Pity Brian Williams

By Scott Hogenson | February 5, 2015 | 11:54am EST

NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams (AP Photo)

Men have lied about their military exploits for as long as humanity has undertaken them.  Most of these fibs are harmless embellishments told among buddies over beers at a local tavern.  Some are more serious, like lies about earning certain military decorations, a practice that led to the drafting of so-called ‘Stolen Valor’ laws.

But when the fabrication is stated across a wide audience by an individual of notoriety, it becomes something far more than a bull session among friends.  Such is the case with Brian Williams and his “mistake in recalling,” his March, 2003, trip through Iraq aboard a military helicopter. The NBC Nightly News anchor admitted on Wednesday that his oft-told tale of being in a helicopter struck by rocket propelled grenade fire was false, but even his admission is flawed.

A glance at the events Williams claims to have made a “mistake in recalling,” is worse than just failing to accurately recall a chain of events.  Misremembering is when one forgets that he shared a foxhole with Bob and Joe when in reality, it was Bob and Mike. But one does not misremember being in an aircraft struck by enemy rocket and gunfire, an emergency landing in a desert and being rescued by a platoon of soldiers.

I’ve heard plenty of whoppers in the years since I joined the Navy as a teenager, and the one Williams has told and retold easily ranks in the 99th percentile. And to be honest, I get that. A sea story about a transit through the Suez Canal or remaining on-station off the coast of Iran for months at a time is pretty boring stuff.

But those same sea stories (referred to in Navy circles as a no-shitter), are way cooler if they involve machine gun fire from the Sinai or a naval bombardment in the Arabian Sea. And let’s face it, people would rather hear a story about being attacked than simply going about a routine exercise. This is the temptation to which Williams clutched, entering that low place occupied by others whose egos are insufficiently fed.

It’s sad because the stuff that actually did happen to Williams was kind of cool.  Few men are allowed to experience the thrill of donning air combat gear, boarding a fast-moving helo and hightailing it across the sand to a forward position. But this apparently didn’t have the Awesome Factor Williams needs.  It resulted in him misremembering his aircraft being hit by enemy fire, an impromptu landing and a platoon of soldiers saving him and his TV crew.  It’s particularly odd given that the first two misremembered events are such that they have caused more than a few men to evacuate their bowels in fear.

More galling than the lie is the way Williams sought to escape it.  To quote from his apology, “This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and, by extension, our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere.”  Please.

Explain to me, Mr. Williams, how lying about your helicopter ride to satisfy your ego represents a ‘thank you’ to me or any other person who wore or currently wears the uniform. It’s like John Dillinger saying he robbed banks as a way of thanking the cops.

Williams believes that by invoking his respect and gratitude to the troops, he can wriggle off the hook for his lies.  No dice, Brian. Your lies might have had ladies fawning over you at Manhattan cocktail parties, but I assure you, veterans aren’t buying it.  Lies of this nature are an insult to the entire military. They seek to place a person in an elite league of individuals who swore an oath to the Constitution and risked their lives under fire to uphold that oath.

Then there’s the whole “following aircraft” angle, in which Williams tries a fresh deception to escape responsibility for his older lies. “I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by [rocket-propelled grenade] fire. I was, instead, in a following aircraft,” spoke the news anchor.

This passage makes me cringe. It’s not as if his aircraft was flying in close formation with the one hit by enemy fire, which is what his language is meant to imply.  His helo landed 60 minutes later, according to military personnel familiar with the events.  So yes, his aircraft was following the one that was attacked – by an hour.

In blaming his lie on wanting to thank veterans and then deliberately obfuscating the facts with his “following aircraft” bunk, Williams achieves despicability.  He doubles-down on the first lie with a weak attempt at a second, revealing extraordinary hubris. I should not be surprised to learn that he is more sorry for getting caught than for lying.

Lies are hollow when undetected and embarrassing when revealed, yet somehow, I’m not sure Williams feels either hollowness or embarrassment.  His is a life of achievement, fame and wealth, yet he is somehow so dissatisfied with his existence that he must fabricate experiences to enhance his stature. He comes across as a little and damaged man, seeking something he knows he can never have, and telling any lie he must to make it so. Once our anger at Brian Williams subsides, he merits our pity.

Scott Hogenson is a veteran of the US Navy and served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs during the George W. Bush administration. He was also the founding editor of

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