Brian Williams’ White Lie — Another Look

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Clay Bonnyman Evans

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 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.

Clay Bonnyman Evans is a journalist and author living in Colorado. He invites you to visit his site, http://www.claybonnymanevans.com. You may reach him at claybonnyman@gmail.com.

16 thoughts on “Brian Williams’ White Lie — Another Look

  1. American culture puts far too much emphasis on military service, and especially on combat, as conveying “authenticity” and manliness. Brian Williams seems to have been looking for that “authenticity,” the kind embodied in “there I was” war stories. So he “misremembered” exciting stories of peril, placing himself at the center of them. And then he compounded the lie by equivocating and dissembling in his initial apology.

    Does he deserve censure? Yes. Is he being punished? Yes. But he also deserves a measure of compassion and understanding – and a second chance as well.

    • I really, really find it hard to feel compassion for a guy who is paid $10,000,000 a year to be an honest reporter when he tells lies about his role as a reporter in certain operations he was on assignment.

      • Think about it, traven. Here’s a guy who’s reached the pinnacle of his profession, pulling down a cool $10M a year, yet he feels compelled to tell false war stories about himself. Most of us would be more than satisfied to be a journalist/celebrity like Williams, yet that wasn’t enough for him. He had to exaggerate the dangers he’s faced. For that flaw, and for his fall from grace, I do feel a measure of compassion, which doesn’t mean that I excuse his behavior.

  2. Brian Williams isn’t just another American. He is the lead NEWS man on a main stream TV network with several million viewers. . If he is caught lying on any subject his, and his employer’s, claim to delivering honest reporting is legitimately in question. His lie was not a “little white lie” but a smug move for self aggrandizement. This guy is a coward of the first order. If you remember his hasty exit from live covering of the Egyptian spring uprising one day after he arrived because he saw he wasn’t greeted by adulating young Egyptian youths but a .real dangerous uprising of oppressed people that had already attacked another woman reporter.
    I do not agree that “….the reputation of a military establishment tarnished by losing a brutal, nasty war…” was a major factor in the American public’s mind. I do believe that the political lies of both Kennedy (the ‘Domino’ Theory made us do it) and Johnson’s Tonkin Gulf lie made our citizens suspicious of our politicians leading us into a military debacle..
    It disappoints me that so many commentators on this Williams foolishness fail to bell the right cat. The close ties between the small group of corporations who own virtually all US media and their stooges in Washington who continue to lie to the citizenry and the other obscenely wealthy who finance the entire circus are the criminal cats. We’re the mice, they’re the cats.
    After 9/11 these cats decided it was the right time to steal our country and eat the mice so they made perpetual fear and perpetual war a fact of life that if you opposed it you were unAmerican. As a mouse I don’t believe we need more “support for the troops” that has cost our country’s riches.
    What we need is a good “cat trap”.

    • The Falling Domino Theory was spoken first by Pres. Dwight Eisenhower over the subject of communism within IndoChina. It was not “made” by JFK.

      To me, the best example of a manufactured excuse for war was the inflammatory headlines by Hearst/Pulitzer declaring “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain.” Claiming our capital ship was sunk in Havana harbor by an enemy torpedo (i.e. mine). We entered war under the presidency of McKinley, a Republican…who was arguably pushed into the enterprise by patronage seeking leaches and other military- industrialists. Of course, history and scientific analysis have proven conclusively the ship sank from an internal explosion within its own munitions stores. As John Paul Jones might’ve said…”Oops!”

      Seems we haven’t justifiably entered into armed conflicts more than once over the last 150 years…and all have been profitable for a select few.

      Grenada…seriously…Grenada?!??!? Shortly thereafter I entered the US Naval Academy, where I was inundated with CIA’s “Soviet Military Power” publication to Congress. Read, studied, and memorized every fact and figure within each annual publication (else a very light lunch was assured). We all later learned…10 years later…CIA cooked the books to ensure a sufficient level of legislative fear in order to feed Reagan’s debt financed growth in the DoD. Boy…they got me scared too! So much for fact based intelligence.

