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How Veterans Changed the Military and Rebuilt the Middle Class

We thank labor unions for the eight-hour work day, pensions, the weekend, and many other employment benefits Americans enjoy. Organized workers staged direct actions — strikes, sit-ins, boycotts, etc. — forcing bosses to the bargaining table. It’s a history most of us learn in high school.

More overlooked is the history of how the modern military was shaped by veteran-led direct actions.

For one thing, our military is famously all-volunteer. Civilians no longer fear being drafted.

To get those volunteers, recruiters and guidance counselors tout the free college education, sign-on bonuses, food and housing allowances, and VA benefits that come with military service. I was continually reminded of these things when I joined the Army in 2003.

Look into the history of these developments and you’ll find sit-ins, marches, and many other forms of direct action.

The G.I. Bill, passed in 1944, helped build the American middle class. It guaranteed millions of vets a college education, home loans, and more after World War II. It still does today.

Veterans of World War I, however, received no such benefit. So throughout the 1920s and early ’30s, they marched and demonstrated, demanding back-pay compensation (referred to as a “bonus”) to reasonably match what their civilian counterparts had earned on the home front.

The largest demonstration happened in 1932, when a 25,000-strong “Bonus Army” occupied Washington, D.C. for two months. The veterans vowed not to leave until Congress approved the bonus. Instead, General Douglas MacArthur removed them by force using cavalry troops and tear gas.

But the veterans’ efforts eventually paid off. The bonus was paid in 1936. This incredible history is documented in The Bonus Army (2004), by Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen, and The War Against the Vets (2018) by Jerome Tuccille.

These years of protests by World War I veterans gave veterans organizations, like the American Legion, significant leverage in advocating for the G.I. Bill. President Roosevelt and Congress understood that not passing such a bill could mean veteran-led civil unrest, or worse.

Michael J. Bennett, historian of the G.I. Bill, writes, “After World War I, virtually every [fighting] nation other than Britain and the United States had their government overthrown by their veterans.” It’s no stretch to say the G.I. Bill was passed, in part, to prevent revolution.

Two decades later, in the late 1960s, a movement within the U.S. armed forces emerged in opposition to the Vietnam War. Soldiers refused orders, sabotaged equipment, and spoke out at protests.

In Soldiers in Revolt: G.I. Resistance During the Vietnam War (2005), David Cortright concludes that Nixon ended the draft in 1973 in response to this alarming resistance. “The internal problems that gave rise to changes in tactical deployment” to Vietnam, he wrote, “were also responsible for… the shift to an all-volunteer force.”

Of course, an all-volunteer force would need to offer better incentives to recruit people. This is where the improved living conditions, sign-on bonuses, and increased starting wages mentioned in every recruiter’s sales pitch came from.

In the 1970s and ’80s (and beyond), the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War made it a part of their mission to improve VA healthcare. They occupied VA offices, demonstrated, and even locked themselves inside the Statue of Liberty to amplify their message. They were key in getting the VA to recognize PTSD, Agent Orange exposure, and other illnesses afflicting veterans.

But as these benefits were won, they can also be lost.

Today, as more service members and veterans qualify for food stamps, the VA system remains on the verge of getting dismantled. Meanwhile, soldiers are receiving orders sending them into morally and legally questionable territory (such as Trump’s “Operation Faithful Patriot,” deploying thousands of troops to the border of Mexico to stop unarmed migrants).

Against this, the history of veteran-led activism can provide inspiration and guidance. Direct action gets results.

 

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