Last weekend, I visited the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space museum in Northern Virginia. When I got to the section devoted to The Vietnam War–the planes, helicopters, and multimedia displays–I cried under my breath. I respond exactly the same way when I visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. This might be because I see the names of dead friends on the wall or because I recall that war, my service, and those who died for nothing.
I recall a shipmate from Wisconsin who swore that he played for the Green Bay Packers. I was just off another boat from England and I had no idea who the Packers were. When our ship played a bloody touch football game on Guam between the Deck Apes and the Operation Pussies, we discovered that this veteran had trouble getting his hand around a regulation football. The Pussies won anyway.
This quarterback on the GB farm team held fast to his story for the rest of the cruise, even in the face of relentless mockery. Once back in port in San Francisco, he did acknowledge that the Packers put him on waivers due to a bad arm. He apparently needed his righteous story more than the respect of the crew. Today, I think my family in Green Bay would hang, draw and quarter the impostor.
I knew an executive at a New York media company—my boss– who swore he was in the first Gulf War and frequently used military jargon to open and close meetings. I was pleased to be in the company of another veteran and tried to engage him unsuccessfully in the usual chatter about boot camp, his unit, his time on the ground and the like. I asked him about Kuwait and Iraq. I was tempted to ask him his service number. But I sensed almost immediately that he had never served, a fact confirmed by an online search. Still his military bon mots continued.
He left the company soon after my arrival and landed a senior position another NYC media company where he is probably still telling his stories. And he is not alone. I recall an assistant in another NYC publishing company telling me about her boyfriend who claimed to have been in the Navy Seals. She was a little suspicious, and asked if I would mind joining them for a drink? As a Navy veteran who had spent some time underwater and a lot of time at sea, I agreed. The young man couldn’t even remember the type of helicopter he had jumped from on his way to all those delicious and sexy missions.
Military veterans, like the police, can usually smell an impostor at a hundred yards. I am always a little angry and amused when I hear about another stolen valor case when someone poses as a military veteran, usually draped with ten-cent medals and not infrequently marching at our nation’s largest malls, proving that he well understands our national psyche.
Americans seem to love the tribal story-telling. In NYC after the 9/11 attacks, the bars were filled with those who boasted of rushing head first into that horror. Years later, the courts have been filled with cases against those who, flush with stolen valor, have tried to make a buck off their hustle.
I know very little about Brian Williams other than he resided in the media and celebrity ether. I don’t watch the evening news because I’m biased towards the British version of the news anchor, dutifully referred to as a news reader. That change would take some of the narcissism out of the American news banquet and lessen our appetite for creating the Wise Old Man before he has reached full maturity.
When I first heard that Williams lied about taking fire while on a helicopter during the Iraq war, I remained at parade rest. After all, I live in New York and everyone has a story. I recall when I was almost finished with my novel, USS Bunker Kills: A Sea Story, I went to Washington D.C. to read an actual copy of the ship’s log, some of which I had prepared. It was like reading a roadside menu at an unremarkable steak house. The log correctly stated I was aboard an ammunition ship delivering 2,000-pound bombs to the Tonkin Gulf. But what about the firebug on board, the race riots, sex below decks, at-sea skirmishes, a crazy skipper and the typhoon that almost killed us?
A log book is the mirror of the public activities of a ship. It can’t hold below-deck secrets. And this is the military, after all, that is in the business of suppressing information. Perhaps I was caught in the fog of sea and war. Perhaps I was remembering and writing fiction. Perhaps I was and remain a walking sea story.
Brian Williams was telling a sea story. It got richer in the telling, especially when David Letterman was drooling over Williams’ bravery. I don’t really care if the anchor misled the public. The media took us on a long, costly and deceitful ride on the run up to and during the Iraq War and few if any paid a price. The revisionists are back and the sea stories are in flower. This is the order of the day and Williams got a little too close to that flame.
What really pisses me off is that Williams stole hard-earned valor from worthy men and for that reason alone he should have been fired. It is only fitting in this season of patriotic gore that Stars and Stripes broke this embossed story of courage beyond the pale.
On reflection, I wish the American public had been just as quick to condemn the Big Lie, known as the Iraq War, as it was to condemn Brian Williams who, not unlike his evening constituency, seemed very comfortable playing at war under the hot and devastating media lights that took an awful toll on his restless hide.
But we all got burned.