One of the myths we like to believe about ourselves is that we're a nation of strong, tall, clear-eyed men (sorry, but this myth was constructed before we realized that roughly half of us are female) who are exceptional but never brag about it. Unfortunately, a good part of the rest of the world often sees us as a nation of loud-mouthed braggarts who keep bleating about how much stronger, brighter, more heroic, and richer we are than anybody else.
It was probably inevitable that a nation formed in the manner and under the conditions of this one would tend to produce citizens inclined to cockiness. A couple of centuries of seasoning, though, should tone that down. You'd think.
I'm inclined to believe, though, that movies and television have magnified and intensified some of our worst characteristics. Surely, for example, there must somewhere be detectives who don't snarl at each other, smack suspects on the head, and consistently display the demeanor of someone suffering from a severe case of hemorrhoids. Any youngster aspiring to a career in that field, though, must assume that's the norm.
The public has been led to believe, through movies and television and the occasional live specimen, that every Army officer is supposed to shout, bluster, make bellicose pronouncements, and swagger.
There is a danger that young people going into the profession think that's proper. It becomes very easy then to lean on swaggering, blustering, and stomping around to denote leadership and command, rather than to follow sound principles and reason.
When I was a still wet-behind-the-ears junior officer, many of the captains and lieutenants in the first unit I belonged to were addicted to carrying swagger sticks. These thin batons, in existence in ancient armies as symbols of authority, and intermittently since, could be bought at the PX or we could fashion our own. I carried one enthusiastically for a while. At some point, though, the practice died out. And good riddance. It was mostly just a highly visible means of blustering and bragging. Thus its name.
Blustering and braggadocio, though, come out more often in words than with swagger sticks. You may recall that, nine years ago, the neo-cons who encouraged us onto the bloody road to Baghdad seemed given to the stern pronouncements they must have assumed was how warriors talk. Few if any of them had ever heard a shot fired in anger, but they talked the talk. Others paid the price.
I'm inclined to believe, based on experience and studying people, that a great many loudmouths use tough talk to mask fear.
Those who fear they are weak are drawn to act as if they're exceptionally strong. I won't give examples from public life, not wanting to defame anyone's personal hero.
I've been dwelling on these thoughts again in the days since Neil Armstrong died. Widely acclaimed as the first human to set foot on the moon, he was almost equally famous for refusing to brag, to swagger, or to seek the limelight. Quite the opposite. A man of skill, exceptional courage, coolness under pressure and devotion to his country, he had more reason than most to swagger. He never did.
The temptation to tell the world your story is, if you have a story to tell, quite strong for some. Yet there are those who walk among us every day who never yield to the temptation to swagger or to toss about "warrior language" designed to impress the uninitiated. The Army's Rangers and Special Forces soldiers, for example, have been known for emphasis on quiet competence, not publicity.
The former Navy SEAL whose tell-all book about the Osama bin Laden raid is just out must have been terribly tempted, not least by lots of cash. It's a regrettable outcome and a stain on the organization's former reputation for silent professionalism. This is not to denigrate the service of the author. He's a highly trained, skilled, tough, courageous fighter.
But he's no Neil Armstrong.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."