NBC news anchor Brian Williams has been suspended for six months without pay, after falsely claiming that a helicopter he was riding in over Iraq on March 24, 2003 was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.
The public has been savage in practically demanding the newsman’s crucifixion for telling a “white lie” — for that’s what it was — particularly considering that pretty much — even Geraldo Rivera to Hillary Clinton — has told such lies about themselves, if not necessarily about combat. And isn’t it odd that nobody called for the head of Fox News host and dedicated chickenhawk Bill O’Reilly when he told incredible whoppers about his “combat” experience? He doesn’t actually have any, even as a journalist, and his lies about “my unit” seem to imply that he served in the military (he didn’t).
I don’t believe Williams, 55, succumbed to the “fog of war”; he lied. Journalists should be held to high ethical standards, but his transgression wasn’t really material to his job. And really, I’m touched by a nation that so despises and distrusts journalists now seems to think they should be immune to the near-universal human trait of telling white lies. And I think his savage excoriation is a reflection of America’s extremely unhealthy, even dangerous, adulation of all things military.
So I don’t defend Williams. But I do think I can explain him.
In research for a book over the past five years, I’ve interviewed scores of active-duty military and veterans. I’ve also spoken to many men around my age and younger (down to perhaps mid-30s) whose internal conflicts mirror what I think was going on with Williams.
Williams came of age, as I did, in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, when military service was anathema to the vast majority of young American men (this phenomenon does not seem to apply to women). This was, despite the criticism of men from the earlier draft era, a pretty sensible judgment at the time.
Yet as we grew older, things changed. Starting with Ronald Reagan’s efforts to restore the reputation of a military tarnished by losing a brutal war, accelerating with bogus “interventions” like Grenada, exploding with the “successful” (if not politically) Gulf war — with its gratuitous slaughter of some 100,000 retreating Iraqi troops — and reaching the stratosphere after 9/11 and two more disastrous, dubious wars in the George W. Bush era — good for neither the troops nor the nation — millions of us who did not serve witnessed the rise of not just respect, but overweening, unexamined worship of the troops. The guilt, the inadequacy … perhaps those not in our situation can’t understand.
Through interviews and experience working on military-related projects, I have come to believe that the vast majority of “us” seek, unconsciously or otherwise, to soften the blow by touting whatever faint “connection” to things military we can muster. It manifests in countless ways: rich financiers boasting to a soldier how they “almost” joined after 9/11; men who fetishize military hardware and weapons; extreme “chickenhawk” belligerence and blind, furious support for any and all military action; grown men playing “Vietnam R&R” overseas — I’ve seen this — getting drunk and hiring third-world prostitutes; participating in boot-camp style competitions like the Muddy Buddy; playing soldier by donning a casual Marine outfit (floppy bush hat, olive-green t-shirt, khakis tucked into unlaced boots); offensive (and embarrassing) incidents of “stolen valor,” in which men pretend they served, dress the part, even claim medals they found online; or in my case, mentioning the fact that I have a war hero grandfather a little too often, hoping it somehow buys me a little cred. For Williams, it was an exaggeration of the personal danger he faced while in the field.
I believe most of this is unconscious. Military prowess is too much a measure of “manhood” in our culture; veterans abused by the military and forgotten by the government naturally band together and attack the hapless strategies of millions of us who cannot reconcile that we will never face this supposed “ultimate test” of manhood. But however foolish, it is more deserving of understanding than approbation.
But hierarchical competition is rampant within the military as well. World War II veterans trash Vietnam vets for “losing their war”; Vietnam vets trash modern troops that do not have to face brutal, up-close combat; there is a totem pole of “legitimacy” — Did you see combat? Were you special forces, a Ranger, a SEAL? Special forces trump Marines, which trump Army, trump Navy, trump Air Force and so on, true or not.
We need soldiers. But we also need a new kind of support for the troops: A more responsible citizenry willing to examine our violent, war-loving — yes — culture and question politicians and generals who count on our support to wage perpetual war. We need definitions of “masculine” that include not just the war hero or firefighter, but moral and compassionate heroes who stand up for the weak, for justice, for what’s right.
Enjoy your vacation, Brian Williams. I, for one, understand.