues and went res­o­lutely to wash a shirt. He came fly­ing back from a brook wav­ing his gar­ment ban­ner­like. He was swelled with a tale he had heard from a re­li­able friend, who had heard it from a truth­ful cav­al­ry­man, who had heard it from his trust­wor­thy brother, one of the or­der­lies at di­vi­sion head­quar­ters. He adopted the im­por­tant air of a her­ald in red and gold.

— Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage”

In one brief com­pressed para­graph the nov­el­ist cap­tures a re­al­ity of war, the way ru­mors be­come sto­ries and how sto­ries tes­tify to the hu­man need for the mes­sen­ger to em­broi­der facts as though he lives in a ro­mance, where char­ac­ters are dec­o­rated in red and gold. Stephen Crane never went to war, but as ev­ery reader learns quickly, “The Red Badge of Courage” daz­zles with the au­then­tic­ity of ex­pe­ri­ence. Good writ­ers do that.

Amer­i­can writ­ers who have ac­tu­ally seen the blood and cru­elty in mil­i­tary ac­tion have writ­ten great war nov­els, too. Norman Mailer set the stan­dard with “The Naked and the Dead,” and James Jones showed how it ought to be done with “From Here to Eter­nity.” Au­thors of au­then­tic war sto­ries probe the deeper truths of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, tak­ing ad­van­tage of the range al­lowed by fiction, some based on fact and much that is not. Hero­ism, fear, de­bauch­ery and cal­lous­ness are born in a cruel land­scape of bat­tle, con­fined in a web of hu­man pas­sion. The com­plex­i­ties of tragedy are il­lu­mi­nated by the rocket’s red glare and “the greater love” of ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice.

What might have hap­pened can be fused with what ac­tu­ally hap­pened in hon­est fiction. A novel can grow from re­al­ity but hon­est re­port­ing can’t grow from fiction. A sol­dier who be­comes a part­time re­porter in Iraq can’t color his “facts” by em­bel­lish­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, no mat­ter how tempt­ing it may be. Such ac­counts are merely pro­pa­ganda. Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp’s diary, which be­came re­port­ing in the New Repub­lic, leaves the reader only to won­der what’s real and what’s not, and on his own to de­ci­pher fact from fiction.

The Army’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors talked with Pvt. Beauchamp’s fel­low sol­diers and con­cluded that sev­eral of his dis­patches were false. The edi­tors of the New Repub­lic con­cede only (so far) that he made “er­rors.” The most sen­sa­tional anec­dote is both strange and vi­cious, writ­ten as a first-per­son con­fes­sional to demon­strate how a sol­dier in the midst of bat­tle can turn mean and dis­gust­ing. He writes of sit­ting in the mess hall next to a wo­man with a scarred face, and de­scribes with de­ri­sion how she tries to put a fork full of mashed pota­toes into her “half-melted mouth.” The au­thor calls her hot: “I love chicks that have been in­ti­mate with [road­side bombs]. It re­ally turns me on — melted skin, miss­ing limbs, plas­tic noses.” The di­arist and his bud­dies laugh and laugh.

Be­neath the cru­elty the sol­dier — and the mag­a­zine’s edi­tors — find so­cially re­deem­ing value in the in­ci­dent. “Even as I was rev­el­ing in the laugh­ter my words had pro­voked,” he writes, “I was simul- taneously hor­ri­fied and ashamed at what I had just said. In a strange way, I found the shame com­fort­ing [. . .] re­lieved to still be shocked by my own cru­elty.” He goes on to de­scribe more de­hu­man­iz­ing sto­ries with great speci­ficity. Sol­diers who have lost all sense of shame play games with the skulls of Iraqi chil­dren and run over stray dogs.

True, partly true and not true at all, th­ese sto­ries were writ­ten to ap­peal to an ide­o­log­i­cal bias against the war in Iraq, and de­mo­nize and de­mor­al­ize all those sol­diers who act nobly and who ut­terly con­demn such vile con­duct. An imag­i­na­tive or ex­ag­ger­ated “eye­wit­ness” ac­count is un­fair not only to the sol­diers in Iraq, but to the read­ers of the New Repub­lic. Why should they be­lieve any­thing on the other pages of the mag­a­zine?

Pvt. Beauchamp now says he in­tended to of­fer only “one sol­dier’s view of events in Iraq“ and never wanted it to be seen as “a re­flec­tion of the en­tire U.S. mil­i­tary.” (Of course he didn’t.) Pvt. Beauchamp has been pun­ished in a most post­mod­ern way. The mil­i­tary has con­fis­cated his cell phone and lap­top com­puter. That beats months in the brig. He might have been in­spired to do bet­ter if he had read “The Red Badge of Courage.” Henry, the Civil War sol­dier who nar­rates the tale, is warned by his mother to do what’s right: “ I don’t want ye to ever do any­thing that ye would be ‘shamed to let me know about.“ Good ad­vice. Too bad that it’s only fiction.

Suzanne Fields, a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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