Brian Williams and the Fog of Time

Posted By Bruce Boyle on February 10, 2015

There are things that are certainly true about NBC anchor Brian Williams and what he has been near.

He did ride in at least one helicopter in Iraq at a time when at least one other helicopter took hostile fire.

He did ride in at least one helicopter in Israel at a time when rockets were being fired at Israel from Lebanon.

He was in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina at a time when bodies floated in some streets.

It was his job to observe these experiences and it is to his shame that he has somehow managed to turn at least one of those ‘observed’ experiences into a ‘shared’ experience.

So now he has announced a few voluntary days off while journalists and veterans express their outrage and suggest how severely he be punished.

What we would most like to know, though, is simple. Why?

After all, he was not running for office, circumstances that have often caught politicians inflating military experiences. His lie about being aboard a helicopter under fire brought him no promotion or other enrichment.

It may be that he so desperately wanted to be included in some imaginary ‘Band of Brothers’ as he grew older that he took the aftermath of what he had witnessed or seen on film and made it his own story. It was in just that way that President Ronald Reagan conflated his U.S. wartime job editing film related to the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp into actually being in Europe for the liberation—a story he told more than once.

It is interesting that the perpetrators of these stories claim proximity, rather than heroism. Williams did not say that his Chinook pilot was shot down and he had to land the aircraft all alone. President Reagan did not say that he climbed over barbed wire with guns blazing in his liberation effort, nor did Hillary Clinton claim any heroism after falsely saying she came under sniper fire at a Bosnian landing site.

‘Nearness’ seems to be enough. Or it is all that we think we can get away with.

As a reporter I remember being at crime scenes or fires where cops or firefighters had performed bravely. Later, you could sit with them having a couple of beers, having some loose association or appreciation, but you really hadn’t had a shared experience if you were honest about it.

In a much earlier war than the one Williams has lied about I spent a lot of time in smaller Huey helicopters as a soldier and on occasion they would come under small arms fire. It would be easy to say I remember this all vividly, but vividly certainly isn’t always accurately.

It may be Williams aspires to this club. Here’s what I remember from my days in those helicopters. Everyone was pretty young and most of us wished this wasn’t happening. The pilots and crew were less afraid of being in the air than being on the ground. The rest of us felt exactly the opposite. The gunners wore chest protectors that looked like the old fashioned ones worn by baseball umpires.

The crews did their jobs and I can’t remember ever having known any of their names, even though I flew around with them often until the day I got shot myself—a day I remember most often on cold, damp days.

So I have not ‘conflated’ my combat experience but that does not make me immune.

You should be in my head or hear me when I think or talk about playground basketball. I’m always taking the last shot and it always goes in and there is always a bevvy of cheerleaders who look like supermodels dying for me to take them to the prom.

I just don’t talk like that on television.