Stolen valor? or free speech?

There are a number of petitions before the Court that look to be quite interesting this term.  There is a takings case from the 9th Circuit, and some Establishment Clause cases, and a couple of cases involving who can be sued for torture.  Normally, that last one would have commanded my attention the most, but the case I  most hope the Court grants cert for is United States v. Alvarez, concerning the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime to misrepresent that you have been awarded military medals.  The issue before the Court is whether the act infringes upon free speech.

I am normally a free speech zealot (see my reaction to the Westboro Baptist case).  But this time, I just  don’t know…

Perhaps it is because next month it will have been fifteen years since my dad died.  Dad was one of the few, the proud… He was a Marine, and in many ways it defined his life. He served in the Pacific during World War II, and in China after the war, where he was tortured by having his teeth pulled out. In later years he clearly suffered from what would today be diagnosed as PTSD.

He took his oath seriously, even after he was no longer in active service.  One of my clear memories of the 80s was watching the Iran-Contra hearings with Dad: when Ollie North stated that his duty was to follow his commander-in-chief, Dad yelled at the television: “No, it’s NOT! It is to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States!” He went on to call North a disgrace to the uniform.  For a mostly conservative Republican (which did not mean then what it means now), that was significant.

Three years before he died, he and my uncle, a career Marine who had served from the Pacific Theater to Korea through to Vietnam, got into a dispute about a battle in the Pacific.  I don’t remember which battle, now, nor does it matter much.  What matters is that my uncle insisted heatedly that Dad could not have been there, and Dad even more heatedly insisted he was.  What I remember was that the island in question was the scene of fighting for some time, so I suppose it would have been possible for Dad not to have been in the first wave but have been there subsequently. Dad died never having been reconciled to his brother and a couple of my siblings were all for banning my uncle from the funeral, until Mom stepped in and put a stop to that nonsense.

Dad abhorred lying.  “Liar” was one of the worst things you could call someone, and you damn well better have proof of knowledge of the untruth and active intent to deceive.  My siblings and I had that drilled into us.  There is a strong difference between “You’re mistaken,” or even “You’re wrong,” and “You’re lying,” and he made sure we understood it. For his own brother to call him a liar was simply unacceptable.  But it went further than that.  He was being accused of lying about one of the most important — and horrific — experiences of his life.

Dad did not really talk about the horrors; most of the war stories he told were of amusing things that happened between battles. One he told me, however, left me stunned.

He was nineteen.  He had landed with his comrades on an island, where they were being cut down by withering fire coming from up in the hills.  Night fell, and he waited for the dawn, to die.  He said that it was not even a matter of simply thinking he might die.  He was sure he was dead.  He spent the night repeating the 121st Psalm, looking up into the hills. (This was the Psalm that we read at his wake, at his request.)  As it turned out, the Japanese had had something happen (I don’t remember what) which left them in some disarray the next morning.  Dad survived.

When I was nineteen, I was trying to figure out if I really wanted to date the geeky kid from MIT, and whether history would make a good major.  I was not sitting on a hunk of rock thousands of miles away from my home and loved ones, waiting to be shot to death.  The enormity of it seemed beyond my comprehension.

That is, until Steven Spielberg made Saving Private Ryan.  I made myself watch it, even though I don’t handle violence in movies well: I figured it would help me understand a little of what Dad went through. (I avoided Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line, which supposedly did for the Pacific what Saving Private Ryan did for the European theatre.  I just couldn’t handle it.) The first twenty minutes made it crystal clear all of a sudden why the argument between my dad and his brother was so important, to both sides.

For someone to go through what soldiers experienced in battle, and come out the other side, would mean to be changed forever.  To have that experience, that horror, negated would be beyond infuriating.  Similarly, to have seen such death and destruction, or to have known those who did, would make one very protective of those who survived and the memories of those who died.  For someone to falsely claim kinship in that fraternity would be almost sacrilegious.

So, I don’t know.  I think the Stolen Valor Act is fine: that to falsely claim equivalence with those who put their lives on the line, and especially those who acted with such valor as to be recognized for it, is akin to fraud.  Fraud on all of us who, whatever our views towards the particular wars in which they are sent to fight, have a deep and abiding respect for our men and women in uniform.

I think Dad would agree with me.

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