Sunday, March 13, 2005

And we were all at Woodstock, too

I'm getting very tired of the Ward Churchill story, but it retains a certain mesmerizing slow-motion train wreck fascination as his modus operendi becomes more clear. This isn't about academic freedom anymore; it's about an academic con artist, as I wrote earlier.

But this latest twist in the tale (via Little Green Footballs, from Pirate Ballerina, who seems positively Javert-like in his/her monomaniacal pursuit of Mr. Churchill) involves an allegation that Churchill appropriated another man's Vietnam combat story. That's what caught my interest.

I've noticed that inflating one's service in Vietnam, or even making it up entirely, has been something of a cottage industry for quite a while. The Vietnam War, dreadful though it was for many soldiers who actually were there, seems to have attracted a host of tall tale tellers. Sometimes their motivation is to get sympathy, or they act out of an overwhelming sense of guilt, or both. There is evidence that a number of the Winter Soldier testimonials of the early 70s may have been of this type, involving confessions of terrible wrongdoing, some of them given by men who may have never served there--or (like Churchill) who served there, but were apparently never in combat.

John Kerry, on the other hand, may or may not be (depending, of course, on what you think of the Swift Vets) an excellent example of a different type of tall tale teller, one motivated by narcissism. Roger Simon mentioned a while back that this self-aggrandizing type is a stock figure in commedia dell'arte, called "the braggart soldier." Baron von Munshausen made his name by telling these sorts of tales. Ward Churchill would most likely fall into this category of the braggart soldier.

When dramatic events happen, whether wonderful or terrible ones, there is a tendency for people to claim they were part of them (we were all at Woodstock, right? Sure we were!). Shakespeare mentions this desire in his famous St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V (I suggest you read the whole thing if you're not already familiar with it; it's awfully fine):

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's Day.


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