Back around the late 1800s, when swords were still were still the sidearm choice of “open-carry” and not mere decorations, when soldiers (officer class) hung out with their regiments in their private clubs and shared tales of valor, martial songs of battles, and the social art of wenching with barmaids, the male fashion feature of the day was the “dueling scar.” The best dueling scar was one that did not overly mar the rugged, or well-bred good looks of a guy who, also in the fashion of the times, wore his well-decorated military jacket draped over one shoulder and his regimental kepi at a jaunty angle. We’ve all seen those operas, or Count Vronsky raising hell with the guys in his regiment.
Vronsky didn’t have a dueling scar as I recall, perhaps because he never really got close enough to combat to receive one. But it would have added to his dashing military style; it would have announced “Look ye of little renown, upon a man who has received a wound in battle, a man who has experienced combat, who has ‘made his bones’.” With a dueling scar one couldn’t quite determine whether the scar was obtained in some great historical clash with the French Grand Army, or in a fencing academy on the Vienna Ringstrasse, perhaps an actual duel with some husband you cuckholded. Whatever; it was your badge of courage. It set you apart, and above. It was the sign of the true, and tested, professional soldier, and emblem of actual heroism. It cold get you promoted. It could get you laid.
Now, before I indulge myself in historical reference to the point of burying my lead beyond exhumation I must declare that the inspiration for this piece comes from recent news about two journalists (well, sort-of journalists): Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly. Williams and O’Reilly are two, though not identical, wannabe journalists desperate to have he journalistic equivalent of the dueling scar, desperate to appear to be “war correspondents” who have hazarded the dangers of combat, come close to death in their intrepid quest for the truth and self-promotion (not necessarily in that order).*
So Williams fudged up a story about a chopper he was flying in Iraq was struck (albeit with very minor damage) by an RPG. Williams was physically uninjured, but his story was sort of a journalistic dueling scar. He repeated it several times. Williams was caught, had to apologize, has been put on leave and had his substantial salary docked, and will probably never recover from his paste-on dueling scar. Williams has apologized almost as profusely for ”mis-remembering” that Orwellian sibling of “mistakes were made.”
Fibber O’Reilly, the Fox News entertainer-bully boy, is a far bigger fabricator of untruths, having said he was reporting from the Falkland Islands (during battles in the British-Argentine war) when he was never there, and has since been outed as a phony in several other stories in which he has placed himself that do not hold up under scrutiny. O’Reilly offers no apologies, only accusations that the leftist media are out to get him. This self-aggrandizing blowhard needs his faux dueling scars.
Unfortunately, as with all liars, fakes, phonies, and con-men, they tarnish the image of their profession while trying to appear as paragons of it. But there is little need to rehash these stories of these journalistic egos who want to be part of he news as well as report it. That they achieved, if not with the type of scar they were seeking.
The more interesting question is what aspect of male social psychology drives this behavior? The reason that I lead with the military example is that it is doubtless the strongest connections with notions of “manhood,” which is perhaps why there is a veterans organization that outs guys who fabricate everything from claims of battlefield injuries to entire false records of military service, including politicians running for office. Even in the military itself there were of some high-ranking military officers who applied the “V” for valor to their campaign ribbons when they had not been earned by having even been even minimally “in harm’s way” in a combat situation. For example, General Petraeus, whose sole combat experience appears to have been as commander of a tank battalion heading into an already clobbered Baghdad. The General likes to parade around in a uniform so decorated and emblazoned with so many military ribbons and medals that he resembles a send-up of one of those South American dictators in full faux battle regalia. The fact of the matter is (and you can check this on the Internet) most of these decorations are sort of for kind of “being there,” or in the vicinity. Among Petraeus’s decorations are three merit ribbons and medals from Poland, one from the Netherlands, others from the United Arab Emirates, the Czech Republic, Romania, etc. You really have to be into playing soldier to dress up in that frou-frou every day. All he lacks is a dueling scar (he does have a scar somewhere from having been accidentally shot on a firing range).
I only hold up Petraeus as a shiny example of the male need to exhibit—if only in appearance—the image of bravery, of having been “battle-tested,” that extends beyond the military into professions such as police and fire protection, the seeming need to prove—perhaps to oneself as to others—having “been there,” having been part of something, as it is sometimes expressed, “larger than oneself,” to have approached the heroic. It is an impulse that wavers in its motivations between true courage (or at least allegiance to duty) and, as we observe in the likes of Williams and O’Reilly, egoism and self-aggrandizement. Perhaps we need not wonder at the vehemence at the exposure of false claims of courage; it is a deceitful form of theft to insinuate oneself into a valorous brotherhood without truly having earned that dueling scar.
Yet, in the present age, when heroism is cheapened in its inflated claims, it seems that the core of the dueling scar mentality might lie deeper in a male psyche scarred by social changes difficult to defend with a sword. That’s for next time.
© 2015, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.6.2015)