Assuming the Worst About Our Troops

Bob Herbert’s column in yesterday’s New York Times is generating a lot of buzz. Herbert’s column is based on an interview with Aidan Delgado, a recently discharged reservist who was sent to Iraq, declared himself a conscientious objector, and, upon his return to the U.S., became a darling of the far left. If you Google his name, you will see that he has been interviewed by nearly every left-wing publication, and has been a regular at anti-war and anti-President Bush rallies.
Delgado tells a riveting story about racist abuse dished out by the United States army in Iraq. He was with the 320th Military Police company, and was stationed for a time at Abu Graibh. Although he doesn’t seem to have observed much there–his best stories are all hearsay, assuming they are not simply fabricated–you can imagine how his having been in the vicinity has made him a left-wing meal sensation. Herbert is late to the party, but he never hints at Delgado’s status as a far-left icon.
What bothers me, though, is that Herbert apparently made no attempt to verify Delgado’s charges. Delgado describes horrifying conduct by American G.I.s, and says it occurred routinely. Conveniently, however, he never names names–never identifies the soldier who whipped Iraqis with an antenna, or kicked a six year old boy in the stomach, or shot unarmed prisoners. So it’s hard to know exactly where to go for the other side of the story. Still, it would have been easy to call the 320th and go from there. I suspect that anyone Herbert talked to would have something to say about Delgado and his sensational charges.
There are at least three reasons why Herbert should have checked out the other side of the story before swallowing Delgado’s story hook, line and sinker. First, when Delgado was a member of the armed forces, he never reported any of the incidents he now describes with such relish. Army regulations required him to report misconduct such as he observed; by his own account, he violated those regulations. Why? If he had reported these incidents in a timely manner, not only could they have been investigated and his veracity evaluated, but–if he is telling the truth–further misconduct could have been prevented.
Second, most of Delgado’s best stories are, by his own admission, hearsay. This is a significant point, which Herbert glosses over. Consider the carefully-worded conclusion to Herbert’s column:

Mr. Delgado, who eventually got conscientious objector status and was honorably discharged last January, recalled a disturbance that occurred while he was working in the Abu Ghraib motor pool. Detainees who had been demonstrating over a variety of grievances began throwing rocks at the guards. As the disturbance grew, the Army authorized lethal force. Four detainees were shot to death.
Mr. Delgado confronted a sergeant who, he said, had fired on the detainees. “I asked him,” said Mr. Delgado, “if he was proud that he had shot unarmed men behind barbed wire for throwing stones. He didn’t get mad at all. He was, like, ‘Well, I saw them bloody my buddy’s nose, so I knelt down. I said a prayer. I stood up, and I shot them down.'”

Herbert says that Delgado “recalled” this “disturbance.” In fact, Delgado has made crystal-clear in other interviews that he was elsewhere at the time, didn’t witness the disturbance, and is merely repeating what he was allegedly told by others. (By whom, of course, we don’t know.) Assuming that Herbert did a halfway-competent job of interviewing Delgado, he must have known that the account with which he concluded his column was pure hearsay. Yet he said that Delgado “recalled” the incident. One can only wonder whether this was intentionally misleading.
Third, some of what Delgado alleges is, on its face, incredible. For example:

He said: “Guys in my unit, particularly the younger guys, would drive by in their Humvee and shatter bottles over the heads of Iraqi civilians passing by. They’d keep a bunch of empty Coke bottles in the Humvee to break over people’s heads.”

Picture that scene: American soldiers driving around Iraq in Humvees, randomly smashing innocent Iraqis over the head with Coke bottles. Has anyone else observed such a thing? Not that I know of. Did anyone report such misconduct to any authority? No. Who, exactly, smashed Iraqis on the head with Coke bottles? Delgado won’t say.
Do you believe it? I don’t. The claim seems absurd on its face. It could possibly be true, of course; but does it make any sense to report the claim as true, and endorse it as Herbert endorsed Delgado’s allegations, without conducting any investigation to find out what other members of the 320th Military Police company have to say? If Herbert lifted a finger to get another side of the story, it isn’t reflected in his column. Isn’t that the minimum that the New York Times and its columnists owe to those who risk their lives for us?
UPDATE: I have sent the following email to Bob Herbert, and will post any reply that I receive:

Mr. Herbert: I discussed your column in yesterday’s Times on Power Line: http://powerlineblog.com/archives/010350.php
I’d be interested to know whether you have any response. In particular, I’d like to know what efforts you made to verify Mr. Delgado’s claims before endorsing them in your column, and what efforts you made to contact other members of the 320th Military Police company to get their perspective. I also wonder whether any aspects of Delgado’s tale–e.g., his account of unnamed GIs driving around in Humvees, bashing random Iraqis over the head with Coke bottles–aroused any skepticism on your part, or any request for proof.
Thank you.
John Hinderaker

OUR READERS CHIP IN: John Manguso writes:

I’ve been buying Coke at Army PXs and commissaries for the last 38 years. I can’t remember the last time I saw Coke in a bottle particularly overseas. Where were they getting the bottles?

We’d be interested to hear from soldiers abroad, especially in Iraq, as to the availability of Coke bottles there. Bear in mind, though, that there is a big difference between the existence of Coke bottles, and the use of Coke bottles to bash random Iraqis over the head.
MORE: Dale Beihoffer notes a historical precedent:

Recall that John Kerry gave sworn testimony before Congress that he and other troops

Responses

Books to read from Power Line