Serious Questions About the Veracity of Michael Bellesiles’s Latest Tale

A few days ago, questions were raised first by Big Journalism and then by me about a story that Michael Bellesiles published in the June 27th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education: Teaching Military History in a Time of War. I have now read through every DoD casualty report from last fall for both Iraq and Afghanistan and news obituaries for most of them, and I have found none that was even remotely possible as the case that Bellesiles wrote about in the Chronicle. This post discusses the serious questions this raises for the veracity of Bellesiles account.

In the Chronicle Review, after mentioning the military history course that he taught “this last semester,” Bellesiles told a compelling story of a troubled student, his dying brother, and an exceedingly sensitive teacher (himself):

On the first day of my military-history class, after a discussion of the concept of democratic warfare, I asked my usual question about veterans or National Guard members present, and if any students had family members serving in the military. Ernesto (I have changed names out of respect for this family’s privacy), a shy but exceedingly bright student, smiled with evident pride as he mentioned that his brother Javier had recently enlisted in the Army. We discussed his brother’s reasons for enlisting, which mostly focused on a sense of gratitude to a country that had given their family refuge.

Two weeks later, the class discussed Baron von Steuben’s training of the American Continental Army . . . . Afterward, Ernesto told me that his brother had been sent to Iraq. He admitted he was worried about Javier’s safety, but had read several articles indicating that the war was winding down.

Then, after a class . . . [on the Mexican War], Ernesto told me that Javier had called him the day before and described his first encounter with enemy fire, which had been chaotic and without consequence. A few days later, Ernesto gave an amazing paper on a woman who had disguised herself as a man so that she could join the Union Army . . . . In the minutes before the very next class, during which we explored Ulysses S. Grant’s strategy of attrition, Ernesto came to me and said that he could not attend class, as his brother had been shot in the head by a sniper and was in critical condition.

Sorrow was written across Ernesto’s young face. Here was a student I relied on for an astute observation and a ready smile; now he looked on the verge of tears. I told him to give no further thought to the class, but to devote himself to his family. Ernesto missed the wars against the Plains Indians and the Spanish-American War, but showed up in time for the Philippine Insurrection. I hoped that Ernesto’s presence meant that his brother had recovered, only to be surprised to hear that Javier was still in danger, his condition so serious that the doctors feared moving him to the military hospital in Germany. When I asked him why he had come to class, Ernesto insisted that he hoped his studies would take his mind off his worries for his brother.

That afternoon I asked my teaching assistant, a Marine veteran named Joe, to talk with Ernesto. Over the next several weeks, as we traversed the terrain of the 20th century with the two world wars and Korea, Joe spoke regularly with Ernesto, advising him on his final paper and on dealing with the military bureaucracy. . . . And then, just as we were coming to . . . Vietnam, I received an e-mail from Ernesto letting me know that his brother had died.

Not surprisingly, Ernesto’s attendance became erratic, and he skipped entirely the discussion of our current wars.

According to the course listings on the Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) website, Bellesiles taught his Military History course in the Fall 2009 semester, not the Spring 2010 semester as his reference to “this last semester” might imply. Thus, the relevant time frame for Bellesiles’s fall 2009 Military History course should have been from August 31, 2009 (his first regularly scheduled class) through December 9, 2009 (his last regularly scheduled class).

ICasualties shows 31 fatalities in Iraq during the period of Bellesiles’s course, 8 of which were from hostile attacks. One of these 8 hostile attacks was from a mortar (not sniper bullets), and 5 of these 8 hostile attacks were IED attacks (4 of these 5 IED attack deaths came on Sept. 8, too soon to fit Bellesiles’s narrative in any event).

That leaves two Iraqi War deaths by hostile small arms fire during his course, one on Nov. 4 and another on Nov. 22. The newspaper accounts of both deaths do indicate a sniper as the killer, but both deaths are reported as occurring on the same day as the soldiers were shot, so they cannot be the source of Bellesiles’s tale of a wounded soldier languishing for weeks, at one point perhaps too injured to be flown to Germany. Neither soldier had recently enlisted (Jan. 2008 and 2002 respectively), though the hero who died on Nov. 4, 2009 had been deployed to Iraq earlier that fall. The Nov. 4 decedent was from New Mexico and (according to his obituaries) left no surviving brothers, only sisters. Similarly, the Nov. 22 decedent was from Georgia and left no surviving brothers, only a sister.

