The Bonus Marchers Anniversary and Veterans in America

The bedraggled army of former war veterans who remain firm in their demands for the payment of the bonus shown as they arrive
The bedraggled army of former war veterans who remain firm in their demands for the payment of the bonus shown as they arrived at the Capitol in Washington on July 5, 1932. They heard their speakers demand relief for the former soldiers and then quietly dispersed. (AP Photo)

Few lines between points A and B seem to be as short and direct in American politics as that between veterans and patriotism. Veterans and patriotism are almost interchangeable, but peeling away the veneer reveals the conflicted relationship America has with its veterans. In no other equation do we have as stark and simple a lens through which to see the difference between who we say we are and who we actually are.

Exhibit A: This month, on July 28, you will hear no parades, no testimonies read, and no moments of silence will be observed for the 82nd anniversary of the Bonus Marchers of 1932. The Bonus Marchers were 17,000 World War I veterans who gathered in Washington D.C. and demanded immediate payment of service certificates given to them by the government in 1924. These certificates, tardy the day they were conceived, were the result of a program that dictated that they could not be cashed in until 1945, so thanks for the service, now let us give you a hand with your rent and food 20 years from now. And we now know the country would have much different budget concerns in 1945 that would compete with the aging obligation to mop up our human debt from the First World War.

It is an interesting bit of trivia that the officer in charge of vacating the Bonus Marchers on July 28th from Anacostia Flats and empty government buildings was Douglas MacArthur. Against the advice of his young aide Dwight Eisenhower, MacArthur personally led from a mount a straight four column phalanx with bayonets fixed against American veterans exercising the very rights we all say they protect.

The layers of bitter irony are many; five Renault tanks supported the phalanx with their sights aimed at the marchers, some of whom had driven or commandeered that very model of tank while in uniform, and gas canisters were shot at the Bonus Marchers, which for many was not the first time they choked in a chemical fog.

Here is what really grabs me; MacArthur, that same afternoon, told the press he believed Red agitation caused the marchers to gather and protest, thus justifying their being silenced and their shanty town burned.

The key theme here is that with relatively simple changes in the way the veterans were categorized to the public they went from hero to villain with the verbal stroke of a pen, and the patriotism and parades that welcomed these guys home fell silent as they were marginalized, de-legitimized and finally brutalized almost as if they had been in the opposing trenches 15 years earlier.

This idea of marginalizing and stigmatizing veterans as some fringe element, even assign to them a whiff of anti-Americanism, would make many return appearances in Washington and throughout American society, and somehow America provides a soft-landing for it almost every time.

The real question is why the stigmatization of veterans is tolerated so casually, and what the connection is between that lack of vigilance and the endlessly repeated claim that this country owes a massive debt to each and every veteran, etc. Somewhere within that is a glimpse at the underbelly of a country that is fervently pro-veteran in word but not necessarily in deed.

It says something much darker about us when it comes to Vietnam, since clearly this country, for all its purported love of veterans and honoring of service, was more than happy to stand-by in 2000, 2002, and 2004 while decorated veterans of both parties were tarred and feathered.

Exhibit B: 2000; Republican U.S. Senator John McCain was a victim of whisper campaigns in the South Carolina GOP Presidential Primary that he caved while a captive, that his adopted daughter was actually conceived out of wedlock, and other GOP candidates in those primaries trumpeted the support of leaders of angry splinter veterans organizations that openly charged McCain with lying about POW-MIAs. The implied whiff of weakness and/or anti-Americanism was a common strand in all of those slander campaigns, and it was not only tolerated by the American people but rewarded.

Exhibit C: 2002; incumbent Democratic Senator Max Cleland was pilloried in a Georgia Senate race for being soft on Bin Laden for some cherry-picked procedural votes in the U.S. Senate, resulting in a triple-amputee's patriotism being questioned and maligned. This country barely raised an eyebrow.

Exhibit D: 2004; John Kerry, fragged with the campaign that has now entered our political lexicon, which retroactively questioned his military service in the late '60s due to resentment for his public anti-war leadership of the early '70s. The Swift Boat veterans questioned the validity of his medals, but criticism of military procedures is not a' la carte; you can't impugn someone's medals without implicitly criticizing the military chain of command that bestowed them. Here we can crystallize a perfect example of my overall point; the Swift Boat veterans' criticism of the military's decoration decisions are socially protected and wear the cultural veil of patriotism, and John Kerry questioned the morality of sending 19-year-olds into Free Fire Zones and was successfully ostracized. Both wore the uniform, but only one party was welcomed within the patriotic glow.

Exhibit E: Illinois congressional challenger Tammy Duckworth, a Black Hawk pilot who lost both legs in Iraq, had her service repeatedly belittled by incumbent Joe Walsh in 2012 and the slander received a shrug from the American people and vanished after a 24-hour lap around the cable news track.

In this brief essay I have not even gotten into VA funding, the back log of appeals and cases, the mountain of neglected paperwork that should embarrass each of us, or the hideous statistic that more American soldiers have committed suicide since we sent troops to Afghanistan than have died there, because I want to focus on the anniversary of the Bonus Marchers and draw modern parallels. Any principled stand would dictate that each veteran described above should fall within the realm of social respect and deference, just as the Bonus Marchers should have been left to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights.

But when it comes to veterans this country can very quickly set aside its self-congratulating respect for those who serve, draining our bumper stickers and applause-generating talking points of any real meaning. Push comes to shove we are still left with the weakest and most base of human dynamics; some are on the inside and others outside, often due to nothing other than the herd momentum of consensus or factors like socioeconomics, race, or geography, and, depending on where you fall in all that and what you stand for, having worn the uniform can very quickly mean very little.

The problem with that is some of those on the outside at one point were willing to die for you and me, and we return the favor with insincere chest-thumping about our obligation to veterans while proving it is within our national character to stand by while certain veterans are shunned, marginalized and treated as un-American, as with the 17,000 World War 1 veterans forcibly removed from Washington D.C. 82 years ago this month.