Why This Lie? Brian Williams’ Pulpit Fiction

The deafening whomp-whomp-whomp you may have heard when Brian Williams got caught in a lie last week was not the approach of a Black Hawk helicopter. It was the media’s schadenfreude machine roaring to life.

Why would a man at the top of his field risk it all with unnecessary embellishments? Theories filled the air like the flak the news anchor never saw.

In the New York Times, a teaser for columnist Maureen Dowd’s take on the subject mused that Williams fancies himself a scholar-adventurer in the mold of Indiana Jones. At NPR, Berkeley philosopher Alva Noë wondered if the issue here might simply be that “Brian Williams is a storyteller and storytellers can’t resist a good story.” In the New Yorker, Ken Auletta got theological with the suggestion that news anchors “think of themselves as God.”

Yet all this focus on a millionaire newsman’s ego and problematic self-perception obscures the larger issue—the Big Lie of which Williams’ tall tales are but a part.

Williams did not just tell any lie, after all. He told a war story.

He would probably not be enduring such scrutiny had he fibbed about risks faced in any another context. But then exaggerations like those he has made repeatedly over the years seem particularly suited to tales of battle.

To add to the endless exegesis: He told a war story because no matter how unpopular the wars of the last decade became, or how popular they may yet become in popular revisionist memory, to tell the kind of war stories Williams has told is to put oneself at the center of a drama with clear stakes and ultimate significance. War may be hell, but to speak of Americans making war from the pulpit of mass media, one is required to speak of the sacred.

Claiming proximity to this sacred, Williams makes its authority his own. As further examples of his creative memory emerge—from meeting the pope to witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall—it becomes ever more clear that television news may owe as much to Emile Durkheim as Edward R. Murrow.

At a time when the military receives a reflexive genuflection from every corner of the culture, war stories have become sermons of a sort, and sermons are often untrue. This isn’t so much an accusation as an acknowledgement of the constraints of the genre: Sermons yoke anecdote to larger meaning, things happening now to things that happened in an impossibly distant then. Sermons can’t help but bend facts in the service of supposed truth—a story’s plot and its moral rarely fit so neatly together. And perhaps that’s true of war stories as well.

“For a long time I was angry,” the writer and former Marine Phil Klay notes in his National Book Award winning collection Redeployment. “I didn’t want to talk about Iraq, so I wouldn’t tell anybody I’d been. And if people knew, if they pressed, I’d tell lies.”

Williams’s Icarus-like downfall after attempting to fly too close to the sun of war brought to mind a lie I heard not too long ago told in a pulpit of another kind. Two years ago, a guest preacher visited a church I sometimes attend, and delivered one of the best sermons I’d heard in while. He was likable, eloquent, deeply knowledgeable, and spoke on the need for professional religious types to get out in the world—to the places, he suggested, where true interactions with the sacred might be found.

“I was out in one of the grittier parts of my city,” he said to a congregation of not so gritty older men and women, “and I went into a head shop. You all know what a head shop is right?” They didn’t but boy did they want to.

“There was a young woman working there,” he continued. “She had purple hair and a full sleeve of tribal tattoos. Piercings in places I wouldn’t tell my mama. She sat behind a glass counter filled with silver jewelry. I saw a few crosses in there, so I asked if I could look more closely. ‘Sure,’ she said. Then she asked me, ‘Do you want a plain one, or one with a little man on it?’”

Oh, he had us now. He had been there—to places where even Christ on the cross was unknown, to places just waiting for with-it Christians like him, places that granted the authority of the front lines.

Because I was so taken with the sermon, and because he delivered it with such polish I wondered If he might have published it, I searched the Web for “one with a little man on it” when I got home from church. What I found, of course, were hundreds of variations going back decades, some grittier than others, some likely delivered in far-off pulpits long before he first imagined what it might be like to visit a head shop.

Brian Williams and this fact-challenged preacher are both ministers of a sort—one a Christian, the other a high priest of America’s media-driven civil religion—and no doubt regard their lies as serving a more important truth. Yet the similarity of such lies should call more than the liars into question.

