NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was criticized last week for a dramatic first-person story he'd told and retold since 2003 of being in a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq. After questions were raised about the truthfulness of his account and how it had changed over time, Williams apologized.
Wartime events and memories are especially fraught with baggage - including political, personal, and patriotic. Those who falsely characterize their first-hand experiences during wartime, and especially under enemy fire, are often accused of "stolen valor" akin to a person wearing medals he or she did not earn, or pretending to be a combat veteran. In fact the subject is taken so seriously that in 2013 President Obama signed the Stolen Valor Act, making it a federal crime for people to falsely pass themselves off as war heroes by wearing unearned medals.
But a case like that of Brian Williams is not so clear-cut; he did not pretend to be a veteran soldier, nor did he wear any military uniform or medals. He told a story whose narrative changed over time and veered into inaccuracy.
Williams is hardly alone. In 2008 Sen. Hillary Clinton recalled a first-hand experience during which she remembered landing in Bosnia in 1996 under sniper fire, yet news footage showed that her group did not arrive under attack. Clinton's critics accused her of deception, but she claimed she simply and honestly misremembered her experience and apologized.
Mark Kirk, a Republican Senator from Illinois, admitted in 2010 that he made "mistakes" in describing his military service. During his Senate campaign, Kirk claimed that he'd served in Operation Iraqi Freedom ("The last time I was in Iraq, I was in uniform flying at 20,000 feet and the Iraqi Air Defense network was shooting at us," he said in 2003), and that he'd received the U.S. Navy's Intelligence Officer of the Year award. Kirk later admitted that he had not served (nor come under fire) in the Gulf, nor did he receive the award he claimed.
Serving in the military and seeing combat is of course no guarantee that the veteran's memories and accounts are necessarily completely accurate. There have been many first-person accounts of heroism in the battlefield disputed by others there at the time. Sometimes the discrepancies can be chalked up to the fog of war, misunderstandings, and faulty memories; other times there seem to be political motivations behind raising the conflicting accounts. (For an analysis of false and exaggerated eyewitness wartime stories by and among Vietnam veterans, see Gary Kulik's book "War Stories: False Atrocity Tales, Swift Boaters, and Winter Soldiers-What Really Happened in Vietnam.")
Other times military exaggerations are chalked up to a difference in interpretation. For example former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura was accused by a Navy SEAL of exaggerating his military credentials by claiming to have been a SEAL himself. Ventura was a member of the Navy's elite Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) and received SEAL training, but did not operate on a SEAL team. Ventura later acknowledged that he had not technically been a Navy SEAL, but said that those who served in the UDTs were also commonly called "SEALs."
No one disputes that Brian Williams's story was wrong; instead the question is whether it was a sincere memory error or an intentional act of deception. David Carr, media writer for "The New York Times," quoted a man named Joe Summerlin, who was in the helicopter that was actually fired upon in Williams's story: "‘Everyone tells lies,' he wrote. ‘Every single one of us. The issue isn't whether or not you lie. It is how you deal with it once you are caught. I thank you for stepping down for a few nights, Mr. Williams. Now can you admit that you didn't ‘misremember' and perform a real apology?'"
Summerlin may be correct that the account is a "lie," an intentional deception on the part of Brian Williams. But others - including prominent psychologists and memory researchers - suggest that it's plausible that Williams sincerely misremembered. How could Williams come to wrongly believe that a helicopter he was in was hit by enemy fire?
Psychology of False Memories Part of the answer is that memories are created by experiences, and no one disputes that Williams was in a helicopter when another in the group was hit. He didn't simply hear about the event from someone else, or see it in a movie, or read about it third-hand. He was there - kind of. Memory is not, as many suggest, like a tape recorder that plays back perfectly each time you recall an event. Instead there are many factors that can influence how an experience is remembered.
A review of the evolution of Williams's account suggests a clue about how the incident could have migrated from one helicopter to another. In a 2013 retelling of the story to David Letterman in which Williams stated that his helicopter had been hit, he repeatedly uses the word "we" to describe the group he was in that came under fire. There seemed to be a blurring of the distinction in his mind between "we" (the crew and passengers on the specific helicopter he was on) and "we" (the whole group on that mission, of whom he states "two of our four helicopters were hit... we were only at 100 feet doing 100 forward knots" - which accurately described all of the helicopters, including both the one that was hit and the one he was in).
It is certainly true that the group of helicopters Brian Williams was in came under enemy fire, though whether his particular helicopter came under fire is unknown. Of course there is no way to know exactly what Williams was thinking, but his use of the words "we" and "us" to describe who came under fire suggests that he began to see himself as the target and possibly misremember whose helicopter was actually hit.
Williams's story may in fact be a lie, but given what we know about the fallibility of memory and how easily details can be confused, his claim that he misremembered is not psychologically implausible.
Psychologist Tom Gilovich, in his book "How We Know What Isn't So," explains how memories change over time and become distorted: "When people are given a message to relay to someone else, they rarely convey the message verbatim. The limits of human memory and the implicit demand that the listener not be burdened with too many details constrain the amount and kind of information that is transmitted... Secondhand accounts often become simpler and ‘cleaner' stories that are not encumbered by minor inconsistencies or ambiguous details."
This has been borne out in many studies; in 2009 researchers at the University of Warwick conducted experiments to see if they could create false eyewitness testimony using faked videotapes. In a study published in the journal "Applied Cognitive Psychology," subjects viewed a digitally faked videotape of something they had personally experienced, and were asked to confirm whether or not the tape was accurate.
Those who visually experienced the actions on the tape were three times more likely to affirm the accuracy of the faked tape than controls who were merely told what the tape showed. This demonstrates that some subjects incorporated what they saw on a television screen into their "real" memories, and when given a choice between relying on what they actually remembered and what they saw represented as reality, they chose the latter.
Other studies, including by false memory expert Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, have reached similar conclusions; as she told Discovery News, "Basically I think it's plausible that Brian Williams developed a false memory in this case, and it just proves he's human like the rest of us."
We all misremember details and experiences from our past, and most of the time we aren't aware of it because we don't verify our recollections against the memories of others who were with us at the time, or compare them against some objective documentary evidence of what happened such as a videotape or news report.
In the wake of the scandal Williams announced over the weekend that he will be taking a leave of absence for several days as anchor of the nightly news broadcast.
Photo: Brian Williams. Credit: nbcnews.com