Two days after journalists debated the ethics of covering Joe Biden’s rapid-fire propensity for gaffes, an interesting case study on the former vice-president’s storytelling process was reported on by the Washington Post. On campaign trails over the years, Biden has relayed a harrowing account of a soldier’s heroics and humility, as he did recently before a crowd of 400 in Hanover, New Hampshire:
A four-star general had asked the then-vice president to travel to Kunar province in Afghanistan, a dangerous foray into “godforsaken country” to recognize the remarkable heroism of a Navy captain.
Some told him it was too risky, but Biden said he brushed off their concerns. “We can lose a vice president,” he said. “We can’t lose many more of these kids. Not a joke.”
The Navy captain, Biden recalled Friday night, had rappelled down a 60-foot ravine under fire and retrieved the body of an American comrade, carrying him on his back. Now the general wanted Biden to pin a Silver Star on the American hero who, despite his bravery, felt like a failure.
“He said, ‘Sir, I don’t want the damn thing!’” Biden said, his jaw clenched and his voice rising to a shout. “’Do not pin it on me, Sir! Please, Sir. Do not do that! He died. He died!’”
“This is the God’s truth,” Biden said while telling the story, adding a strange promise: “My word as a Biden.” According to the Post, Biden’s word as a Biden might not be worth all that much in this scenario, as little of it is immediately true. Based on “interviews with more than a dozen U.S. troops, their commanders and Biden campaign officials,” the paper states that he “got the time period, the location, the heroic act, the type of medal, the military branch and the rank of the recipient wrong, as well as his own role in the ceremony.”
Biden actually visited Kunar in 2008 when he was a senator, not during his tenure as veep. The soldier, Kyle J. White, who retrieved the body was 20 years old, not an established Navy captain. And Biden never pinned a Silver Star on him: It was Obama that did so, and it was the Medal of Honor. (In South Carolina on Thursday, Biden stood by his version of the events.)
What’s strange about Biden’s account is that he is telling war stories on the campaign trail in an effort to distance himself from the bravado of Trump’s patriotism and to center actual service members in the conversation. Doing so while getting the details wrong — or at least a composite blurred enough to no longer be directly factually accurate — undermines his effort. What’s even stranger is that Biden does have an accurate and compelling story involving the presentation of a medal to a reluctant and emotional soldier who served in Afghanistan. From the Post:
The version of Biden’s story that’s true — and just as heart-rending — is one he rarely tells. The setting was not Kunar province, but Wardak, just southwest of Kabul. The medal recipient was Workman, 35, who had run into a burning vehicle to save his dying friend. By the time Workman had pried open the door and plunged into the flames, it was too late.
“I never pulled him out because he was melting,” Workman recalled in a phone interview earlier this week from Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash.
Workman’s company commander told him that the vice president was going to pin a Bronze Star on him for his heroism. “I tried to get out of going,” recalled Workman, who has since been promoted to first sergeant. “I didn’t want that medal.” Nevertheless on Jan. 11, 2011, a cold, gray day, Workman stood at attention as Biden pinned the medal to his chest. The moment is memorialized in a White House photo and in a 2016 interview that Biden did with National Geographic.
Unlike most days in the Trump era, America’s forever-presence in Afghanistan broke into the news cycle on Thursday in the report on Biden’s storytelling and the announcement of a drawdown in troops in-country from 14,000 to 8,600.