      Later, when the Cold War “ended”, it was my boat that gave Adm. Chernavin, the head of the Soviet Navy, …then FSU…then CIS/Russian Navy…an unclassified tour. I honestly don’t remember what flag his limousine was flying when it arrived at our pier. The first Russian tour of a US nuclear sub in history. Not long after priorities shifted, with the War on Drugs taking center stage! Nuclear subs chasing Jimmy Buffet in a sailboat. I admit, that’s a bit hyperbolic…only a bit. You can probably find an archived clip of my same boat giving GMA’s Joan Lunden a tour and explaining the nuclear submarine’s special role in this new war. Yes…no more silent service…apparently silence doesn’t pay the bills.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behind_Closed_Doors_%281996_TV_series%29

      • Eisenhower, yes. I am almost one-third through reading Christian Appy’s AMERICAN RECKONING: THE VIETNAM WAR AND OUR NATIONAL IDENTITY. I have already discovered some eye-opening stuff, for one (i.e. myself) who opposed that war in the streets and from within the ranks of the US Army. The info on JFK should knock his rep down a few notches among the “Camelot”-worshipping crowd. I want to bring up a Cold War fact that I think gets insufficient attention: after the collapse of the USSR, the CIA (or someone high in government) admitted that Premier Khrushchev’s claim that the Russkies would “bury” the US was a deliberate mistranslation. K. was speaking of Socialism in general versus Capitalism in the “West,” and he actually said “We will SURPASS you,” in technological, cultural, educational, health care, etc. arenas. I think this was revealed on “60 Minutes” or some such show, and quickly and conveniently forgotten by 99.9% of Americans. If a threat doesn’t exist, invent or manufacture one. That’s the way to keep the Military-Industrial Complex humming happily along.

      • Yes, that’s true, Greg. A good friend of mine is a Soviet expert. He explained that Khrushchev’s “bury” comment was meant as surpassing the U.S. in the economic sphere: that the U.S. would be outproduced and outclassed by the Soviet command economy. It was not a military boast.

  3. If you were in a Helicopter and it was hit by small arms fire you’d remember it… Period!! Come on Man!. What’s the saying “Don’t B.S. a B.S.er.! I was never a fan of Williams anyway– preferring Scott Pelley of CBS.His fault is a lack of “Integrity” I’ve worked in extremely masculine Careers/ Jobs M.P. Air Force,Security Forces & Municipal City 100,000 population Firefighting Forces, and I did see a natural tendency sometimes of my fellow Brothers to embellish, but on T.V. never, maybe with your buddies at a Bar!. Williams will no doubt survive this, but he will be damaged goods. I’d suggest early retirement…

    • It’s funny, Phil: I was never a fan of Williams either. I thought he was a little too precious, a little too stuck on himself. But I didn’t suspect he was telling fish stories about himself.

      Well, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

  4. As a veteran who opposed the War Against the Peoples of Southeast Asia (a.k.a. Vietnam War) from within the military with every fiber of my being, it would never have occurred to me that a generation or two later young men (and some women, I guess) would develop “camo envy,” if I may (perhaps?) coin a phrase. Very perceptive article. Fundamentally, as I have pointed out endlessly in this forum, the prevailing ideas in society are those propagated to the benefit of the Ruling Class. They have chosen Perpetual War as America’s gift to the world, so the Cult of the Warrior serves their purposes. As for Fox “News,” I would think their personnel would be disciplined for NOT telling whoppers on air! Personally, I’m not picturing Brian Williams making a comeback from this debacle. Time to go live out your Golden Years in a secluded island paradise, dude!

    • Rulers’ ideas rule, Greg. Yet isn’t it amazing how the “rulers” exempt themselves from service in the military, and especially from combat! Even as they perpetuate war, they also perpetuate their own privilege to exempt themselves from it.

      And so it goes …

  5. Williams should have enough money to live comfortably for life. Hopefully, after spreading falsehood and obfuscation for so many years, he’ll experience some type of “truth epiphany” and reveal all the important facts he knowingly concealed from the millions of viewers who believed, and were misled by, his dog and pony show. That would be real danger in a real battle, and he could be proud to honestly tell his grandchildren the details of his authentic, important “war stories”.

  6. agree in large part…you may need to lighten up on yourself ..on the issue of a grandfather or father war hero, or your own lack of military service..I was the last of my generation to go in the service of my brothers and nieces and nephews, for better or for worse it is no longer an mainstay of our shared experience.

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