On the day that Osama bin Laden was finally tracked down and killed, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a cover story detailing the murder of Afghan civilians by American troops. The point of the piece was not to break the news of these crimes, since the incidents had already been uncovered and prosecuted by the military. Rather, they served as the jumping off point for a smear job, portraying the U.S. military as a bloodthirsty band of savage war criminals.
Entitled “A Beast in the Heart of Every Fighting Man,” Luke Mogelson’s story described the murder of an Afghan elder in Kandahar province as well as two other civilians by five members of one army platoon. Since the news had already been reported elsewhere, Mogelson had a broader point to make. As his title made clear, he saw the activities of one small group of soldiers led by a sociopathic sergeant as representative of the U.S. military—not only the spirit of the American effort in Afghanistan, but the governing ethos of the U.S. military as a whole. Although the number of U.S. war crimes has been relatively small, Mogelson believes it is wrong to view them as exceptional. The fault is not so much “the exceptional few” who commit atrocities, but the “institutional failures” of the military and the nature of the wars that we are fighting. To buttress this assertion he claims:
Over the course of military history, American soldiers have become increasingly willing to kill. In World War II, just 15–20 percent of infantrymen fired their rifles at the enemy during battles; in Korea that number increased to 55 percent; in Vietnam it reached 90.
The source of these statistics was General S. L. A. Marshall, a military historian who included it in his 1947 book Men Against Fire. Mogelson pulled them from a more recent book by retired military psychiatrist Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, whom Mogelson quotes as accusing the military of “programming” soldiers to kill indiscriminately.
But what Mogelson fails to disclose in his article is that, more than 20 years ago, the New York Times itself published an article debunking the numbers upon which his entire argument rests.
On February 19, 1989, the Times published a front-page story by Richard Halloran detailing the findings of historians who had probed Marshall’s research and discovered it was completely fabricated. Even his defenders were forced to admit that Marshall’s “argument is not very important, in a historical sense. . . .”
The problem for Mogelson and the Times is that if you take away the pseudo-historical research he cites, all you have is a lengthy exposé of a crime that had already been prosecuted by the army. The conceit of the article—namely, that the crimes in Kandahar are indicative of the spirit of the U.S. military—is predicated on fake research that the Times itself discredited many years ago.
The Times owes its readers an apology for faulty fact-checking and sloppy editing. Even more, it owes an apology to the brave fighting men and women of the armed forces of the United States.