W. Thomas Smith, Jr., and His Reporting from Lebanon

BY Herschel Smith
16 years, 5 months ago

In blogging as well as life, quick reactions that lack hard analysis are rarely beneficial or valuable.  This is why I don’t participate in blog bursts.  If you want snappy, timely blogging that lacks substance and takes on the appearance of tantrums, you can go elsewhere.  If you want your analysis later and correct, you can stop by The Captain’s Journal.  At least that is the intent, whether my articles fully comport with this ideal or not.

Tantrums fairly well describes the reaction(s) to W. Thomas Smith’s alleged dishonesty concerning his reporting from Lebanon.  But before I respond to his critics, let’s cover some detail regarding the alleged dubious reports by Smith.

That reporter who questioned the Smith account of his experiences in Lebanon was Christopher Allbritton.  You can study his letter to Kathryn Lopez (editor at National Review), but the only substantive, factual allegation I can find against Smith is the following:

… he’s a liar. Hezbollah never invaded east Beirut on the 29th. And they don’t have 200 “heavily armed” militiamen downtown. I passed by today. There are about 40 guys down there with no weapons at all. They sit around, smoking shisha in jeans and t-shirts.

Smith responded (in part) with the following clarification (I have redacted Smith’s response as well as Allbritton’s charges for the sake of brevity):

A reporter recently contacted NRO questioning the accuracy of two blog posts I filed for “The Tank” while I was in Lebanon this past September and October.

On September 25, I filed a post, in which I described a “sprawling Hezbollah tent city” near the Lebanese parliament as being occupied by “some 200-plus heavily armed Hezbollah militiamen”: According to the e-mail, my detractors said that, “…there are rarely 200 people there at all — much less ‘heavily armed,’” and, “…at least once a week I walk or jog through this area. I have never seen a civilian carrying a weapon.”

I can’t possibly know what someone else saw or witnessed or where they were jogging or on what day. But I do know this: The Hezbollah camp in late September — and up until the time I left in mid-October — was huge (“sprawling”). And though the tents were very large and many of them closed, I saw at least two AK-47s there with my own eyes. And this from a moving vehicle on the highway above the camp. And in my way of thinking, if a guy’s got an AK-47, he’s “heavily armed.”

Did I physically see and count 200 men carrying weapons? No. If I mistakenly conveyed that impression to my readers, I apologize. I saw lots of men, lots of them carrying walkie-talkie radios, and a tent city that could have easily housed many more than 200. I also saw weapons, as did others in the vehicle with me. And I was informed by very reliable sources that Hezbollah does indeed store arms inside the tents. And they’ve certainly got the parliamentarians and other government officials spooked and surrounded by layers of security.

My detractors’ argument that they had never seen weapons in the camp does not mean there is an absence of weapons. But don’t take my word for it. For further reading, I would recommend this recent AP article (and multiple others) about the increasing prevalence of armed civilians in Lebanon. I would say I was justified in believing not only my sources, but also my own eyes in this case …

Second, with regard to the post I filed September 29, in which I reported that between 4,000-5,000 Hezbollah gunmen had “deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut in an unsettling ‘show of force’”: My detractors have said this event, “simply never happened,” because “every journalist in town would have pounced on that story, and he’s the only one who noticed?

In retrospect, however, this is a case where I should have caveated the reporting by saying that I only witnessed a fraction of what happened (from a moving car), with broader details of what I saw ultimately told to me by what I considered then — and still consider to be — reliable sources within the Cedar Revolution movement, as well as insiders within the Lebanese national security apparatus. As we were driving through that part of town, I saw men I identified as Hezbollah deployed at road intersections with radios. I was later told that these were Hezbollah militants deploying to Christian areas of Beirut, and there were four or five thousand of them …

Let me briefly mention some of my sources in Lebanon: extremely reliable men and women, who also enabled me to gain access to members of parliament, mayors and other municipal leaders, the grandson of a late president of Lebanon, one of the highest-ranking (perhaps the highest-ranking) Muslim clerics in Beirut, multiple high-ranking military and intelligence officers, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the head of the national police, and the special forces and counterterrorist strike force commanders.

At the time I read this response, my reaction was “fair enough,” but I took the opportunity to send Tom a letter saying that I have found good sources to be better than anything else, and probably better than mine and his own eyes.  Good sources, I said, are around for the long haul.  They are part of the cultural milieu and social framework.  They can “see” things that we cannot.  I can ascertain subtle changes in my neighborhood, local political scene, and all manner of things far beyond the capabilities of a foreigner.  A foreigner, for instance, had better not attempt to make his way through the backwoods of Appalachia without knowing something about the people.  I, on the other hand, would be quite comfortable doing this.  It takes more than eyes to see and understand your surroundings – it takes personal history.

I thought everything was done with this story, but the confessions and self deprecation began at National Review Online.  Worse still, blogs and main stream media publications alike picked up on this story in an orgy of self righteous outrage and indignation (I am not linking them because not a single one of them is worth the time of my readers).  Frankly, it was unseemly and embarrassing – at least it would have been embarrassing for me if I had participated.

It doesn’t take a writer as prolific as Thomas Smith to regret at some point something that was said or ignored.  It only takes living with another person such as a wife or husband.  But a good example of missing the boat in the professional military writer’s community comes from no less than Michael Yon, a prolific and popular writer in his own right.

