“I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.“
So spoke Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, in a 2005 interview with the late Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes.” Clearly, out on his retirement farm in Ohio, Mr. Armstrong hadn’t been paying attention.
By 2005, America was deep into in the “look at me” age, the age of the endzone dance, the age of instant celebrity, the age of taking whatever celebrity or notoriety that befalls you and monetizing it as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
Mr. Armstrong’s death Saturday, at 82 from complications following heart surgery, came at the end of a week that had seen a minor firestorm erupt over the planned publication of a book written by one of the 24 Navy SEALs who took part in the May 1, 2011, raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
“No Easy Day” will be published Sept. 11. The author had hoped to use the pseudonym Mark Owen, but Fox News quickly disclosed his real name, which will not be reported here.
Until recently, there was an unwritten code of silence among the military’s special forces. It was the classic “act like you’ve been there before” advice growled by old-school football coaches to showboating players. It says, “We’re cool. We’re competent. We’re special, and the only people who need to know that already do or are already dead.“
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Back in 1997, a tavern owner here had to resign as president of the St. Louis Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America when it was disclosed that he’d been a Navy pipefitter, not a Navy SEAL. Back then, the surest way to tell if someone had not been a special forces operator was if he claimed that he had.
Nowadays, former special operators write books. They form private security companies, like Academi (née, Xe, née Blackwater). They form political action committees to attack President Barack Obama for allegedly leaking classified information just like their pseudonymous former comrade, Mark Owen.
Neil Armstrong had been a Navy pilot, not a SEAL, but he always treated the Apollo 11 mission as if it had been classified. He talked about it reluctantly, if at all. His fellow moon-walker, Buzz Aldrin, liked the limelight. Apollo 11’s command module pilot, Michael Collins, wrote “Carrying the Fire,” the best book ever written by an astronaut, and then became head of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
Mr. Armstrong disappeared into academia and corporate boardrooms. He cooperated with one biography, James Hansen’s “First Man,” and appeared on “60 Minutes” to promote it. He was the quietest and most self-effacing of heroes, content to live not on that piece of fireworks in July 1969, but on the ledger of his life’s work.
His former wife, Janet Armstrong, from whom he was divorced in 1994, told Mr. Hansen, “He feels guilty that he got all the acclaim for an effort of tens of thousands of people.“
Guilt will not be a problem for the “look at me” generation.