Brian Williams, the military and American culture

Brian Williams Phil McCarten/Reuters

Credibility, generally, is seen as a dividend of honesty. Tell the truth and, over time, people will come to regard you as a trustworthy person, a reliable source of information.

Given this formula, the emerging consensus that Brian Williams has torpedoed his credibility by falsifying his experience in Iraq is perfectly logical.

But the American tendency to put military service on a pedestal, as a unique and unassailable experience, alters the way credibility can be earned. Williams’s actions are therefore more complex than they might first appear.

Both his questionable account and the reactions to it reveal a great deal about how military service is seen and valued in the American popular imagination.

The military’s special place

Take my own case. I don’t serve in the military, nor do I come from a military family or even know many service members personally.

All of these things are true, but when I confess them at the beginning of a piece about the military, I risk, despite my honesty, being perceived as less than credible.

I believe I am qualified to speak about the Williams scandal because I’ve spent the last 12 years researching and writing about culture, media and war. But in making that claim, I disqualify myself from having the unique rhetorical authority that is given military personnel.

When Brian Williams embellished his story into one more closely approximating actual combat, he became (temporarily) more credible by being less truthful. And by clumsily trying to be closer to military action he was, in fact, reinforcing the privileged place the military hold in American culture.

We may never know whether his wishful misremembering was deliberate or accidental.

Tara Parker-Pope controversially attributed it to the malleability of human memory. Jon Stewart attempted to broaden our view by reframing the incident in terms of the media’s wartime hypocrisy.

Countless other commentators have opined about the increasing irrelevance of the television news. There are also some sharp questions to be asked about how embedded reporting with military units muddies journalistic objectivity.

Without attempting to resolve these important debates, I’d suggest instead that Williams inadvertently revealed something about the profoundly contradictory place military service occupies in American culture.

Two fallen heroes: Williams and Petraeus. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Expressions of public gratitude

There is in the US a widely held belief that military service is worthy of public recognition and gratitude (witness the spectacle of the New York Rangers game that began Williams’s undoing.)

Usually, this requires little more than participating in a round of applause at the urging of a flight attendant or a cheer at a sporting event. But the effortlessness of these acts masks the fact that they are learned behaviors.

Lauren Berlant, who has written extensively about the political history of emotions in the United States, argues that such responses become so pervasive and automatic that we mistake their origins. We think they are the “expression of a true capacity for attachment … rather than … effects of pedagogy.”

The Williams story revealed how readily, and convincingly, such attachments can be fabricated. Indeed, he explained his wrongdoings in terms of bewildered appreciation. It all started, he said in his apology, “in an effort to honor and thank” the man who had protected him. This turned, he admitted, into a “bungled attempt … to thank one special veteran” of the many who have his “greatest respect.”

The public anger at Williams, in other words, may be rooted in something more than his deceitfulness. What may be upsetting us is his very visible failure to perform what many see as the purest expression of good citizenship – thanking the military.

The ironies of our public indignation

The widespread indignation at Williams is deeply ironic.

Irony number one: The obsessive focus on Williams’s actions (and not that of his helicopter pilot, for example, or anyone else) actually reinforces the invisibility of the military personnel on whose behalf we are, apparently, outraged.

Irony number two: We are anguished at the thought that Williams might have obscured (or fudged) a bit of the historical record from the war in Iraq. But we inhabit a media landscape flush with mythologized depictions of the military. These often romanticize it at the expense of stories that convey the messiness, complexity, and inscrutability of militarized violence.

Organizations like Got Your 6 are beginning to partner with the entertainment industry to promote fuller, more accurate representations. In so doing, however, they have to override familiar, cliched, and eminently marketable images of either the soldier as fearless, infallible hero or the veteran as traumatized, incapacitated victim.

Irony number three: At the same time as the profusion of gratitude transforms tangled relationships of indebtedness into a vague obligation to thank uniformed strangers, military personnel and their families are laboring under the continual threat of cuts to jobs, benefits and income because of our federal budget problems.

Irony number four: This upwelling of gratitude for the troops comes at a time of profound and widening separation between the military and civilians. Military service is voluntary: the vast majority (more than 99.5%) of Americans can, and do, simply opt out.

Empty gestures

The initial challenges to Williams’s story came from service members, a fact that Williams himself acknowledged. But NBC’s official statement on his suspension did not mention them at all. Instead the emphasis was on the incident’s affront to the television network’s reputation and on the need to keep the trust of their millions of viewers.

This smooth excising of veterans’ voices illustrates how easily they can be disregarded and how irrelevant they become even as we seek to act, apparently, in their defense.

Ultimately, all of this reveals that our fantasy of, and professed gratitude for, the military is only minimally concerned with the people who actually fill its ranks.

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