A Second Sun Sets for America's Vets
Labor Day, 06 September 1999
Just about this same time a century ago America's vets saw their sun setting. The last Revolutionary War veteran had long since passed and Civil War veterans were reaching their twilight years... only a few remained after the turn of the Century. And again, as in 1899, America's war veterans are rapidly fading into a memory, but not necessarily a legend.
The priority many aging war vets appear to set today is creating a pretty website that garnishes a multitude of meaningless graphic awards... not establishing and preserving as their elders did after both World Wars, community territorial legacies intended to remain standing long after visitors to forgettable websites shut down their computers. Consisting mostly of borrowed images, little historical content on war or military experience can be found on most veteran's personal webpages... and hit counters reveal few are interested in them.
The titular head of the Bonus March of 1932 decried that American veterans can best preserve their legacy and all they endured in their veterans organizations... fixed property, hallowed halls and priceless memorabilia dusted daily by caring hands that will forever remember their cost in blood. Unfortunately, it was those same caretakers who helped destroy the very essence of their organization's preservation, their membership.
The Bonus March knew not race, nor religion nor branch of service. It's only requirement was that if you serve, you deserve. That was the spirit of WWI veterans who well understood what their Civil War fathers and uncles died for on both sides. Although the army was defacto segregated during WWI, some blacks were permitted to serve in white units. Vehement opposition to race mixing by white soldiers only increased after WWI when military downsizing encouraged white career military men to fight tooth and nail to retain their dwindling jobs and ranks. Blacks and other minorities were the first to be jettisoned to preserve better entrenched whites. The segregation spirit spiraled into the pre-WWII era and throughout the war when no black could receive the Medal of Honor or serve in a white unit for risk of donating life-saving blood to an Anglo. (Not a single black nurse was permitted to serve in the European theater during WWII for fear he or she might be called upon, as nurses commonly were, to donate blood to injured white soldiers.) This racial pattern, loudly condemned by Walter Waters, helped set the stage for today's downsizing by America's oldest veterans organizations that cannot seem to recruit more than a one digit percent of surviving vets, whether black, white, red or yellow to add numbers to their dwindling memberships.
Although VFW led other ancestral veterans organizations in opening their memberships to blacks and minorities, their segregationist policy of establishing new, separate Posts rather than accept minorities within their existing bodies alienated well over twenty seven percent of those who served in uniform. Over time, after the Vietnam War, more blacks, other minorities and women vets were slowly admitted into previously all-male, all-white Posts. However, a general policy of excluding Vietnam War veterans regardless of skin color until after 1981, the year The Vietnam War Memorial was erected, kept hundreds of thousands who served in America's longest war from joining. Today, still angry at their post-war rejection, many Vietnam vets feel a sense of payback when hearing about yet another VFW or American Legion Post shutting down due to lack of membership.
No one can deny that VFW, American Legion, Amvets and other organizations accomplished much in obtaining veterans their deserved respect and needed benefits which, not coincidentally, parallels the decline of their memberships. Perhaps more so than racism or wartime/military era exclusionary policies practiced by veterans organizations, arrogantly failing to reestablish Waters' political action committees within their ranks has hurt veterans organizations most. Even after the loudly despised Presidential election of anti-military/war protester Bill Clinton, political activism in veterans organizations rose only mildly, devoting itself almost exclusively to complaining about declining benefits rather than, as Walter Waters advocated, electing veterans to Congress who would protect and enhance veteran budget outlays. (It should be noted that most veterans organizations could not establish PAC's because they opted instead to retain a few extra dollars from the IRS by making their groups tax exempt... which prohibits most political activity. In short, they shot themselves in both legs.)
After their early successes in electing veterans to Congress and policymaking offices too many vets took for granted that what they had would always remain. Quite obviously, this was a fatal mistake. The same young WWII/Korean veterans who fought hard for VA medical protection to care for their WWI fathers neglected to pass on to their Vietnam and Gulf War sons and daughters the need to keep up the fight. As in war, an army that lays down it guns to revel in its victory is itself soon defeated by the same enemies it mistakenly thought to be permanently dormanted.
When it comes to war and post-war, American history has repeated itself over and over again. During war Americans promise to care for its warriors. But after the war the victories are soon forgotten and the warriors are gradually cast adrift to fend for themselves... should they choose to. Losing a war, for the Confederates of the South and for Vietnam vets, accelerates America's abandonment of its warriors. But as Jan Scruggs' Wailing Wall reversed public opinion and raised the Vietnam vet to near martyrdom another phenomenal reversal occurred. Vietnam vets began to openly attack their own. Fierce competition to recruit members quickly rose the level of bush warfare between Vietnam vet organizations. For some of these organizations, any local Vietnam vet who refused to join was to be considered an enemy. This vet-against-vet atmosphere further pushed veterans apart. Today there exists almost as many Vietnam vet organizations as there were military units in Vietnam. And rather than align themselves in one or even a handful of potentially powerful organizations as their grandfathers and fathers did, Vietnam vets chose to fragment themselves into tiny pockets of resistance a public 'MacArthur Island Hopping' mentality of ignoring them renders most impotent... barely recognizable on the veteran landscape.
Who is to blame for the Decline of the American Veteran Civilization? One can only put the finger on veterans themselves.
I believe America truly loves and honors its veterans. It is unfortunate that America's veterans do not love and honor one another enough to unite and preserve our four hundred year military legacy that produced countless heroes and millions of personal sacrifices.
Today, fewer veterans perform the singlemost important act they gave all for others to enjoy, their right to vote. It is estimated that fewer than five percent belong to veterans organizations. And, today, more veterans are homeless or surviving below the poverty line than before the Bonus March.
It can only be said that it is an American tragedy that so many men and women who fought for others now do so little to unite to fight for themselves.
Phill Coleman Senior Librarian The American War Library
Bonus March II: A New Beginning
Veterans Don't Vote
General Election Poll 1996
General Election Poll 1992