If one were to assume that Bellesiles’s story is false about the cause of death, but otherwise true, I still could find no Iraqi War deaths that occurred during his fall 2009 course that lingered for more than a brief time after being injured. I read through every DoD casualty report from last fall for both Iraq and Afghanistan and none from Iraq indicated a significant lapse of time from injury to death. I also read newspaper accounts for almost all fatalities during this period and none from Iraq indicated a significant lapse of time from injury to death. Thus, from the reports I read, I saw no evidence that could corroborate Bellesiles’s account as substantially true.

Could Bellesiles have merely confused Iraq for Afghanistan? Perhaps, but remember that Bellesiles wrote:

Ernesto told me that his brother had been sent to Iraq. He admitted he was worried about Javier’s safety, but had read several articles indicating that the war was winding down.

Given that exchange, it would be hard to conclude that Bellesiles simply mistook Iraq for Afghanistan. If Bellesiles cynically changed the theater of operations to advance the anti-war subtext of his compelling tale – a soldier ironically dying in a war that was supposed to be winding down (the old meme of the pacifist classic, All Quiet on the Western Front) – then it should have still been easy to find the deceased soldier, especially considering the story’s unusual details.

But my review of every DoD casualty report from last fall for both Iraq and Afghanistan and newspaper accounts for almost all fatalities during this period again turned up empty. I found one serviceman who survived 29 days after being injured while Bellesiles’s course was going on, though his injury occurred too early in the term (Sept. 8) to fit Bellesiles’s account. This soldier was injured in Afghanistan only 8 days after Bellesiles started his course on Aug. 31, but Bellesiles says that two weeks after the course began they were only up to the Revolutionary War and Ernesto reported that his brother had been sent to Iraq. It was much later (when Bellesiles was covering the Mexican War) that Ernesto told him of his brother’s first taste of combat. The sniper’s bullet came significantly later. So, just from the timeline, it couldn’t be the Army Sgt. who was injured on Sept. 8 and died on October 7. Further, this Sgt. 1st Class was 41 years old, a month from retiring after a 22-year Army career. Also, he was survived by two older brothers who live in New Mexico.

The second longest survivors I found who were injured during the period of Bellesiles’s course lasted only about 7 days (and died in Germany), so they couldn’t be the ones he spun his tale about. Nor did the other facts of their service or deaths fit Bellesiles’s singular account.

If Bellesiles’s account were to turn out to be a substantially fictional short story, however, there was one case that might have inspired him to write it. If one expands the time window for the injury to Aug. 10, three weeks before Bellesiles’s first class and a couple months earlier than the sniper’s bullet in Bellesiles’s timeline, there is a heroic Marine who was injured in an IED attack in Afghanistan, lost both legs, caught an infection, and began slipping in and out of a coma. Like other severely injured servicemen, he was evacuated from the war theater for treatment (presumably shortly after being injured), dying the day after he received the Purple Heart at Brooke Hospital in San Antonio, Texas. His date of death was December 8, too late in the term to fit Bellesiles’s account, since that was the day before Bellesiles’s last regularly scheduled class on December 9 (remember that Ernesto attends erratically after his brother dies, but returns for the last class).

There are further discrepancies: the Waterbury Marine joined the Marines in 2005 and did two tours of duty in Iraq before his final stint in Afghanistan. Even though these facts would seem to be a terrible fit for Javier in Bellesiles’s story, the fallen hero grew up in Waterbury, CT (which is not far from New Britain where Central Connecticut State University is located). The official obituaries list a brother, a Marine who was stationed in Iraq (not at Central Connecticut), and who was at his dying brother’s bedside in Texas in early December. The Waterbury Marine might, however, also have had a half-brother. Further, though Bellesiles does not identify the ethnicity of Ernesto or Javier (and I have not assumed their ethnicity in my searches), Bellesiles does imply that Ernesto’s family were immigrants. The Waterbury Marine who died on December 8 was born in Puerto Rico.

