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The Benefits of Hysteria

August 3rd, 2007 · 2 Comments

Predictably, both sides in the Scott Thomas bruhaha are claiming vindication in the aftermath of TNR‘s statement yesterday, though I’m not sure either is entitled to it. One key detail of the contested diaries has indeed been proven to be inaccurate: The incident where soldiers mocked a disfigured woman eating in the chow hall occurred in Kuwait before deployment, not later at a base in Iraq, as had initially been claimed. And as various critics are pointing out, this is actually pretty significant in context, since it means the cruel behavior can’t be attributed to the “dehumanizing” effects of war.

This was always the most psychologically incongruous of the anecdotes, because normally war “dehumanizes” by means of a fairly specific mechanism of stark divisions between in-groups and out-groups. The “band of brothers” solidarity that emerges in war is the flip side of the devaluation of outside or enemy groups, and the two phenomena tend to be mutually reinforcing. Paradoxically, then, you might actually expect someone who was becoming desensitized to the suffering of Iraqis to be less likely to exhibit cruelty toward a fellow soldier—”dehumanization” is normally highly compartmentalized. The soldiers who mocked the woman in Kuwait might not have done so months later in Iraq, and those who made a joke of Iraqi children’s skulls months into their deployment might not have done so back in Kuwait.

That said, the people pointing out the importance of this inaccuracy seem much less enthusiastic about pointing out that the wild, sweeping claims that had been bandied about the hawkosphere were overwhelmingly incorrect. This was not Stephen Glass Part Deux; everything happened substantially as reported, with the exception of a mistake (significant, but at least possibly honest) about when one of the anecdotes occurred. The broad charge that TNR was enabling a fabulist to slander the troops with a bunch of concocted stories was just utterly wrong, and an apology, it would seem, is due from those who advanced it with such certainty.

And yet… the effect of all this sound and fury was to expose an error, minor in itself, but significant in the context of the piece. And it’s not at all clear that TNR would have been spurred to do the follow-up reporting that exposed the facts if bloggers hadn’t been so frantically grasping for another WORST SCANDAL EVAR that would give them something other than the failing war to focus on. So perhaps these periodic blogswarms are a bit like belief in placebos: Immunologically useful, even if largely based on falsehood.

Tags: Journalism & the Media



2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam // Aug 3, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    I’d prefer that the TNR piece didn’t contain the error, but uncovering it hardly seems worth the chilling effect this may have on war reporting. It’s damned hard to get information out of a war zone, and now apparently Beauchamp is being investigated by the army, he’s cut off from talking to even his own family, and his fellow soldiers now refuse to speak to reporters. How again is this immunologically useful?

  • 2 anonymous // Aug 6, 2007 at 10:45 pm


    Looks like the stories were mostly a fabrication after all. Though, I don’t think that these stories, regardless of their veracity, say much about the wisdom of our policy in Iraq.

    Hence, it seems to me many people are a little bit more excited about it all than seems justified.

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