Both explanations are plausible, that’s the most doleful aspect of the Brian Williams drama currently playing out. In the abstract at least, it’s as equally possible that someone could lie about coming under fire in a war zone, as it is they might “misremember” it.
In Williams’s case it’s an oft-repeated, 12-year old story dating from the earliest days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. What seems beyond dispute (although very little can be described that way in this fast-moving story), then-NBC reporter (now anchor) Brian Williams and his crew were in a Chinook helicopter traveling with American forces. Some unknown or unclear distance away, another Chinook, or perhaps a formation of them, was on the receiving end of small-arms and RPG fire, and at least one chopper was forced down. And at some unknown time later, Williams’s Chinook landed in the desert nearby.
Over the years the recounting of that story has changed, culminating most recently, in 2013, with appearances on David Letterman’s “The Late Show,” and shortly thereafter on Alec Baldwin’s WNYC podcast. In both retellings, Williams was now claiming to have been aboard the Chinook that was hit by an RPG, and which made a forced landing.
Over the last several days Williams has apologized, both on the air and in the NBC studio to his staff, for what he said was a mistake. NBC has reportedly launched an investigation, and “Brian Williams misremembers” has become a red-hot meme.
So far there’s been a lot of disdain for Brian Williams, and very little sympathy. Perhaps that’s appropriate. The concept if not the phrasing of stolen valor certainly isn’t new (I sadly recall meeting at least one self-proclaimed Medal of Honor recipient whose name, oddly enough, doesn’t appear on the rolls), but it’s gained harsh new sanction in these twilight days of the long wars. It’s a natural sort of justice that for every blowhard that claims to have been there, done that, killed many…there are probably a dozen who were really there, and who came away equipped and inclined to expose the lie.
But, as I asserted at the top, it mightn’t always be a lie. I’m in no position to say for certain (can any of us be?), but something tells me Brian Williams hit the nail on the head during his on-air recantation, when he said “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind….”
There’s this thing we all know, but are reluctant to admit: memory is terrifyingly unreliable. The underpinnings of our justice system, where the word of the eyewitness is still damn near sacrosanct, is just one of the things that will be seriously shaken when and if we ever come to grips with this fact.
Another, maybe, is our own sense of self-worth. For some reason we see a faculty for recall as evidence of soundness. Faulty memory, then, must be a sign of weakness or decay. But it’s not that simple.
It seems to be a simple fact of biology that our brains are wired to confound our recollection of things we actually experienced or observed. Why? Because we don’t seem to make any real neural distinction between real occurrences, and things we only think happened. Ruminate on events long enough, visualize alternate versions of them, even dream about them, and you’ll cement neural pathways that will convince you that circumstances unfolded the way you imagined, regardless of reality.
Ever seen Casablanca? Unless you’ve just rewatched it there’s a very good chance you clearly remember Rick grumbling “Play it again, Sam“…even though that line is never uttered in the film.
I think that on that day in March 2003 Brian Williams was thoroughly cognizant of what was happening and to whom. I think that in the days, weeks, and years to follow he never intended to deceive anyone, least of all himself. But I think that as the time passed he thought back upon what was clearly a chaotic, impressive, scary episode…and he unconsciously constructed a version that ‘might have been.’ And eventually, for him at least, that version supplanted reality.
Had Williams set out simply to lie, to somehow steal valor, he surely must have known what a dangerous game he was playing. He wasn’t that bent-back old mechanic who told me he’d slit thirty Cong throats. He was the NBC Nightly News anchor. He was someone begging to be exposed.
The ultimate irony is that it doesn’t matter either way, the final result is the same. As long as we collectively and secretly loathe memory lapses as signposts of our own inevitable frailties, Brian Williams will be punished for his, just as severely as if it were a proven lie. Both iniquities are blows to credibility, and lacking that, how can a network news anchor survive? Brian Williams is finished.