the first lying promise to veterans: outtakes from 1785

When I’m not tracking that moving target, I’m making my last swim through the rest of the book, to tighten the prose and strengthen its themes. Of course, since I’m the one doing it, that latter task means just-a-little-more-research-please —  sifting through old files and asking the scholarship for bits that belong in that zig-zag of change.

Yesterday, the question I was trying to pursue was:  OK, my 19th-century chapters are all about those original sins (slavery and “Indian policy”). But how much opportunity did earlier American soldiers have to resist enforcing either? Were they active participants or simply surrounded by the assumptions of the day?

In particular, I wanted to know if Continental Army soldiers, so conscious of their compensation, had dangled before them the promise of “empty” land west of the settled colonies. By the time the new century rolled around, as evidenced in the document at left, Revolutionary War veterans were claiming land grants as their due for their service. (That particular vet, Matthew Lyon, had by then survived being thrown into prison by John Adams.)  The answer, of course, was paradoxical: no such promise was initially made when Continental Army troops helped destroy Iroquoia or massacred the Pequot, but proved after the Revolution to be an easy way for politicians to solve problems.

“Independence had thrown into the lap of a none- too-perfect union the vast and unsettled area between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi and Ohio rivers,” reads an article in Agricultural History in 1946, by a historian named Rudolf Freund, who was seemingly oblivious to the fact that that “unsettled area” was in 1776hardly unclaimed by its original inhabitants.

American Indians are nonexistent in Freund’s piece,  but he does provide some other pieces of the narrative. It all started, as we learned in school, with the German-born Hessian soldiers who switched sides:

Curiously enough, land was first promised by Congress, in August 1776, to Hessians and other foreigners if they would desert from the English army, but nothing much came of it. The story of the military bounty lands really began somewhat later when Congress decided to offer land to its own nationals as an inducement for enlisting in the new army and for permanent service.

The ill- fated summer campaigns of 1776 made it depressingly clear to everybody concerned that the war could not be waged successfully unless the militia was replaced, at least for the purposes of sustained warfare, by an army of regulars who were willing to serve without interruption until victory was won. This was a radical departure from  previous practices, and it was clear that substantial rewards had to be offered to achieve the change from temporary to permanent enlistment. Therefore, when Congress decided in September 1776 to establish 88 regiments on State lines to serve during the war, the former money bounty of $20 was augmented by promises of land, ranging from 100 acres for a private to 500 acres for a colonel. The land was to be provided by the United States, and the expenses connected there- with were to be borne by the States in the same proportion as the other expenses of the war.

All of which was argued over to death in Congress, some by those hating the idea of a “mercenary” army and some by states that feared they’d pay more than others. No one, of course, pointed out the arrogance-crossed-with-hubris of the provision that “The land was to be provided by the United States.”  If Tecumseh had been older than eight years old at the time, perhaps he could have been the one to stand on the floor of Congress and ask: “Provided by who, white man?” In any event, in order to get the land portion of the bounty you had to sign up for at leeast three years or the duration of the war, and even then the commitment was nearly completely verbal. But then, Freund says, came Britain’s surrender in 1782, which suddenly did throw something unforeseen into the national lap: hundreds of thousands of soon-to-be-unemployed military men. “Our circumstances afford an odd Contrast to those we have heretofore experienced. The Difficulty which heretofore oppres’d us was how to raise an Army. The one which now embarrasses is how to dissolve it,” a major named Richard Peters  wrote to Washington adviser Baron Steuben.

By then, military courts and prisons had filled with thousands charged with desertion and insubordination, despite constant efforts to make the Continental force into more of a professional army. Washington and his fellow generals saw themselves as simultaneously fighting the British on one side, Indians on another, and on a third Continental legislators so wary of a standing army that they had still not paid any of the half-wages they had earlier agreed to give former soldiers.

As the exhausted, enraged, still-underfed Continental Army camped out at Newburgh for the winter, Washington — like Wayne two years earlier at Mount Kemble — chose to stay in town instead of going home to warmer Virginia. What happened next, in 1783, is still a matter of controversy. What is not in dispute: that officers at Newburgh met repeatedly, fearing their fate as Congress contemplated peace and despairing of their repeated requests for compensation; that tempers in the camp ran high after the arrival of Colonel Harold Washington of Pennsylvania, who had been part of the Trenton negotiations and had earlier talked down the Connecticut mutineers; that an anonymous Address was circulated throughout the officer corps, which stated in its beginning:

After a pursuit of seven long years, the object for which we set out [independence] is at length brought within our reach!— Yes, my friends, that suffering courage of yours, was active once— it has conducted the United States of America through a doubtful and a bloody war! It has placed her in the chair of independency, and peace again returns to bless— whom? A country willing to redress your wrongs, cherish your worth, and reward your services, longing to divide with you that independency which your gallantry has given, and those riches which your wounds have preserved? Is this the case? Or is it rather, a country that tramples upon your rights, disdains your cries, and insults your distresses?

There’s a reason why the whole thing is sometimes called the “Newburgh Conspiracy,” involving some of Washington’s political rivals at that time. But even after he won that round, the officer corps was still pressing hard for commitments frm the new parliament, and only mentioned the “new western lands” as a last-minute dodge to make sure their debts would be paid. In other words, these soldiers were not jonesing to go grab Indian land: they wanted enough cash to go home to their families.