In short, Michael Bellesiles’s story of Javier’s service and injury is so unusual that it should have been easy to verify. But it wasn’t.

This leads to concerns about the Chronicle of Higher Education. Serious questions have now been raised whether the Chronicle of Higher Education has published claims from Michael Bellesiles that can’t be substantiated. This is unfortunate, as it undermines the Chronicle’s credibility and reputation. Liz McMillen, the editor of the Chronicle Review, therefore ought to check Bellesiles’s story. Fortunately, that’s easy to do. She merely has to contact Bellesiles, find out the real name of Javier (either a first or last name would probably do), examine Bellesiles’s syllabus to establish the timeline, and interview his Marine teaching assistant. With Javier’s real name, it should be extremely easy to verify the date and cause of his injury, his place of treatment, and his date of death. She need not publish Javier’s real name any more than Bellesiles did when he published his story about Javier; indeed, her inquiry would be less intrusive than Bellesiles’s original publication of his story in the Chronicle.

If the Chronicle were to do its duty and report its findings honestly, then we would know whether the story is true. If Bellesiles substantially made up his story to advance his career, then I would expect him to refuse to give Javier’s name to even a friendly editor from the Chronicle. Fortunately, the Chronicle should at least be able to review his syllabus and interview his teaching assistant. At the end of the day, the Chronicle should publish its findings or report that it was unable to verify Bellesiles’s story as true.

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Now let’s step back and focus on what might explain the disparities between the story and the evidence available thus far. Consider the possibilities:

1. A TRUE STORY. Perhaps Bellesiles’s story is just what it claims to be, a true story with only names changed. If so, then I would expect Bellesiles to cooperate with the Chronicle, which should easily confirm his story.

2. INNOCENTLY DUPED BY ERNESTO. Perhaps Bellesiles was innocently duped by Ernesto, who told him falsehoods about his brother or who never had a brother who was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Though I have views on why I find this possibility implausible, I’ll refrain from including them in this already long post.

Note that Bellesiles is an historian who was teaching a course that covers the Iraqi and Afghan Wars. When writing a story about a deceased soldier, it would be surprising – and incredibly sloppy – if he hadn’t checked the details of his tale before publishing. Indeed, Bellesiles himself recognizes the reason for checking war stories in the very Chronicle story at issue:

[M]ilitary historians all know the danger of accepting eyewitness accounts. It does not matter if the soldier was a frontline grunt or a rear-echelon officer: He saw only one part of the action, often under the most stressful conditions, and has constructed a narrative in the years since. Every military historian I know has learned to respect a veteran’s insistence that “I was there, and that’s not how it was,” while integrating those personal memories into a larger portrait of the battle and war.

Could this be Bellesiles’s oblique way of hinting that, if he is caught publishing a false story in the Chronicle, don’t blame him, blame his student? I hope not.

3. PURE FICTION. Perhaps Bellesiles’s story is entirely fictional — Javier doesn’t exist. If that is true, then I would expect Bellesiles not to cooperate with the Chronicle’s efforts to verify, claiming in some convoluted way that he is too ethical to answer their inquiries. It would take some furious spinning, however, for him to come up with a plausible reason not to provide the Chronicle with his syllabus (which would greatly refine the timeline) and the name of his teaching assistant.

4. MOSTLY FICTION. Perhaps Bellesiles’s story is mostly fictional, in essence a short story inspired by a true story, perhaps by the Waterbury Marine who died on Dec. 8, four months after being injured in the summer before Bellesiles’s course. If that is true, then I would expect Bellesiles’s response to be the same as it would be if Javier did not exist at all (see #3 above).

