There are rules for telling war stories: You can’t pretend to be braver, cooler, or in greater danger than you really were. People exaggerate all the time in everyday life, but with war stories, where the bigger questions are so hard to resolve, the details are everything. News anchor Brian Williams broke those rules, and now he’s paying for it.
For more than a decade, Williams has been saying that he was riding in an Army helicopter when it was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. “The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq,” Williams said this past Friday during a televised tribute to a retired soldier. “The helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.”
It’s a story Williams has repeated for television audiences over the years. Only this time the soldiers who were on board the helicopters that took fire in 2003 responded. It wasn’t true, crew members on the 159th Aviation Regiment told Stars and Stripes. Williams was “nowhere near that aircraft or two other Chinooks flying in the formation that took fire,” they said.
On Wednesday, the day the Stars and Stripes story broke, the news anchor recanted. He wrote a letter of apology to the flight crew of the downed bird and made a contrite address during his news broadcast.
In his letter Williams seems befuddled by his own recollections from 12 years ago, surprised by this turn and the discovery that he wasn’t in the bird that was shot down. He acknowledged the story was false but said that by telling it he was only trying to honor soldiers who guarded the downed helicopters.
Williams’s mea culpa—you can read it in full here—has a lot of mea in it, and not so much culpa. He admits to the lie but stays agnostic about the liar. “I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams told Stars and Stripes. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another…the fog of memory over 12 years—made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”
The fog seems to have gathered over the years. In an NBC News clip from March 26, 2003, the day of the attack, Williams sounds similar to his post-apology version of the event. At the time he reported, “on the ground, we learn that the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown of the sky.”
Maybe Williams really did get mixed up about whether he was in the helicopter that got rocked by RPG fire. But he didn’t only tell his story at veterans’ events or as part of his newscast, be brought it out in an appearance on David Letterman and in an interview with Alec Baldwin. His confusion, if that’s what it was, manifested in a public anecdote that was both self-serving, establishing Williams’s “in the shit” credentials, and, it seems, tied to his attempt at honoring veterans.
The Letterman appearance is from 2013, 10 years after Williams was in Iraq, and he’s still telling the story. It’s a polished routine, not an impromptu recollection. Williams starts off with a bit of aw shucks preamble. “As war correspondents go, I am the Herb Schmendrick of war correspondents. I’m not very good at it,” he tells Letterman. But that’s just the setup, and a moment later Williams is talking about being shot down over “Indian country” in Iraq. And then a moment after that he’s talking about the soldiers who came to his rescue.
For a story that just drifted away from the truth, lost in a fog, it seems quite well rehearsed.
Memories of war are as susceptible to error and embellishment as any other kind of recollection. Recall how it ended with someone you loved, then see if they remember it the same way. Memories aren’t facts, they’re claims on truth. War rattles and breaks survivors, and worms inside the brains of people who had only glancing experiences with combat. But invoking the specter of war to justify Williams’s telling fibs on TV is absurd.
Why would he lie? One motive is obvious. He’d gone to a war zone and wanted to bring back a piece of the real thing to show off he was there. That’s a fairly common impulse. Some people tell their tales to strangers in bars, others try to impress their friends. If you’re Brian Williams, you tell it to a camera with millions of people watching.
It’s rare that the Brian Williamses of the world get called out by this kind of military truth commission. Most of the time veterans are applying these rules to each other, sniffing out claims of military service and vetting overcooked tales of daring. The judgments in those cases are less public than what Williams is facing but no less severe.
So Williams broke the rule and got caught. Now what should be done with him? Let him go. Williams made his apology. The flight crew that was there with him in 2003 can decide if it was sufficiently sincere.
It’s not a military or veterans’ issue anymore. It’s his credibility as a reporter that’s in question now, and that’s a whole different set of rules.