What do Williams Gehris, America's most decorated war hero, and Walter Williams, the last Civil War veteran to pass away, have in common?
Both were frauds. They spun tales of military heroism, duped the public, and then -- whoops -- someone discovered that they hadn't actually achieved the purported feats. Gehris professed to have racked up 54 decorations, when in reality he had just one. And Williams claimed to have fought in the Civil War, but records prove he couldn't have because he was only five years old at the time.
I came across these and other military fish tales in the article "Fake War Stories Exposed," in which Anne Morse covers frauds from all walks of life (journalists, actors, politicians, clergymen) who had all kinds of motives (money, glory, self-aggrandizement). That so many "veterans" could pull the wool over our eyes is remarkable, but what's even more striking is that many of them seem to have convinced even themselves.
Take for example our decorated war hero from above, Williams Gehris. When a reporter confronted him about his lies, Gehris responded that "there are people who don't believe six million Jews were killed, either."
Or how about former military chaplain and purported Vietnam veteran Gary Probst? Morse writes that when Probst was confronted about his lies, he claimed that he "lied for the Lord." Which was to say, his (false) heroics garnered him the trust and admiration of his flock, which ultimately was a good thing.
And then there's my personal favorite, former Connecticut state representative (and yet another Vietnam faker) Robert Sorensen, who came up with this exquisite response to the disclosure: "For the first time ever, the American public had before them a war in their living rooms... Every single person in this United States fought in that war in Vietnam. We all felt the anguish that those people felt. So in a sense I was there." Right.
It's possible, of course, that these conmen fully realized all along what they were doing and only gave their feeble excuses out of a last-ditch effort to save themselves. But given what we know about the power of the mind to self-deceive -- how it can rationalize almost anything and rework all kinds of memories -- I suspect that many of these men had actually come to view their fibs as truth.
Maybe Lenin was correct when he said: "A lie told often enough becomes the truth."