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 everyone — 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 excuse Williams and I don’t believe that he just got “mixed up” or succumbed to the “fog of war.” But I think his savage excoriation is a reflection of America’s extremely unhealthy, even dangerous, adulation of all things military. Journalists should be held to high ethical standards. But Williams’ transgression wasn’t really material to his job, and really, I’m touched by a nation that so despises and distrusts journalists that now seems to think they should be immune to the near-universal human trait of telling white lies.
So I don’t defend Williams. But I do think I can explain him.
In nearly five years of research for a book I’m writing, I’ve spoken to 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, now 55.
Williams, like I, came of age in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, when the idea of 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 decision at the time.
Yet as we grew older, things changed. Starting with Ronald Reagan’s efforts to restore the reputation of a military establishment tarnished by losing a brutal, nasty war, accelerating with bogus “interventions” like Grenada, exploding with the “successful” (if not politically) Gulf war, including the unnecessary slaughter of 100,000 fleeing Iraqi soldiers, and reaching the stratosphere after 9/11 and a couple of other dubious (for both the troops and the nation) wars in the George W. Bush era, the millions of us who did not serve saw not just respect, but over-the-top, overweening, unexamined worship of the troops by most Americans. 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 some faint “connection” to things military. 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 fierce 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, and rather than assume malicious intent or heap approbation on us, I choose to feel compassion. 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 foolish, hapless strategies of millions of men who cannot reconcile that we will never face this supposed “ultimate test” of manhood.
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.
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