The soldier's stories were shocking in their brutality: fellow GIs viciously mocking a woman whose face had been horribly disfigured in an IED explosion; a private snatching a child's skull unearthed at a mass grave and gleefully wearing it under his helmet; grunts running over dogs with Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
The "Baghdad Diarist," writing under the pseudonym Scott Thomas, captivated readers of the New Republic magazine with his accounts of misbehavior by his fellow soldiers in Iraq.
But the stories didn't ring true to some military bloggers and conservative columnists, who joined forces in recent weeks to investigate the veracity of the disturbing tales. Unable to confirm any details of the accounts, they pressured the magazine to launch their own probe into the accuracy of the articles.
Was the New Republic snookered by another Stephen Glass, the associate editor infamously fired in 1998 for fabricating details in most of the 41 articles he wrote for the magazine?
Or is the prestigious liberal biweekly a victim of a conservative blogosphere intent on punishing any publication which doesn't run positive coverage of the war and the troops?
As the controversial articles started ricocheting around the Web, editors at the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, started to ask questions. "They just seemed so convenient, so contrived," said Michael Goldfarb, the editor of the magazine's Web site. "That incident of soldiers mocking a female IED victim at a chow hall is so crass and so ugly, you have a hard time imagining American soldiers behaving this way in public. It raised some red flags."
Goldfarb and his staff attempted to verify the accounts, learning from the New Republic that the chow hall incident took place at Forward Operating Base Falcon in southern Baghdad. "We spoke to many soldiers and no one can recall this woman, who had half her face melted."
As for the description of a mass grave, one contractor told Goldfarb about a children's cemetery near FOB Falcon but claimed that all the remains were handled responsibly. "Everyone says that this account is absurd, implausible. It's entirely possible that it happened and no one's come forward to say."
Goldfarb said that the incident speaks to the willingness of the left to see the worst in the war and the soldiers, pointing out "the ease with which they've been seduced by this narrative of soldiers as victims and perpetrators." As to whether his probe of Baghdad Diarist was prompted by his conservative views, he said, "You're asking me if it was informed by my opinion of the U.S. military. I can't answer that."
Franklin Foer, the editor of the New Republic, said that he has met Thomas here in the States and that he is "absolutely certain" that he is a soldier in Iraq. "Not an ounce of doubt," he told ABCNEWs.com. Asked about how he attempted to verify Thomas' military credentials, Foer said, "I've got many, many data points to back that up" although one of those proofs didn't include a military e-mail account.
As for the specific accounts in the stories, Foer said that the articles were rigorously fact-checked before they were published. "We showed the stories to people who'd been embedded in Iraq to make sure that it all smelled good. We talked to one of the members of his unit to confirm the woman, a female contractor. We talked to a medic who'd served in Iraq to make sure that a woman could be in an FOB. We spent a lot of time with him on the phone asking hard questions."
The response of military bloggers has been fast and furious. Matthew Currier Burden, a former Army officer who runs BlackFive and compiled the book "The Blog of War" has plenty of doubts about Thomas' stories. "All the stories are too outrageous," he said. "Soldiers making fun of an IED victim could be true, aiming at a dog and running over it in a Bradley could be true although it's near impossible. You've got to prove a negative which is hard to do."
Burden spoke with several soldiers from FOB Falcon and none of them had heard such stories, but he admitted that the disturbing accounts are possible. "Nobody wants it to be true. There are some bad apples out there… I'm cautious about saying it's complete bullsh--."
And Maj. Kirk Luedeke, the public affairs officer at FOB Falcon, wrote a letter to the Weekly Standard, in which he emphatically denied several of Thomas' accounts. He claimed unequivocally that there was no mass grave discovered in the base's area of operations. "None. Zero. Zip."
Luedeke has called for Thomas to identify himself and blames the magazine for falling for his claims. "Foer can produce all of the alleged 'eyewitnesses' he wants -- unless these individuals are willing to back up their claims with real evidence, it's just so much garbage on a computer screen. Some people seem to forget that the burden of proof should be on the New Republic to back up his unsubstantiated claims and not the other way around."