Professor Of Military History Weighs in on the Implausibility of Bellesiles’s Story

The Chronicle of Higher Education has not yet revealed the results of its investigation of the veracity of Michael Bellesiles’s story about a dying soldier and his student brother. One can only speculate why it is taking more than a day or two to verify a story that should have been easy to verify (if it is true).

While waiting for the Chronicle, I thought I’d post the views of a commenter (who says that he is a professor of military history) published in the comments after Bellesiles’s story at the Chronicle Review website (scroll down to comment 71, by mhl1972):

I actually do teach military history, in the present, at a large R-1 university. And I didn’t believe a word of Bellesisles’ story, even before I made the connection to his earlier troubles. Here’s why:

The characters are just too perfectly drawn, and the events unfold in a predictably tragic yet meaningful way. “Ernesto” and “Javier”–they are plucky immigrants that liberal academics are bound to root for, as opposed to white meatheads named Dave and Bob. Javier joined the military to thank the nation for “giving his family refuge”–they came here for political purposes, not to take our jobs! Ernesto, a Latino, writes a paper critical of DADT, in order to cement our liberal affection for him . . . . What’s more, his research paper is “amazing,” so that all us academics, who by June are ready to stab our own eyes out after spending 9 months trying to teach disinterested students who IM right through class, will like him all the more! Because it would be totally unrealistic to imagine that a non-native speaker of English in a college history class might struggle with his work! Ernesto’s brother is serving in combat–how enobling! And how rare, especially in Iraq these days! And then he gets shot in the head by a sniper, an uncomplicated death that makes clear who was right and who was wrong, because the shooter is obviously skilled, and poor Javier couldn’t fight back because he couldn’t even see the person sniping at him! It works much better than, say, “he got killed by friendly fire while kicking down the door to a family’s house,” or, “he got electrocuted because a greedy private contractor installed faulty wiring in a FOB shower.”

It’s all so perfectly tragic! And, Javier’s condition is such that he can’t even get evacuated to Germany, which serves the narrative very conveniently, because the author needs the family to not be able to go to Javier’s bedside, something the real-life military would facilitate, so that Ernesto can remain in the story. And then Ernesto, in the course of just a few weeks, becomes a skinhead military junkie–but one who still comes to class! Yes, that is far more realistic than someone with profound depression, say, withdrawing from the university or just dropping out altogether.

It’s all just so perfect–so achingly, tragically, profoundly perfect. Just like real life!

Yes, teaching military history in a time of war IS hard, because, more often, you have students in ROTC uniforms, which is kind of the equivalent of the football team wearing their uniforms to class, using said symbol of national sacrifice to bully and silence other students in the class who are afraid of appearing that they “don’t support the troops” if they offer a critical appraisal of American foreign policy. And then there are the real veterans–the combat veterans tend to be quiet, and they smile these knowing little smiles and tell you creepy things in confidence after class, while the retired pillow-case stuffers and chairborne rangers (the vast majority of military veterans) use their “status” to bluff, bluster, and intimidate.

I don’t believe a word [o]f Bellesisles’ “story.” As Tim O’Brien tells us in “The Things They Carried,” any meaning or moral that can be teased out of a “true war story” ought to make you wary of its veracity. . . . [Bellesiles's] piece is based solely on his own observations, so it rests on his credibility alone–and he has none. The Chronicle should be embarrassed to have printed this drivel. [emphasis added]

I would repeat the caveats I made last week about a similar characterization made by a commenter:

I would not endorse the tone of this commenter (let alone the added details not in Bellesiles’s story, e.g., . . . [Ernesto's first language]), 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.

Indeed, in style Bellesiles’s piece reads as if it were a short story (perhaps inspired by a real case) with himself playing the part of the sensitive, caring professor.

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