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My father, a World War II Marine veteran, stood in this past Memorial Day for a reawarding of a Silver Star to my grandfather at a ceremony hosted by the local American Legion in a small town in northeastern Connecticut. My grandfather died half a century ago, and over the years, the family had lost the medal, which my grandfather had received for bravery under fire during World War I, when he had served as an unarmed ambulance driver on the front lines in France.
It was, my father says, a moving service. My grandfather, William Lindorff, had never said much about his war experience or his obvious heroism. He had been an Army ambulance driver not because of some affinity for helping the wounded but because the xenophobic military brass didn’t trust him with a weapon: he’d been born in Germany and brought to America as an infant, making his loyalty suspect.
At any rate, he had earned that star back in a time when they weren’t just handing those things out to everybody and his brother who saw some kind of battle. He earned it in a genuine war, when the enemy was at least as powerful and well-equipped as were the Allies.
These days, everybody in a uniform is being called a hero. Every cop, every firefighter, every soldier. Even the kids who panic in Iraq and blow away whole families trying to flee the fighting, who shoot up ambulances like the one my grandfather drove, even the cops who chase down African immigrants and shoot them in the back, or who toss concussion grenades at old ladies in Harlem. No distinctions are made. They’re all heroes today. Talk about turning noble metal into dross.
The somber service at which my grandfather’s lost silver star was replaced stands in marked contrast to the cheap theatrics of President Bush at Arlington Cemetery that same day, where this AWOL National Guard drunkard once again, vampire like, tried, with the help of a complicit media, to suck some second-hand glory from the congealed veins of young men whose needless deaths he caused by his unprovoked assault on Iraq.
My great grandmother may have been a lifelong Eugene Debs-style socialist, but my grandfather was not a political guy. If he had been, he might have been one of those tens of thousands of desperate Bonus Marchers who, in the waning days of the Hoover administration, were teargassed and brutally attacked by U.S. troops led by Douglas McArthur, trying to get the government to make good on promises made to veterans. Instead, he quietly lost his house during the Great Depression, a victim of the same kind of feed-the-rich politics that are now gutting social programs and wrecking the once economy again.
There has always been jingoism, and there certainly were politicians in the years following World War I who tried to win votes by claiming to be friends of veterans like my grandfather, but nothing like we see today.
Now we have members of Congress singing "God Bless America" in their seats as they vote to strip funds from Veterans Administration programs and kill off VA hospitals. And we have a president who ducked his duty and avoided combat in Vietnam strutting around as if he were a veteran.
My grandfather wasn’t political, but I wonder if today, looking at the brazen, flag-waving hyporisy in Washington, he wouldn’t just turn in his medal, the way a number of Vietnam veterans did in the latter days of that war. Maybe not. My dad says he was quiet about it, but I’m sure he was proud of that medal, too.
Meanwhile, I suspect some of the soldiers now busy occupying Iraq will be ready for their own Bonus March after a few years have passed and they realize that the flag-waving politicians in Washington have gutted their retirement program, slashed their veterans benefits, and driven all their jobs south to Mexico and west to Asia.
If they do march again, this time they’ll be called terrorists, of course.
Even if they are wearing their medals.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org/dave.html