In Defense of Brian Williams's Almost-Memories

Public figures exaggerate the danger they've faced all the time—even though they're often caught.

Matt Rourke/AP

What was Brian Williams thinking?

Maybe he wasn't thinking at all. Maybe he was thinking about things he'd seen. Maybe he just wanted to impress his listeners. Maybe he didn't want to come back empty-handed: I went to Iraq and all I got was this Dateline segment.

Whatever the reason, Williams has been telling people about a harrowing incident in Iraq for years now. Here's how he told it last Friday, as reported by Stars & Stripes:

The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG. Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.

Dramatic stuff—if it had happened. Williams showed up some time after the fight. Some of the soldiers who really were fired upon were upset about the embellishment and told Stars & Stripes, forcing Williams to recant his story and apologize. “I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” he said. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”

It's tough to swallow. How do you misremember whether you were in a helicopter that was hit by a grenade? But of course Williams is hardly the first to exaggerate his personal experiences—it's not for nothing that "telling war stories" is a synonym for telling fish stories. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, saw his campaign rocked in 2010 when it emerged that even though he'd been telling stories about having served "in Vietnam" for years, when in fact he'd been only in the United States, as a member of the Marine Corps Reserves during that war.

In 2008, while assailing presidential rival Barack Obama for his lack of foreign-policy experience, Hillary Clinton told of a hairy arrival into Sarajevo in 1996. "I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base," she said. But it wasn't true: As Reuters noted, "They were greeted by a young girl in a small ceremony on the tarmac and there was no sign of tension or any danger." (Anne Morse chronicled a long lineage of faux heroes in 2005, if you want more.)

There are especially strong reasons why public figures would want to be especially careful. All of these lies are both easily debunked by witnesses and documents (Clinton, as first lady, was tailed by a large press contingent!) and subject to widespread public opprobrium. Congress has repeatedly passed, and presidents have signed, laws that criminalize false claims about military service or military decorations and honors, though the Supreme Court has sometimes struck these laws down as unconstitutional violations of free speech.

Williams's claim still stands out. It's clear what Clinton and Blumenthal had to gain politically. It's less clear what Williams would have to gain. After all, jaded Americans expect a certain amount of lily-gilding from their politicians, but as a newscaster, Williams's credibility, along with that authoritative voice, is his livelihood. He got it right initially. Watching the original segment, Williams is clear that he was never under fire, though helicopter pilots ahead of him on the same route were.

"We should of course add one more note about the men doing the real work just a few feet from us," Williams said as the segment ended. "There is no way to overstate the comfort of having an armored platoon looking over your platoon." (In fact, watching the segment from 2015, it offers some bleak foreshadowing about the course the invasion of Iraq would take over the following decade: hidden dangers, a resistant population, combatants hidden amongst civilians, no hero's welcome for American troops.)

As TVNewser notes, the story became more and more elaborate over time. By the time he was on David Letterman's show in 2013, Williams was a swashbuckling Ernie Pyle, right in the thick of it: "We landed very quickly, and hard .…We got hit, we set down, everyone was okay. Our captain took a Purple Heart injury to his ear in the cockpit." That Purple Heart is such a specific detail to pull out of thin air.

Everyone likes to have a good story, and everyone wants to seem like a hero. Maybe the urge is especially acute for a man like Williams, who, at 55, is in the first cohort of men in some time not subject to the draft. But to lie is to be human. Most lies we tell are self-centered, as Williams's were, though most lies seem to be told to people we're in relationships with. Few lies are premeditated: In one study, respondents "did not put much planning into their lies, they generally did not regard their lies as serious, and they claimed that it was not all that important to them to avoid getting caught telling their lies."

Lies like Williams's also require acquiescence of those around, as psychologist Bella DePaulo wrote discussing the Blumenthal case:

A solo lie can be a solo act, but to unfurl a whole string of successful deceits, you are going to need a supporting cast. Effective liars often start recruiting people even before they’ve told the first untruth. Many have great social skills, and are able to make friends and help other people. Sometimes they impress people in power, who then invest in them and mentor them.

(Don't believe it? Just think of NBC's tribute to Williams's "battle scars".)

Put this all together, and one can easily imagine how Williams's story snowballed. He'd been there and seen the damage in the chopper skin; he'd heard gunshots. He could easily imagine what it was like, or so he thought. Over the years, as he talked to friends or, say, famous talk-show hosts, he wanted them to feel the terror he'd felt, or maybe just to be impressed. With each telling, the last version was fresher in his memory than the original events; each time, it changed a little bit. Soon a tale about how you can feel danger just from being close to combat—surely a useful lesson for those of us who have never been near a firefight, for whom war is largely an abstraction—transformed into a story about the danger Williams actually felt in combat.

Williams may never have realized what was happening, until Stars & Stripes forced him to reckon with it. Maria Konnikova wrote Wednesday about how emotional memories work differently from normal ones, and they're often less reliable. "When it comes to the central details of the event, like that the Challenger exploded, they are clearer and more accurate," she noted—and indeed, helicopters really were shot at and damaged that day in Iraq. The pilots were too rattled to speak to Williams's crew. "But when it comes to peripheral details, they are worse. And our confidence in them, while almost always strong, is often misplaced."

Knowing this is different from being able to do something about it, and the basic unreliability of memory is dangerous in situations like court, where eyewitness accounts carry so much weight. This story is a little different, though. In a 1987 essay for Esquire, Tim O'Brien, the Vietnam veteran, Purple Heart winner, and great writer of war, meditated on "true war stories." "You can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil," O'Brien wrote:

You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end .... In the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.

Brian Williams's war story was so cleanly moralistic and neat and heroic: Everyone lived. The soldiers did their part. The danger was so abstract. His story was so easily refined and concentrated and packaged for a late-night-television audience. Moreover, it was all about war itself. Such a story, O'Brien might have warned, may or may not be factual, but as a piece of reporting from the battlefield, it had failed its audience long before its untruths were exposed.