In the recent dispatch, Men of Valor Part II, I wrote the following:“ . . . by systematically and in relatively short order demolishing Iraq’s government infrastructure, firing its staff en masse, disbanding its army, our combined militaries in Iraq could only accomplish the mission by rebuilding the country from scratch.” (italics original).

As a writer, I could have used more precision with the six key words. I have seen the extent to which Coalition forces spend great energy and suffer risks to avoid destroying Iraq’s physical infrastructure. Yes, many Iraqi government buildings stand with shattered concrete and twisted rebar, hollowed by our bombs and missiles; but the vast majority of Iraqi infrastructure was intentionally spared. In fact, US forces have been (and are) forbidden to attack infrastructure. Our people use lethal force to protect Iraqi infrastructure.

I have covered in some detail the physical destruction done intentionally by al Qaeda to Iraq’s infrastructure (the damage isn’t limited to water supplies and the electrical grid, as proven by this attack against oil pipelines).  I understand what Michael Yon was trying to say in the post.  But this debate belongs stateside, four years ago, and includes the question should we have invaded to begin with (along with the horrible decisions by Paul Bremer).  This debate shouldn’t get mixed up with the bravery of our men in uniform, or better put, our warriors don’t deserve to have their carefully targeted combat described in this manner.  Given that I have a son who earned the combat action ribbon for service under fire, I appreciate Michael’s “clarification.”  He didn’t use the word “apologize” as did Smith, but I get the sense that he regrets having used those words.  He should not have used those words, and he should have clarified them, as he did.

I don’t know Christopher Allbritton from Adam, and the fact that he says that something must be so doesn’t make it so.  While Thomas Smith’s clarification is welcome and appreciated, I don’t believe it adds anything to the story.  As to Allbritton, I would not have given him the time of day had I been the recipient of his letter.  I have followed Tom’s work for years now, and while I have a sincere appreciation for his style, hard work, and passion with which he writes, I also feel a kinship with Tom first because he is a man of faith (the Christian faith as am I), and secondly because he is a Marine as is my son (someone stupidly called Tom an ex-Marine, forgetting that there is no such thing as an “ex-Marine”).  I generally have very good judgment when it comes to people, and it brings me some degree of joy that I am proven right this time around too.

There is an important update to Smith’s sources in Lebanon.

It’s one thing to be embroiled in the recent media circus surrounding my reporting from Lebanon; it’s quite another to learn that in the midst of that circus – though having nothing to do with it – one of my strongest sources while I was in Lebanon, Gen. Francois Hajj, was assassinated Wednesday.

Hajj, 55, a Maronite Catholic and the director of operations for the Lebanese Army, was killed in a car-bomb attack, on the route between his home and his office at the Ministry of Defense in Beirut. It’s been reported that he “was considered a leading candidate to succeed the head of the military, Gen. Michel Suleiman [Sleiman], if Suleiman is elected president” …

During my time in Lebanon – September and October of this year – Hajj was one of my strongest sources. And despite my railing against the often under-reported threat of Hezbollah activities in Lebanon – as well as what I perceived to be problems within the military — Hajj pulled some serious strings enabling me to gain greater access to elements within the defense structure from which I had been previously barred.

Smith describes one meeting with Hajj: “As I entered his office — his desk covered with several huge maps of Lebanon, a couple of cell phones, and a single pack of Marlboros – Gen. Hajj was discussing something (unintelligible to me because it was in Arabic) with another general. The other general and I shook hands, he left the office, and Hajj ordered coffee for the two of us. We discussed everything from current security operations in Lebanon to the recent fighting at Nahr al-Bared. He then showed me an exclusive video tape – not seen by outsiders [he told me] – of the fighting at Bared, including some truly grisly images of killed Fatah al-Islam fighters.”

While I don’t know Allbritton, I do know that an Army doesn’t long survive without good intelligence.  My judgment now is as it was before.  Sources – good sources – can sometimes be better than your own eyes.  Smith’s sources were good, and this raises a question – not about Smith, but about Allbritton.  What story, exactly, is it that he is getting, and why does it disagree so markedly with the one given by Army intelligence?   Perhaps Allbritton should be questioning the authenticity and truthfulness of his own writing.

In the mean time, I regret that Thomas Smith is no longer at NRO.  I will miss his perspective at NRO very much.  As for Allbritton, he is a flash in a pan, and his five minutes of fame are over.  I will never read his prose again, and am sorry to have spent even the two minutes it took to read it.  Thomas Smith will land on his feet.  The quality of my judgment remains intact, and it is my hope that this humble little blog can still correspond with Tom in his future endeavors.


  1. On December 17, 2007 at 5:32 am, LT Nixon said:

    The whole Thomas Smith and Baghdad Diarist thing got so heavily politicized by the pundits that it called into question the credibility of milblogging. It just goes to show that no one wants to hear an honest opinion about our country’s and other country’s conflicts through an unbiased prism.

  2. On December 18, 2007 at 3:35 am, Brian H said:

    Hear, hear! Thomas was railroaded by one of the most hypocritical campaigns I have ever had the misfortune to see succeed. He was at least half of why I read The Tank, and I will tune in instantly and constantly wherever he posts next. (Hint, hint).

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