The simple act of sitting in a helicopter in combat can be a significant emotional event for those who don’t do it every day.
I’d ridden in helicopters dozens of times before deploying to Iraq, but my first flight on a UH-60 Blackhawk in Baghdad came only days after one had been shot down north of the city, killing all on board. I was heading in generally the same direction, to FOB Taji north of Baghdad, so as I boarded the aircraft I was a little on edge.
About twenty minutes into the flight I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a blinding flash of bright white light. For a split second I thought, "This is it. We’re going to get shot down." But when the light quickly trailed down and away behind us, I realized it was simply a flare from a pod on the side of the aircraft.
In Afghanistan I had a couple rough flights due to turbulence at altitude. There may be no atheists in foxholes but there definitely aren’t any aboard a shuddering Chinook navigating a remote snow covered mountain pass.
I’ve never been shot at while riding in a helicopter, nor have we been forced to land because of small arms or rocket fire that hit the aircraft. That would be, for me, something north of a significant emotional event.
So I’m quite skeptical of Brian Williams’ claim that he "conflated" his experience of inspecting the aircraft that was hit and forced to land with the experience of actually being on the aircraft as it was hit. The fog of war doesn’t create new memories, but perhaps someone with a desire to overstate his own role in an event can.
A couple things strike me about this whole episode that lend at least a little bit of credibility to Williams’ apology.
First of all, he didn’t wait to issue an apology until the media coverage had reached a critical mass. He apologized after some Facebook comments and a report from Stars and Stripes. In his apology, he writes:
I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp.
The last sentence, as many others have pointed out, is a bit misleading. He was "behind the bird that took the RPG," but he was an hour behind that bird, an eternity in combat. He still deserves some credit for apologizing at all, something a different network news anchor has refused to do for a decade after filing a false story and losing his job as a result.
We just passed the 10th anniversary of the controversy which torpedoed the career of Dan Rather. He and his producer, Mary Mapes, still stand by their bogus report on former President Bush’s service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. The guys at Powerline take a retrospective look at this insanity.
The second piece of evidence that might lend some credence to Williams’ assertion that he conflated events 12 years ago is recent research that suggests "innocent adult participants can be convinced, over the course of a few hours, that they had perpetrated crimes as serious as assault with a weapon in their teenage years."
The researchers conclude that "inherently fallible and reconstructive memory processes can quite readily generate false recollections with astonishing realism. In these sessions we had some participants recalling incredibly vivid details and re-enacting crimes they never committed."
The conditions of the study are of course quite different from those which Williams’ experienced, but the point is that memory is a fungible thing. If someone is told, authoritatively, that he or she did something the brain will work to create some rationalization of that act. It is not a stretch to think that someone, like Williams, who wanted to be ‘in on the action’ of the Iraq War might, over time, assemble a vivid narrative in his head of what riding in a helicopter that had been forced to land after being shot felt like. If Williams really did have a moment this weekend where he thought he’d "gone crazy," this could be the explanation.
I think it is much more likely, however, that Williams just didn’t think he’d get caught. Stars and Stripes documents the shifting details in his story from 2003 to the present. By the time he appeared on Letterman in 2013 the transformation from reporter to participant was complete and nobody spoke up to challenge his account.
Or did they? Recent reports have suggested that NBC executives warned Williams to stop telling his war story and at least one of the soldiers with Williams and his NBC News crew in 2003 has been trying to point out his fabrications for years.
We’ll likely never know whether or not Williams knew he was lying. It seems inconceivable that he will at some point in the future issue a tearful Lance Armstrong-esque apology in an interview with Oprah, for example.
It’s also likely that we’ve not seen the last shoe drop. NBC is setting up a "Truth Squad" to comb through other suspicious, high-profile tales Williams has told, and CNN is suggesting that the original audio of the 2003 report was manipulated in order to overstate the amount of danger the news crew was in.
Get out the popcorn, the next week or two could get interesting.
UPDATE: This Megyn Kelly interview (~10 mins) really gets to the heart of Williams’ story, but could overstate the case a bit. To the crew of the aircraft Williams was riding in – military professionals – the facts are clear, but to a civilian riding in the back of a Chinook those same facts might be somewhat less than clear.
A Chinook is loud, if you don’t have a headset on you have to wear earplugs. The windows are small, behind your head, and it is hard to maneuver around to see out of them if you’re strapped tightly into the extremely uncomfortable seats and wearing a helmet and body armor (I would sometimes unbuckle myself so I could look out the window). Depending on visibility you may or may not be able to actually see anything around you, including other aircraft. You have no idea where you are unless you are familiar with the landmarks around you or have a GPS and a map. And if you’re not wearing a headset you have no idea what’s actually going on in the aircraft or any of the other aircraft around you.
Could Williams have believed in 2003 that he was "following" the aircraft that got hit? Maybe. It depends on what the Chinook crew told him. They clearly knew they were never in any danger, but was that fact communicated to a civilian reporter way out of his element with little to no military experience? I don’t know.
The getting shot down part is clearly bullshit, but let us not be too quick to attribute to malice what could easily be attributed to ignorance.
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