One of the great chroniclers of war, belief, memory, and the deceptions fostered by each, Tim O’Brien (the author of classic Vietnam story collection The Things They Carried), once wrote, “You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end.”

If we continue to participate in the lie that war is sacred, our national war story never will.

10 Comments

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Why did our military invade Iraq? They weren’t involved in 9/11 and in that matter Iraq was an enemy of our enemy. We couldn’t find WMDs, and even if they had some many nations have them, and nobody has more than us. Why did our soldiers invade? Was it just because it was war? They weren’t protecting America, other than possibly blocking for rich people who wanted control over those oil fields. If they invaded to spread democracy, it seems to be a really poor idea that turned out even worse. Why did they invade? Was it just the stupidity of the moment?

  • PyotrZ@gmail.com' PyotrZ says:

    The cult of the Hero may work to shore up public support and drive recruiting, but it has the latent effect of foreclosing redemption for combat veterans. Killing doesn’t change its impact on the human psyche based on legal justifications. Even if the wrong you do serves a greater good, it was still wrong. Along with time and blood, the soldier sacrifices innocence. We insist that they have done no wrong, celebrating them as heros. They must live our lie rather than walk the path of redemption. We ask them to forego their healing so that we can continue celebrating our collective lies and justifications about war and atrocity it is.

  • fabian955@hotmail.com' DHFabian says:

    Nonsense. What Brian Williams did is also known as “the norm.” A tragic lie, by contrast, would be something that pulls an entire nation into the longest war in its history, such as the the Bush administration’s lies about “stockpiles of WMD,” repeated (for years) by every newsperson on TV. Consider the implications of repeating, for years, that the US president is a secret Muslim, implying that he is in league with al Qaiddah. Why target Williams? Your answer will depend on your own political leanings.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    We are having a hard time targeting the lies of Bush and Cheney because they always say Democrats voted for the war too.

  • mmclean@email.com' Malcolm McLean says:

    For other examples (a real pulpit this time) check out Paul H Dunn, Mormon Apostle – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_H._Dunn

  • lilysmith222888@gmail.com' lily smith says:

    Awesome Post .Really looking forward to read more and do accept as true with all the ideas you had introduced for your post. They are very convincing and will certainly work. Nonetheless, the posts are very quick for beginners. Could you please lengthen them a bit from subsequent time? Thanks for the post.

  • rd@zut.alors.org' Shebardigan says:

    On occasion, war stories of this sort are cut short by questions by one or more “been there” veterans.

    Being someone who served in Viet-Nam a while back, over the years I have experienced demonization followed by beatification.

    Neither of those suits me.

  • namaste.chi@aol.com' Abide says:

    there is no relationship between religion and the brian williams story. this whole piece is bunk

  • drscaminaci@hotmail.com' James Estrada-Scaminaci III says:

    I’m an agnostic on good days and an atheist on bad days, but I went with my wife to her sort of right-wing ECLA evanagelical church. The sermon started with a story about a famous preacher Roy Robertson thinking his faith was fake because at Pearl Harbor he was shooting “practice ammunition” at Japanese dive bombers. This story can be found at http://www.sermonillustrator.org/illustrator/sermon6/becoming_mature.htm. Now, any one remotely familiar with Pearl Harbor knows for an indisputable fact that the Navy ships were not loaded with “practice ammunition.” They had real anti-aircraft ammunition at the ready. The US Navy did not know when and where a Japanese attack would take place, but the Navy was aware that a Japanese attack was in the offing and the fleet was prepared–it just was not deployed correctly. I retired from the US Navy Reserve and paid my respects at the USS Arizona Memorial, listed by the Navy as still on patrol. But, to try and convince Christian believers that they may be “shooting faith blanks” for Jesus because he was shooting “practice ammunition” at Pearl Harbor is too much. I had no faith when I heard it and even less afterwards. But, what really annoyed me was the attendees could listen to this pathetic nonsense, this fabricated lie, and because it was all about Jesus just accept it. When I heard that story I lost all respect I had for the preacher and for his attendees.

  • wesseldawn@gmail.com' Duck says:

    I don’t quite understand the need for the religious story in this article, it’s not really relevant to the topic. As for Brian Williams I think he got too big for his britches.

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