Frankly, I would find this the most disturbing possibility. Could Bellesiles have twisted the Waterbury Marine’s brave service by turning him into a relative novice and eliminating his two prior tours of duty in Iraq, making him a member of the Army (most Marines are proud to be Marines), and falsifying the timeline to create the anti-war angle and to enhance his own role as a caring professor for a troubled student?

If Bellesiles exploited a fallen hero’s service by changing the facts – and we don’t yet know whether he did – one might wonder about his possible motivations for doing so. Consider two online comments on his story, one positive (emphasizing the career angle) and one negative (emphasizing the anti-war angle).

First, here is the fifth comment on the original story on the Chronicle’s website:

When someone as clearly d[e]dicated , insightful, sensitive, and wise (and a good writer to boot) isn’t tenure tracked we can be certain that something is seriously wrong with our system.

Next, here is an over-the-top comment from “flydye45,” a commenter at Megan McArdle’s blog at the Atlantic:

Hmm.

1) Immigrant student, probably first one in college from his family. Check

2) Brother tricked by the War Machine with patriotism and machismo into signing up for the military. Check

3) Semi trained, gung ho but unready, brother is shot in theater by an enemy he could never have defended against. (Cue Futility) Check

4) Long LINGERING wound in a desert . . . in a tent . . . as his life drains away friendless and alone. (Military brutality) Check

5) Brother at college is given second hand information and the American Dream is snatched [from] his grasp as TWO lives, nay, a WHOLE FAMILY is ruined by Bush’s Stupid War. Check

This is some of the finest ‘torture porn’ . . . I’ve seen . . . what? It’s serious? Are you kidding me?

Mr Bellesiles, your talents are wasted there. Go to Hollywood immediately . . . .

I would not endorse the tone of this commenter (let alone the added details not in Bellesiles’s story, e.g., the tent), and it is definitely too soon to conclude that Bellesiles has fabricated the details of his story. Yet the commenter highlights the anti-war implications of Bellesiles’s claims. Note also that he assumes what Bellesiles implies (and what I assumed when I first read Bellesiles’s account) – that Javier was left languishing in Iraq until he died. But Bellesiles does not actually say this; it would not be inconsistent with Bellesiles’s account for Javier to have been moved to Germany or the US, as virtually all other seriously injured soldiers are after a few days.

* * *

CONCLUSION

It is a depressing and sobering experience to read through the obituaries of those who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last year. On more than one occasion, I was moved to tears. Most families seem to want the stories of their brave sons and daughters read by the rest of us so they will be remembered and appreciated.

Having read through every DoD casualty report from last fall for both Iraq and Afghanistan and news obituaries for most of them, I encountered none that could possibly be the case that Bellesiles wrote about. Because the reports might be incomplete, it is possible that I missed the relevant one, but that information could be easily supplied by Bellesiles if his account is true. Also, some of the facts in Bellesiles’s account set it apart from the typical case, which should have made it easy to find. Most of those killed last fall were not recent enlistees, most were not shot by snipers, the one serviceman injured during Bellesiles’s course who lasted more than a week before dying was injured too early to be the soldier Bellesiles wrote about and didn’t fit Bellesiles’s other facts, and so on.

Serious questions have now been raised about Michael Bellesiles’s latest tale published in the Chronicle Review about a troubled student, a dying soldier, and a sensitive, caring professor (himself). The ball is now in the Chronicle’s court to check the facts. If the story is true — as I still hope it is — it should take only an hour or two for the Chronicle to verify it. If the story is false, I expect that the Chronicle will have trouble getting Bellesiles to cooperate. Perhaps then his syllabus and his teaching assistant can help resolve the questions.

UPDATE: BTW, if anyone has the syllabus from CCSU for the fall 2009 Military History course, please email me a copy. If you wish, I will keep your identity confidential (to the extent allowed by law).

2d UPDATE: Late Monday afternoon, I received a one-sentence email from Liz McMillen, Editor of the Chronicle Review:

I just wanted to let you know that we are looking into the questions you have raised in your blog post Friday about Michael Bellesiles’s article for us.

Here is some background on Bellesiles’s problems in 2000-2002.

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