A U.S. Army captain now serving in Afghanistan writes about the Williams case. He is responding to my argument that whatever Williams's accounts reveal about the oddities of human memory, they also say something about the political climate of the chickenhawk era.
What this reader writes is long, but I think you'll find it worth reading in full. He writes:
Your recent post on the Brian Williams "adventure" on a helicopter brought to mind a parallel that might be accurate; the "Guitar Hero syndrome." I could also throw in pre-ripped, stone-washed jeans for good measure into the stew of things that seem to indicate a psychology dominating the American scene whereby people want to appear as if they are more involved in something than they really are (or actually care to be).
Why practice a musical instrument when you can simply pick up the video game and within a few days, tada! You are now a guitar hero. Don't want to actually get your hands dirty moving dirt around the yard or climbing rocks or building roads but nevertheless want to appear as if you haven't been laying on the couch all day playing video games (guitar hero, maybe)? No problem; simply head on down to your local clothing outlet of choice for a wide selection of (what used to be considered) work pants that now come in all varieties of ripped, scratched, and discolored to make it appear as if you're "street-wise."
Hell, you can even buy pseudo-military themed clothing if you want to go ahead and completely usurp the image of those who have volunteered to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat (at risk to themselves of beheading and, lately, immolation).
Some may find my connection with pre-ripped jeans a far fetched corollary, however I believe that the psychology at work in our society has happened without anyone really even noticing. Why would people think that clothes that have been specifically designed to appear dirty or used are fashionable and hip? Because, somewhere inside our minds, we all share an admiration of "work" as a noble thing that helps make the world a better place. It's how we developed into who we are as humans, building cities and nations and civilizations out of the things we find around us, rather than simply laying out under the trees all day looking for the most easily accessible piece of fruit to grab.
Brian Williams, bless his mostly-honest little patriotic heart (really, I do tend to like the guy), has either inadvertently or purposely pulled a complete guitar hero on the U.S. military with his little faux pas of journalistic integrity. I actually think it's worse if it WAS inadvertent, as that would confirm what we all suspect (those of us who are concerned about this subject), that America really does believe that it is/has been more involved in the military's travails than is reality.
Probably, though, he just wanted to sell his brand so he went ahead and popped himself ahead in time temporarily and retroactively in order to be able to say that "he was there" when relating his "war experience" at all the dinners with his journalist buddies.
I'm not trying to be cynical, just simply stating things without the normal deference that is given to "important people" simply because they did something with the right intentions. In this case, Williams spun it as a story about how great the guys were who came and helped him after the crash, so kudos to the military, right? What's not to like about that? Who cares if it wasn't exactly true?
I care. Because I've actually been there. Some of us have actually put our lives on the line for real and take great offense when others try to gain street-cred by associating themselves with us. Nobody likes a moocher, especially not one who tries to mooch off the ONLY lasting and noble thing to come out of years of hardship and pain that are what Soldiers refer to as "life." I hate to say it but my own family sometimes annoys me in this way.
My mom is a school teacher and has asked me on multiple occasions if I would mind coming to her school on Veterans Day to be "the Soldier" that all the kids get to talk to and what not. It may sound harsh, but I have told my own mother no every time (at least three that I can remember) to such requests (the latest of which was not helped by the fact that I am in Afghanistan and she thought maybe we could Skype it).
I could go on ranting about how nobody "gets it" and the military is being "used" (in an involuntary way) for more than just ensuring access to resources and contracts for big U.S. companies, but I won't... for now.
In my "Tragedy of the American Military" article I wrote about the natural if unconscious attraction that many of the people covering today's soldiers come to feel toward the institutional military:
Some of [the improving press image of the military] is anthropological. Most reporters who cover politics are fascinated by the process and enjoy practitioners who love it too, which is one reason most were (like the rest of the country) more forgiving of the happy warrior Bill Clinton than they have been of the “cold” and “aloof” Barack Obama. But political reporters are always hunting for the gaffe or scandal that could bring a target down, and feel they’re acting in the public interest in doing so.
Most reporters who cover the military are also fascinated by its processes and cannot help liking or at least respecting their subjects: physically fit, trained to say “sir” and “ma’am,” often tested in a way most civilians will never be, part of a disciplined and selfless-seeming culture that naturally draws respect.
Respect for individual brave, disciplined members of the military is natural and appropriate. It can spill over to a less proper suspension of critical judgment about the institutional military and the uses to which it is being put.
I am resuming the Chickenhawk responses with this installment. Here is the running index of previous installments:
"The Tragedy of the American Military," my article in the Jan-Feb issue. A C-Span interview is here; an NPR "All Things Considered" interview is here; a PBS News Hour interview and segment is here. I will be doing the Bill Maher show tomorrow.
1) Initial responses, including an argument for the draft.
2) Whether Israel comes closer to a civil-military connection than the U.S. does.
3) "Quiet Gratitude, or Dangerous Contempt?" How veterans respond to "thank you for your service."
4) "Actually We Keep Winning." An argument that things are better than I claim.
5) "Get the Hell Back in Your Foxhole." More on the meaning of "thanks."
6) "Showing Gratitude in a Way that Matters." What civilians could do that counts.
7) "Winning Battles, Losing Wars." A response to #4.
8) "The Economic Realities of a Trillion Dollar Budget." What we could, or should, learn from the Soviet Union.
9) "Meanwhile, the Realities." Fancy weapons are sexy. Boring weapons save troops' lives.
10) "Chickenhawks in the News." The 2012 presidential campaign avoided foreign-policy and military issues. What about 2016?
11) "A Failure of Grand Strategy." Half a league, half a league, half a league onward ...
12) "Careerism and Competence," including the testimony of an A-10 pilot who decided to resign.
13) "Vandergriff as Yoda." A modest proposal for shaking things up.
14) "Lions Led by Lambs." On a possible generation gap among military officers.
15) "Is it all up to the vets?" Whether correcting the civil-military divide is primarily the responsibility of recent veterans.
16) "We Are Not Chickenhawks." A critique (of me) from the left.
17) "Genuinely Bad News About the F-35 and A-10." Whether new weapons are being assessed honestly.
18) "Two Young Officers," with the laments of Captain X and Captain Y.
19) "The Reforms the Military is Undertaking," with a reading list of ongoing internal dissent.
20) The one you are reading now.