I myself was on a Chinook helicopter in 2004 an important mission during the Iraq war. I was standing by the open hatch behind the cockpit. A violent burst of machine gun fire went off inches from my head. I was startled. But I’m a trained professional journalist, and I kept my cool even when we were forced to land in the Middle Eastern desert.
That is my 6 PM version of the events. However, at the moment it is 10 AM. And all I’ve had to drink is two cups of coffee and glass of orange juice.
We were forced to land in the Middle Eastern desert because air traffic control told us to. The desert was hundreds of miles from the fighting, at a well-defended U.S. airbase in Kuwait. The violent burst of machinegun fire came from our machinegun, inside the Chinook, aimed a junkyard full of wrecked Kuwaiti cars.
And our important mission was to throw Dixie Chicks CDs out the helicopter window because their lead singer had announced she was against the war and was ashamed that President George W. Bush was a fellow Texan, a sentiment not shared by the Chinook crew members, a number of whom were from Texas. Also we were supposed to see if the machine gun worked.
Now, would you care to hear my 11 PM version of the events? Perhaps not. It gets at least as violent, scary and morally fraught as American Sniper. And, while I won’t claim to have been as brave as Chris Kyle, I will claim to have been every bit as brave as Bradley Cooper.
Welcome, Brian Williams, to the International Association of Guys Who’ve Been to War – And Lied About It Later in the Bar. (I.A.G.W.B2W. -- L.A.I.L.) Membership includes everybody who’s been to war or near a war or in rough proximity to something that is remotely comparable to the dangers and hazards of war, such a being a teenage volunteer fireman who saved puppies from a smoky building.
I, like you, Brian, was a reporter in some troubled places – Lebanon, El Salvador, Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, (where, in fact, I came under that very same sniper fire which greeted Hillary and Chelsea Clinton) and, of course, Iraq.
I have a younger friend who is presently a reporter in some places that are even more troubled – Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda and the Congo. My younger friend just came to visit me for a ski weekend in New Hampshire where it’s been 30 degrees below zero with winds blowing at the force of Hurricane Katrina, snow (doubtless full of frozen skier dead bodies) drifting too deep for us to escape the Lift Line Bar and Grill where we courted serious health problems drinking our lunch while the ski lodge was terrorized by rowdy snow boarder teens. This being what we told my wife and his girlfriend when we got back from skiing at about the time the David Letterman show goes on the air.
While my younger friend – we’ll call him Tom -- and I were pounding through the moguls, doing flips off 4-meter jumps and performing halfpipe 360s down the double black diamond run known in the Lift Line Bar and Grill as “Mahogany Ridge,” a certain NBC anchorman “made a mistake in recalling events.” Maybe somewhat like the mistake in recalling events I’m making right now, with my recollection of having planted that 360 perfectly.
Tom and I searched our memories. We have, between us, more than half a century of personal experience with people who fought, covered, survived, or who were otherwise wandering around lost, clueless and conflating in the fog of war.
We couldn’t think of anyone who hadn’t Brian Williamsed. We gave up and began telling war stories to the very cute barmaid.
At Elaine’s Restaurant in New York in the 1970s, Elaine kept a table reserved for James Jones, Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, and Irwin Shaw, authors, respectively, of From Here to Eternity, The Naked and the Dead, The Caine Mutiny and The Young Lions.
Put those four books together and you have the Iliad of WWII. Elaine called the four authors “The Old Lions.” Elaine told me, “Every year the attack on Pearl Harbor sinks more aircraft carriers, the Banzai! charges come faster and thicker in the jungles of the South Pacific, the kamikaze pilots blow up a larger part of the ship and each of these guys takes an another hill single-handed.”
Think what a crap book the Iliad would be if it told the real story of Greeks spending ten years squatting in the mud besieging a one-horse, as it were, town in the sticks of Asia Minor.
And just the other night, after a very long day of skiing, I told a story similar to the story that Ulysses told Penelope in the Odyssey about why he was so late getting back from the Trojan War.
My Uncle Mikey-Mike had an even better story about fighting (mostly single-handed) the battle of Iwo Jima. Uncle Mikey-Mike was a Marine. He spent the war stateside in the hospital with an infected toe. But around my house we thought of Uncle Mikey-Mike’s stories (which commenced after 6 PM) as “bungled attempts to honor one special veteran” – Uncle Mikey-Mike.
So here’s to you, Brian Williams. I can’t say what will happen to your career at NBC, though it doesn’t look good. But I can tell you this, you’ll always be welcome in that most harrowing of war zones, Mahogany Ridge, from which shelled and bullet-ridded heights all the best war-reporting – starting with Homer and ending with, um, you – has been recounted.
Unless, of course, you fail to buy your fellow grizzled veterans with the thousand-yard stares, who are themselves pinned down upon Mahogany Ridge, a round of drinks.
In which case NBC should tie you to your news anchor and throw you in the Hudson River.