As it turns out, John Barnes had some of it right – he applied the ethos and culture of MFA schools to the Scott Thomas columns. We can find on military blogs (and here) more substantive critiques of the specifics, while keeping in mind that soldiers, being human, can be assholes and that war is not the most positive experience. Still and all, the truth is important and much looks like these were, at best, tales embellished beyond recognition. The narrator seems quite confused about guns, Bradleys and life. TNR’s firing of the “whistleblower” is also not particularly attractive. It’s hard to take the youthful editor seriously.
Barnes brings us back to a territory discussed earlier. Tim O’Brien wants us to “feel” he is telling a truth even when he may not be telling the truth: this distinction may be justified in a work theoretically described as fiction. However, Scott Thomas wants us to see him as a “reporter” (indeed, an observer on occasions when many commentators would argue most would act); his territory is not his own (or a fictional) psyche but rather actions he contends he and others committed.
Barnes, however, describes why in situations that don’t bring the fame and riches of major slick magazine publishing his pose of toughness might be useful:
Among the benefits of that role are free passes on certain kinds of bad behavior in class, sexual attractiveness to some other grad students (those with a thing for bad boys), and the maintenance of their interior movie in which they are played by some combination of James Dean, Bob Dylan, the younger Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson.
Well, it has been a long time since I’ve been interested in boys of any kind, bad or not. But I do remember the attraction of the class rebel, the guy your parents didn’t like, the outsider. Some girls like really bad boys, but most fancy the guy is just misunderstood; he’s sensitive but this is a secret only the girl knows. He appeals to her naughty girl but also her maternal instincts; she believes what he tells her when he reveals his soft, vulnerable side. Girls like a tough guy. But they like him because, in the end, he does the right thing; tough guys are doubly attractive when they do the chivalric thing – it’s kind of like the whore with the heart of gold or the prodigal son. But do girls find attractive someone who taunts a burned & disfigured woman? Who says loudly
“Yeah man,” I continued. “I love chicks that have been intimate—with IEDs. It really turns me on—melted skin, missing limbs, plastic noses . . . .”
“You’re crazy, man!” my friend said, doubling over with laughter. I took it as my cue to continue.
“In fact, I was thinking of getting some girls together and doing a photo shoot. Maybe for a calendar? ‘IED Babes.’ We could have them pose in thongs and bikinis on top of the hoods of their blown-up vehicles.”
This seems to fall apart upon inspection: the curious lack of rank, the witnesses who remember no such woman, the unlikelihood of a woman with severe scars returning to a war zone. But, let’s allow that it did happen and he did say that. And that his significant other at least saw if not was responsible for seeing it hit the pages of TNR.
Maybe his girlfriend/wife thought he was really great when he was in the creative writing program at Missouri and she was in J school. But, I honestly can’t comprehend how a woman can explain to herself that her man did this; I honestly can’t comprehend how a woman can love a man who did. This is in the mess hall; worse, perhaps, could be explained in the heat of combat. And sure black humor is a part of war. But this is mere casual vulgarity that most women, seeing in print, would find offensive. And, if she didn’t think he said it, did she think these were his fantasies? These were his lies? I had terrible taste in men, but I really can’t get my imagination around feeling affection for a man capable of doing this or even less imaginatively projecting it as who he is.
Does TNR human relations worry about its staff in ways that have little to do with journalism, the truth, Iraq? (Not that these aren’t important – it seems to have limited skepticism when a story seems too good to check. ) What I’m wondering is what do you think of one another in the break room? What do you see as polite conversation? How much do you trust your colleagues as people – let alone as journalists?
I suspect they are playing a game; they don’t really think the incidents are true, they think that “others” (the soldiers who don’t want out of the war, for instance) act that way. They don’t really think the narrative voice is the true voice of their colleague’s significant other but rather an imaginary voice he created. But that isn’t what they say. They keep up the pretense it is true. So, we might ask them, if you don’t approve of him, why didn’t you report these activities to his superior officer? In what way do you see this as the result of war and not of a flawed character? Why aren’t you honestly appalled by the person who describes himself and his buddies in this way? And when he whines that his critics are criticizing him, you might say, damn right. We all should. That his editor apparently doesn’t think that way, that he fires the whistleblower, that he claims respect for the writer tells us much about the journal – and little of it good.