It is a tall, tall tale that mischievous Falstaff tells of the highway robbers who set upon him halfway through Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. “I am a rogue if I were not at half-sword with a dozen of them two hours together,” he tells Prince Hal and his friend Poins (who are the two actual robbers, pulling a prank on their companion) back at their favorite tavern. The tale quickly grows taller — “If I fought not with 50 of them, I am a bunch of radish.” — and the “slain” victims of Falstaff’s supposedly deadly sword multiply: “two” were “peppered” — no, “four” — no, “seven” — nay, “eleven”!
And “if I tell thee a lie,” he proclaims, at last, “spit in my face.”
So it went — albeit via a longer evolution — with NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, who in March 2003 reported, “On the ground we learn[ed] the Chinook [helicopter] ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky”; in April 2008 reported, “We came under fire. . . . We were forced down”; and in an appearance on David Letterman’s late-night show in March 2013, recounted with bravado, “Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground-fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47.”
This week Williams admitted that the story was not true and explained that something “screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.” Yet in that apology he made sure to note that, after landing in their never-fired-upon helicopter, he and the crew “spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert.”
In a fascinating 2005 Weekly Standard essay, “Whistling Dixie,” Anne Morse recounts the story of Walter Williams, America’s last living Civil War veteran, who, when he died in 1959, was lauded by more than 100,000 people all along the streets of Houston. “There was just one problem,” Morse writes. “Williams had never served in the Civil War.”
Morse points to others who have invented martial exploits, including several politicians: Former Iowa senator Tom Harkin claimed to have flown combat missions in Vietnam, was forced to correct himself — they were combat missions over Cuba, he said — then finally admitted he had never seen combat at all. Klansman David Duke, who ran unsuccessfully for several national offices, never even left his home state, despite claims that he had worked missions in North Vietnam for the CIA.
More recent episodes come to mind, too. “I remember landing under sniper fire” in Bosnia in 1996, Hillary Clinton told reporters on several occasions during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. “There was supposed to be some kind of greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.” Clinton eventually admitted she had been relating a “different memory” than what actually took place.
And there was Massachusetts senator John Kerry, on the Senate floor in 1986: “I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the president of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared — seared — in me.” Not surprisingly, there is not a shred of evidence that Kerry was ever in Cambodia..
How to understand so many convenient battlefield fictions?
In “The White Album” Joan Didion famously wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” — and we seem still to like stories of heroes best. After all, what virtue is more dazzling than bravery? Give us “the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood,” as Teddy Roosevelt said (himself a paragon of bravery): Hercules, not Theseus; David the Giant-Slayer, not Solomon the Sage.
As individuals and as communities we are constantly on the lookout for those rare specimens who have passed through the crucible. How surprising is it, then, that ambitious types, keen on this or that glory, are often more than willing to fit themselves to the role — and happy, too, to believe the story they tell? “In short,” wrote Nietzsche, with his usual cynicism, “the constant fluttering around the single flame of vanity is so much the rule and law that almost nothing is more incomprehensible than how an honest and pure urge for truth could make its appearance among men.”
And yet it does. Brian Williams will probably keep his job, and Hillary Clinton could become president, and Falstaff usurped the glory of killing Hotspur. But the truth is out there, known by many now, to be discovered by many more, who will see Williams’s anchoring the Nightly News — and, scoffing, change the channel.
“Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying!” says Falstaff, toward the play’s end. We can chuckle, because we know it’s true.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at National Review.