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Brian Williams, 'American Sniper,' and the glorification of combat

The question isn't so much whether NBC's chief anchor lied, but why he wanted to bask in the refracted glory of our endless wars in the first place.

It's hard to say right now whether the combination of misleading statements, half-truths and out-and-out lies surrounding NBC news anchor Brian Williams and his now infamous 2003 helicopter journey in Iraq is just a black mark on an otherwise successful career...or the end of that career. The so-called "fog of war" surrounding what exactly happened a dozen years ago seems to be getting thicker. Just this afternoon, Williams' pilot on that chopper flight said it did take take enemy fire, just not from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) as the newsman had once claimed. Going the other direction, Stars and Stripes -- the first media outlet to report the discrepancies -- went the other direction and said that even Williams' apology this week still gets it wrong.

Either way, it looks really, really bad right now. Brian Williams had one job -- maintaining his credibility as he reads the news to millions of TV viewers every night. For all intents and purposes, his credibility has been tossed into the rotors of that Chinook.

When the tattered shreds fall to earth, I hope we also have a conversation about why Williams felt the need to exaggerate his proximity to combat and to death. It's worth noting that he's not the first person to do this. Indeed, just last year President Obama signed the latest version of the Stolen Valor Act that makes it a federal crime for individuals to make false claims about their military heroism in some circumstances. Politicians are common offenders. Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal was accused of confusing voters over whether he'd served in Vietnam (he didn't); more famously, and strikingly similar to the Brian Williams affair, the woman who would be our next president, Hillary Clinton, told a bogus tale of taking sniper fire during a visit to Bosnia in the 1990s.

What's this all about? It starts way back with World War II, which had an enormous impact on how we perceive the military. Because WWII was so all encompassing, taking hostile fire -- either as a combatant or as a journalist -- wasn't as rare an event. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite -- who established the template that today's anchors like Williams try to live up to -- were renowned war correspondents. It's not surprising, perhaps, that NBC's second-generation anchor, Tom Brokaw, canonized the fighting men of that earlier time as "the Greatest Generation" -- or that Brokaw's successor, Williams, sought to wedge himself somehow into this military tradition even if he didn't really fit.

The irony is that -- from everything I know about that time and in talking to actual folks from that "Greatest Generation" -- fighters from that era experienced nothing like the all-troops-are-heroes aura that's bestowed on soldiers and recent veterans today. True acts of valor were honored with medals, of course, but there was greater appreciation of the reality that a universal army contained the good, the bad, and the ugly of humankind. I was reminded in a James Fallows piece the other day that the post-war era was marked by less-than-reverential TV lampoons of military life -- McHale's Navy, Sgt. Bilko, Gomer Pyle, to name a few. And humor is always a sign of a healthy outlook.

Then came Vietnam. World War II, in comparison to that quagmire, became a "Good War" in a way that idealized military service, if the cause was deemed just (i.e., unlike 'Nam). More importantly, political unrest at home led to the draft, and the start of an all-volunteer army. With the help of technology, future wars would be fought by just a sliver of the American public, dominated by men and women from small towns or inner cities with few other job opportunities. That sliver also disproportionately excludes the elites -- the children of politicians or journalists, who then, in our not-so-mobile society, then became politicians and journalists themselves. Ending the draft didn't end war -- instead, the all-volunteer military fought all over the globe, from Bosnia to Panama to Iraq -- and the bulk of us citizens played no part in that. Increasingly, civilians looked towards soldiers with a sense of mystery mixed with awe and, dare I say it, guilt.

So, what's wrong with that? It's impossible not to have enormous respect for those who risk their lives in serving the public -- police, firefighters and other first responders, too, but solders on the front lines face death around the clock. In the 2000s, even peace activists made it clear that they "supported the troops," that they just wanted to bring them home. Walking on their verbal tippy-toes, a handful of contrarians worry that it's gone too far. Here's a slice of what one -- William Deresiewicz, a writer and critic who'd been previously asked by the brass at West Point to offer cadets his iconoclastic views on leadership -- had to say in 2011:

The irony is that our soldiers are the last people who are likely to call themselves heroes and are apparently very uncomfortable with this kind of talk. The military understands itself as a group endeavor. As the West Point professor Elizabeth D. Samet recently noted, service members feel uneasy when strangers approach them to — as the well-meaning but oddly impersonal ritual goes — thank them for their service, thereby turning them into paradoxically anonymous celebrities. It was wrong to demonize our service members in Vietnam; to canonize them now is wrong as well. Both distortions make us forget that what they are are human beings. 

What is heroism? What kind of psychological purpose does the concept serve? Heroism is bravery and selflessness, but more than that, it is triumphant action, and in particular, morally unambiguous action. In most of life — and certainly in public life — there is scarcely such a thing on either count. Politics is a muddle of moral and practical compromise. Victories are almost always partial, ambiguous and subject to reversal. Heroism belongs to the realm of fantasy — the comic book, the action movie — or to delimited and often artificial spheres of action, like space exploration or sports.

Three years later, that quest for heroes has grown even greater. How else to explain the outpouring for a film, "American Sniper," that celebrates the life of a military marksman who gunned down 160 or so targets during the war in Iraq? I can't comment on the film because I haven't seen it, but I've surely heard the reaction. Director Clint Eastwood at one point insisted that the saga of sniper Chris Kyle is "an anti-war movie," which is not what I heard from talk radio callers the other morning queued up to express their awe at Kyle's patriotism (even though his lies, such as claiming to shoot 30 people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, tower over those of Brian Williams like an Abu Dhabi skyscraper).

Chris Kyle is the epitome of the hero that Deresiewicz spoke of, and it's not a shock that Williams wanted to bask in a just a small refraction of that kind of glory and adulation. But I know that "American Sniper" doesn't address the rightness or wrongness of a war that was based on lies from the men and women at the very highest levels of the American government. It would be more than ironic if Williams is punished for Iraq falsehoods while Dick Cheney is not.

When the American masses get their worldview on Iraq from films like "American Sniper," when a national voice like Brian Williams (or Hillary Clinton) desperately wants you to think that he (or she) saw a piece of the action, when the honor of the combatant is everything and the morality of the combat itself is nothing, the side effects can be devastating. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we have embedded ourselves in wars that we are unable to end. There are still about 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and -- despite "the end of combat" in Iraq -- about 3,000 or so more there. How much of ourt presence is that to honor the sacrifice of our heroes, and our unwillingness to admit that thousands may have died for a mistake?

No wonder Brian Williams' lies have grown over time. But this would be a good moment to put a lot of things about America's wars in the right perspective. The fate of a TV news anchor ranks at or near the bottom of that list.