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Bill O'Reilly and the Conservative Crisis of Macho

02/27/2015 02:17 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

Are Bill O'Reilly's trousers really ablaze at the moment? Is he really just lying about his "combat" experience down there in the no-man's-land of Buenos Aires? (Or is it the trenches of Buenos Aires?) Has O'Reilly been in the business of dissembling, distorting, and distracting for so long that he no longer knows the difference between what is true and what isn't?

Actually, I don't think these are the right questions to be asking about the Fox News celebrity and his recent controversy. Clearly the street demonstrations he covered for CBS did not constitute a "war zone." Brian Williams at least got closer to a real one in Iraq before he starting making stuff up.

But at the same time, I suspect that O'Reilly really believes that he faced grave and mortal danger covering the demonstrations in Argentina back in the early 1980s. More to the point, he needs to believe it.

At stake here for Bloviating Bill is not the truth as such or even his journalistic credibility; that's all trivial for him. Instead, attacks on his Argentine war story are really attacks on his manhood, because just below all the bullying, the yelling, the tough-guy posturing, Bill has a real macho crisis.

O'Reilly was born in 1949. He is a member of the Vietnam generation. Roughly 2.7 million American men went to fight in Vietnam -- nearly 10 percent of that male cohort. O'Reilly wasn't among them. Nor was he among the 9 million men altogether who served in the military between 1964 and 1975. Needless to say, he didn't march against the war either.

As I understand it, O'Reilly's draft number didn't come up. I'm not sure whether or not he used some of the many draft deferments available back then to get out of service, but we can say for certain that he didn't volunteer. In the hour of his nation's need, Bill kept his head low and got on with his own life. He became a reporter, but in a sense he missed the epochal story of his generation.

I suspect he's been haunted by that choice for a long time. And as the psychologists say, he's been overcompensating for it ever since.

He's not alone among the angry, white conservatives of his generation. One of the remarkable footnotes to the Iraq War fiasco was the extent to which it was engineered, justified and sold to the public by Vietnam-era men who chose to skip the Vietnam War. Dick Cheney deferred his way out of Vietnam duty, and so did Bush administration Attorney General John Ashcroft. (While I don't think Cheney ever shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, he did prove his macho by shooting a friend in the face during a bird hunt.)

Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle -- they all pushed the Iraq War, and none of them served in the Vietnam-era military. Nor did Trent Lott, Bill Frist or Mitch McConnell.

For these guys, and for Rush Limbaugh, George Will, and Pat Buchanan, maybe cheerleading for the Iraq War became a second bite at the Vietnam apple, a way for them to go to fight the Vietnam War by proxy, to demonstrate just how tough they really are by sending other people's children off to die, because when they had the chance to go off to war themselves, they all punted.

Teddy Roosevelt knew this crisis of macho. Born in 1858, he grew up listening to stories about the Civil War with a gnawing sense that he had missed the great opportunity to prove himself in that martial way. When William McKinley declared war on Spain in 1898, the 40-year-old Roosevelt jumped at the chance. He was going to find some war to participate in, even if that charge up San Juan Hill hardly constituted the second battle of Gettysburg. Having proved his manhood, and having become a national celebrity for it, he became William McKinley's vice president in 1900, and president in 1901. His writings are filled with eloquent justifications for war and for the strenuous life it requires.

And so it is with Bill's Excellent Argentine Adventure. He skipped Vietnam, and since we did not declare war on Spain, he had to do the next best thing: transform Buenos Aires into a battlefield, and TV reporting into combat. This way he too can sit around with the real vets at the VFW and trade war stories. Presto macho!

It's too bad that Bill didn't leave the cozy confines of Marist College and sign up to go to Danang. He might have learned a few things there -- like what war really is, and what it isn't. He might have come back with some of the wisdom that actual veterans acquire.

John Kerry, Max Cleland and Chuck Hagal all served in Vietnam; Cleland left pieces of himself behind there. As members of the Senate, they were far more skeptical about the Iraq War and far more reluctant to engage in the cheap bellicosity that spewed forth from the likes of O'Reilly.

Who knows? If Bill O'Reilly had actually served in Vietnam, he might have been humbled enough by the experience to know when to shut up about war zones.

Steven Conn will be the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, next fall. His most recent book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.