Kathleen Parker

So did you hear the one about American soldiers playing with dead baby parts found in a mass grave in Iraq?

No wait, how about the guy who loved to drive Bradley armored vehicles so he could knock down concrete barriers and mow down little doggies sunning in the road?

Or this one: American soldiers in a chow hall making fun of a woman whose face was "more or less melted, along with all the hair on that side of her head" from an IED.

These are but a few of the claims made by one "Scott Thomas," otherwise known as the "Baghdad Diarist," allegedly a soldier serving in Iraq who has sent three dispatches to The New Republic since January. He uses the pseudonym "Scott Thomas," say the magazine's editors, so he can give honest reports without fear of official reprisal.

But are they honest? Or has The New Republic (TNR) been ''glassed'' again? In the 1990s, TNR Associate Editor Stephen Glass was fired for fabricating stories.

The conservative Weekly Standard began questioning the reports last week. Bloggers have joined in challenging the anecdotes, as have military personnel who have served in Iraq and, in some cases, have eaten in the same chow hall mentioned.

Thomas' version of events in Iraq is looking less and less credible and smacks of the "occult hand."

The occult hand was an inside joke several years ago among a group of journalists who conspired to see how often they could slip the phrase -- "It was as if an occult hand had ..." -- into their copy. This went on for years to the great merriment of a few in the know.

Looking back, it's hard to imagine how a phrase as purple as "an occult hand" could have enjoyed such long play within the tribe of professional skeptics known as journalists. Similarly, one wonders how Thomas' reports have appeared in the magazine without his editors saying, "Hey, wait just a minute."

When it comes to the playbook of anti-military cliches, Thomas seems guilty of plagiarism. What could be more cliche, after all, than American soldiers ridiculing a defaced woman, running over dogs or desecrating babies' remains?

The New Republic editors say they're investigating the reports, but refuse to reveal the author's identity. There's always a chance, of course, that these stories have some truth to them. Maybe a guy made an unkind remark about a poor woman's burned face. Maybe a dog got run over. Maybe a grave was found and a soldier capped his head with a skull part.

Stranger -- and far worse -- things have happened in war. But people who have served in Iraq have raised enough questions about these particular anecdotes that one is justified in questioning whether they are true.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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