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Pvt. Beauchamp: Proud of Being Ashamed?

By Paul McNellis

In a famous passage in his Confessions, St. Augustine admits that as a young boy he ran with a bad crowd and fabricated stories to impress his friends.

I was ashamed among other youths that my viciousness was less than theirs: I heard them boasting of their exploits...not only for the pleasure of the act but for the pleasure of the boasting....and when I lacked opportunity to equal others in vice, I invented things I had not done, lest I might be held cowardly for being innocent, or contemptible for being chaste....Someone cries, 'Come on, let's do it'--and we would be ashamed to be ashamed.

Who among us, at some point in our lives, has not so intensely desired to belong to the group that we ended up apologizing for our virtues and boasting of our vices? It could have taken the form of remaining silent when we should have spoken out. The point, of course, is to grow out of it. Augustine was referring to when he was 16 years old. As one grows older, the fear of appearing virtuous before bad people is replaced by the desire to be virtuous with good people. It's called character.

This passage from Augustine came to mind as I read Pvt. Beauchamp's Baghdad Diarist in The New Republic (TNR), for Beauchamp, far from being "ashamed of being ashamed," is actually proud of being ashamed. After describing how he mocked and humiliated a woman horribly scarred by an IED, Beauchamp writes:

Even as I was reveling in the laughter my words had provoked, I was simultaneously horrified and ashamed at what I had just said. In a strange way, though, I found the shame comforting. I was relieved to still be shocked by my own cruelty--to still be able to recognize that the things we soldiers found funny were not, in fact, funny.

It's an odd sense of shame. It provides no antecedent restraint on Beauchamp's behavior but kicks in only after he's already demonstrated, by his actions, both his cruelty and his shamelessness. Nonetheless, Beauchamp takes pride in being ashamed, for it proves, at least to him, his superiority to some of his fellow soldiers.

But Beauchamp knows he's describing sociopathic behavior, for he asks, "Am I a monster? I have never thought of myself as a cruel person. Indeed, I have always had compassion for those with disabilities. I once worked at a summer camp for developmentally disabled children." So what would explain the behavior? Why do he and his comrades find despicable behavior funny? Beauchamp's answer: "That is how war works: it degrades every part of you, and your sense of humor is no exception."

Here, finally, is the master narrative sought by TNR. Because war "degrades every part of you," soldiers can't be expected to make normal moral decisions. Bad behavior? The war made them do it. See what the bad war does to good people? It turns former camp counselors into sociopaths.

But no self-respecting soldier wants TNR's bogus absolution. Soldiers pride themselves on being held to a higher standard than the rest of us, and to deny them the dignity of being moral agents renders meaningless the distinction between a dishonorable discharge and a Bronze Star. If soldiers no longer merit praise or blame, just sympathy, their service becomes meaningless.

TNR shows no awareness of this, and its attempt to defend its own journalistic malpractice is truly a wonder to behold. Editor Franklin Foer's first defense claimed that the objections raised about the story "really boil down to, would American soldiers be capable of doing things like the things described in the diarist. The practical jokes are exceptionally mild compared to things that have been documented by the U.S. military." We now know that Mr. Foer never believed it was about "practical jokes," for he now says that TNR published Beauchamp's piece because it "was about the morally and emotionally distorting effects of war...[it] was a startling confession of shame about some disturbing conduct, both his own and that of his fellow soldiers."

As Newsweek's Evan Thomas said of the press coverage of the Duke lacrosse team, "The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong." Similarly, Mr. Foer has his narrative--"the morally and emotionally distorting effects of war"-- but the facts keep getting in the way. TNR now admits that the disturbing behavior Beauchamp claimed he engaged in actually occurred in Kuwait, before he had seen a single day of combat. So now the story is about the "morally and emotionally distorting effects of..." Well, of what, exactly? Of merely being member of the U.S. Army? Is that the new narrative?

This also explains why Beauchamp's "confession of shame" sounds so contrived. It is contrived. Beauchamp imagined how he would feel if he had done the things he described in the pages of TNR. What he describes is not shame but moral smugness.

Why was TNR unable to recognize this? Because the editors have a peculiar understanding of journalistic truth and simply no understanding whatsoever of the concept of "honor" as it applies to the military, a combination that in turn makes them oblivious to the reality of slander.

When Beauchamp lies about the who, what, where, and when of his dispatch, it is for TNR merely an "error," a "discrepancy," or a regrettable "mistake." Morally speaking, it's the equivalent of a typo.

But in ordinary life, lying is immoral. In the military, in addition to being immoral it is dishonorable. And to be falsely accused of dishonorable behavior is to be slandered. None of this seems to register with TNR or, unfortunately, with Beauchamp.

TNR is in effect saying, we know that bad things happen, therefore something like what we published probably happened at some time. Yes, but did it happen when and as you said it did? It may not matter to TNR, but it matters to the soldiers at Foward Operating Base Falcon. They have been accused of dishonorable behavior. If the accusation is false, they have been slandered.

At this point, I expect nothing more from TNR than more demonstrations of the fine art of ex post facto fact checking. But what about Pvt. Beauchamp?

He stands at a crossroads with his whole his life before him. Frankly, I hope the demands of military justice are satisfied by merely letting him finish his service. He must live with himself among his betters, and for now that is both a fitting punishment and an opportunity. The opportunity is one to which Beauchamp himself alludes on a blog he kept while in Germany. (I've taken the liberty of turning his blogese into standard English.) Beauchamp writes:

I know that NOT participating in a war (and such a misguided one at that) should be considered better than wanting to be in one just to write a book...but you know, maybe I'd rather be a good man than a good both? Some can and some can't...I guess it all depends on how great an artist, or how great a man they want to be. Sometimes it feels like I have to choose between being totally loyal to thoughts of my future family OR totally loyal to chasing down the muse. Must find a middle ground.

The challenge of being a good man. Of course it's the right question, but it's a shame that Beauchamp thought of it as a middle ground held at the expense of moral compromise.

When it comes to being a good man or something else, there is no middle ground. You're either trying to become a better man, or you're not; you're moving in one direction or the other.

Pvt. Beauchamp has two choices.

He can await his discharge and then return to testify before Congress as the victim veteran in the "proud of being ashamed" mode. He might even run for Congress himself. He wouldn't be the first.

Or, he can use his remaining time in the military to earn an honorable discharge. He could try to leave the military as a better man than when he entered. There are hints from his blog that he was already moving in that direction.

I would urge Pvt. Beauchamp to look at those in his unit, some of whom he surely respects and admires. Imitate them, and in the process you will become a better soldier, a better friend, a better husband, one day a better father, the end, a better writer.

That will also leave you with something far better than the anemic sense of shame you describe; it will leave you with a sense of honor. And though TNR may no longer be interested in what you write, you will surely have become a better man.

Rev. Paul W. McNellis, S.J., teaches philosophy at Boston College.

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