Friday, November 25, 2011

Veterans Day, the “Bonus Army”, and honoring veterans by actions, not words

We recently celebrated Veteran’s Day, an opportunity to honor the men and women who have served the rest of us, putting their lives on the line, in the wars that our nation has fought. It was a numerologically special day, November 11 this year, being 11/11/11. While I have opposed almost all of the wars fought in my lifetime, as stupid and often motivated by the same greed on the part of the wealthiest that so clearly determines the behavior of our nation, I have only admiration and respect for those who put their lives on the line. The history of the world is often the history of wars, usually one more senseless than the last, and it is the history of the regular people who serve, and are killed, or wounded, or mutilated, or survive apparently intact.

Veteran’s Day began as Armistice Day, with the signing of the peace after WW I, a model for a brutal war that slaughtered millions for no good reason. I live in Kansas City, home of the nation’s WW I Museum, and it is a must-see for anyone who has not studied this first modern war, with millions soldiers dying in trenches; with the first large-scale wartime use of airplanes, with poison gas, with all the other viciousness that people were able to devise. There are some who prefer the use of name “Armistice Day” because it signifies “peace”; I am willing to celebrate our veterans without celebrating, or even condoning, the wars that took the lives of so many of their comrades.

We have not always honored veterans, and we do not do so now. “Honored” in words, sure; honored in deeds, in providing services for them to re-integrate into civilian society and find jobs, even to provide the health care that they need to treat the wounds, physical and mental, that they suffered in battle, not so much. Perhaps the most ignominious and dishonorable treatment of veterans was the attack on the “Bonus Army” of 1932. In 1924, Congress had issued “bonus certificates” to these veterans, but there was a catch – they were not redeemable until 1945. This was not of much help to the men who had “won the war” but were suffering unemployment during the depths of the Great Depression. Over 43,000 people, as many as 20,000 veterans plus members of their families, were camped in Washington DC parks, to demand payment of these bonuses. (It is of interest that President Coolidge had vetoed the bonuses in 1924 with the statement that "patriotism... bought and paid for is not patriotism," before Congress overrode his veto!) Tiring of all these dirty and ragtag families camped on public property (and, of course, the reminder that they brought of the broken promise), on July 28, 1932, President Hoover send the army to break up the encampment and rout them.

That is correct. The President of the United States sent active duty army troops, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur and assisted by Majors Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton, to attack its own veterans.  You didn’t learn this in school? Maybe it wasn’t really that important. Right. It happened. From Wikipedia:

“At 4:45 p.m., commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the 12th Infantry Regiment, Fort Howard, Maryland, and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, supported by six battle tanks commanded by Maj. George S. Patton, formed in Pennsylvania Avenue while thousands of civil service employees left work to line the street and watch. The Bonus Marchers, believing the troops were marching in their honor, cheered the troops until Patton ordered the cavalry to charge them—an action which prompted the spectators to yell, "Shame! Shame!"

After the cavalry charged, the infantry, with fixed bayonets and adamsite gas, an arsenical vomiting agent, entered the camps, evicting veterans, families, and camp followers. The veterans fled across the Anacostia River to their largest camp and President Hoover ordered the assault stopped. However Gen. MacArthur, feeling the Bonus March was a Communist attempt to overthrow the U.S. government, ignored the President and ordered a new attack. Fifty-five veterans were injured and 135 arrested….During the military operation, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, later President of the United States, served as one of MacArthur's junior aides. Believing it wrong for the Army's highest-ranking officer to lead an action against fellow American war veterans, he strongly advised MacArthur against taking any public role: "I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch not to go down there," he said later. "I told him it was no place for the Chief of Staff." Despite his misgivings, Eisenhower later wrote the Army's official incident report which endorsed MacArthur's conduct.”

That’s right. They used poison gas on WW I veterans, many of whom were suffering the effects of gas attacks during the war. Eisenhower, who may look like the “good guy”, was mainly concerned about the seemliness of the army’s Chief of Staff (MacArthur) leading the attack on Anacostia, not the attack itself.

The country was in a Depression. The more than $3 Billion that was owed these veterans was a lot of money for the government during the Depression. Not a good reason to not pay it. Just as it is not a good reason for us to cut back benefits for veterans today, in our own “recession”. In 1930, the Veterans Administration was created, combining several “veterans’ homes” and hospitals. After WW II, when the bonus checks would have come due for the WW I veterans, the GI Bill was passed, granting veterans the opportunity to get needed benefits, including an education delayed by the war. These benefits are regularly eroded by Congressmen who give fine speeches on November 11, but care as much about the actual people who fought our wars as much as Presidents Hoover and Coolidge did. In fact, President Coolidge’s statement about “patriotism” justifying not paying the bonuses would never be uttered by a current-day politician, but the actions of the Congress, which overrode the veto, would not either. We do not have enough money in the US, the story goes. We need to work down the deficit. By taking the money from the most needy, from the poor and the working class and the middle class, including our veterans; certainly not from the wealthiest.

The deficit was created by politicians doing the bidding of the <0.1% of the population who control most of our wealth, cutting their taxes to increase their wealth. And, oh yes, fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, killing and maiming and creating new veterans who can barely get the help that they need. And, of course, insuring that the 0.1% have every dollar of ours that they lost for us replaced – to them, not us, we pay the bill – and more, is far more important than providing health services and education and jobs for the veterans, or for anyone else.

We would (I think) not send the Army to attack a veterans’ encampment today, but who knows? The people who had fought WW I were honored by our people in those days as heroes even as much or more than our current veterans, and yet our President sent the Army to attack them with cavalry, tanks, and poison gas. Recent history shows us there is no depth of calumny and duplicity to which defenders of the status quo will not go to achieve their ends; remember the military history of #1 hawk Richard Cheney (he had none; he was doing “more important” things during the Vietnam war). Remember the defeat of Senator Max Cleland of Georgia by an opponent who questioned his patriotism and toughness because the Senator had raised questions about the war in Iraq? Sen. Cleland was a decorated Vietnam veteran who had lost both legs and an arm in that war; his opponent had not served.

And, unlike after WW I or WW II, without a draft, with a large group of young people who can find no other jobs, most of us are no longer involved in paying the human price of war. This is the focus of As Fewer Americans Serve, Growing Gap Is Found Between Civilians and Military by Sabrina Tavernise in the NY Times, November 25, 2011. “`What we have is an armed services that’s at war and a public that’s not very engaged’ said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center. `Typically when our nation is at war, it’s a front-burner issue for the public. But with these post-9/11 wars, which are now past the 10-year mark, the public has been paying less and less attention.’”

This separation means that, while politicians laud their service on Veterans’ Day, the actual veterans, after serving and suffering from real wounds both physical and mental, are returning to a society that has no jobs,  and is investing less and less in their care. What we need to see is more action on behalf of veterans, and on behalf of the American people. Instead, what we see from too many of our hypocritical Congressmen and “leaders” who sing the praises of our veterans while cutting their benefits, are actions that would make Calvin Coolidge proud. 

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