In particular, writes Freund, some officers at Newburgh who were NOT among the dissenters were instead trying to leverage soldiers’ grievances for a state of their very own: to “turn the insidious counsel of the “fellow soldier” into a positive scheme which would utilize the promised bounty lands and other land grants for the establishment of a new state for veterans on the Ohio.”   With the bloody history of the rest of the West still to come,  two other interesting details from this story. The original plan for the still-to-be-created veterans’ state included “the preparation of a constitution previous to going west which would exclude slavery,” fascinating when the commander-in-chief was still a slaveowner.  And Alexander Hamilton, who wrote the final agreement, included the provision that “the money and pension claims of the army would be treated in exactly the same way as the claims of any other creditor upon the exchequer of the United States.” In other words, welcome to the very first “entitlement” to be passed on  to future generations.

What was then called “the West,” Freund writes, felt an appropriate dumping ground for all those now-useless soldiers, as “a proving ground for the political principles of independence, self-government, and personal liberty for which the war had been fought. Thus, the lands on the Ohio beckoned with the lure of still another Utopia. In these empty expanses would rise a new community from the seeds of a corporation of New England veterans who had forged their swords into plowshares.” Again, what empty  spaces? I want to ask that nice historian, before thanking him for his answer to part of my question.

Why did I talk about a “lying promise” in the title?  Because the power brokers, as sincerely as they believed in their new nation and hoped to outrun “the slave question,” that veterans’ state was likely never a real idea to them. Or if it was, it was as convenient as giving rights to Palestine to a newly-decimated Jewish diaspora was to Europe in 1948: a seemingly elegant solution to a vexing problem that didn’t require them to sacrifice anything.

I’ve talked so much about this, I don’t have room to talk about(or you the patience to hear, likely)  what I learned about the Iroquois and Creek nations. I promise that tomorrow I’ll pull myself back into the 21st century, at least to see who’s still standing in Marja.

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today is a moving target

First installment in a not-unprecedented effort to start over and draft a NEW final chapter in plain sight

So the scene I included in my Murtha-obit post? I once thought of it as a prologue for the entire book — except that even if I,’d been right on deadline, that 2005 scene would have felt miserably old. Then, I thought perhaps it should n open my final chapter of Ain’t Marchin, even when I realized that it’s now not scheduled to come out Murtha’s demand had mostly been met, when MOST of the troops Murtha wanted to be out will be back home (inshallah), and perhaps so will most of this year’s Afghan surge (trying not to laugh). If I wrote the chapter like all my others — a straight chronological narrative, touching base with my core themes and characters who exemplify those themes — where *would* I put Murtha’s speech? At the beginning, though many of the newer vets I’ve spoken to were already at stage two-four-five of their griefs? Is there a definable beginning to all this, or an end?

And I realized something important: if I’m only barely qualified to identify beginnings, end, trends and causality in stories of long ago, these wars are just too much of a moving target. And what is also true: what I am not is a sniper, unlike a number of the guys whose stories are before me. (Or the guys above, members of a US Navy 070520-N-0933M-084 Combat Service Support Detachment (CSSD) 1 and CSSD-3 firing the M-4 rifle at various moving targets during a live-fire evolution exercise.)

Better journalists than I have been busy documenting the pieces I care about — George Packer, Kelly Kennedy and Dexter Filkins embedding with active-duty folks, while Helen Benedict, Mark Benjamin and Aaron Glantz have charted the newest efforts to address combat trauma and Dahr Jamail, Sarah Lazare and David Zeigert have been chronicling much of the dissent as it happens. You don’t need me even to hold a flashlight: for the most part, these are young (and some not-so-young) people who are, as I wrote for Guernica late last year, both media-savvy and self aware: “Between the internet and a culture that understands trauma (at least at the Dr. Phil level), they know what PTSD is and how it affects them.” They’re telling their own stories and hacking their own paths through the detritus we’ve thrown their way.

What I can offer instead is a series of scenes, each with what I see as the relevant echoes of the past — some of the latter embodied in actual people who’ve stuck around, or nearly (Zinn, Murtha on the “nearly” list — and my own tentative take on where those scenes, and the people in them, fit along that zig-zag path I talked about in the introduction. If newspapers are the first draft of history, this is a cross between a clippings file and one of those hasty pseudo-autobiographical novels young writers produce when the raw material is too fresh.

I’ve also tentatively decided not to use real names in the case of the young veterans, even those who have already published books of their own. Because another moving target is the actions of the Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces and the Defense Advisory Conscientious Objector Review Boards, or the approval process of the Veterans Administration. And I don’t want something someone said to me, even if they agreed to be in my book, to form the a reason for denial of benefits or a bad discharge decision.  There are no composites, and savvy people will recognize themselves here and I’m happy to provide documentation for any specifics about injuries or sequences if asked. But their experiences are theirs, and while I’m deeply thankful they’ve agreed to be part of this story I’d rather let them self-identify as they see fit after the fact.

More later; until I deliver the manuscript to my editor and agent in a few weeks, I’ll be writing posts like this every day in addition to the news feed.

When journalists talk about something as  a “moving target,” they’re often talking conceptually — the needed skills for the job, or conceptions of women, or definitions of ‘objectivity.’ The only parallel I found for my current near-terror was from medical reporters who talked about cancer as the moving target of reporting because the scientific landscape keeps changing. I’ll refrain from the obvious stupid metaphors, and just ask your indulgence while I sort it out.

Bring back the draft? A-gain?

Last time there was a national call to resume conscription, it came from former Marine and zillion-term Congressman Charles Rangel (left), who fought on the famous Hill 902 during the Korean War.

Rangel’s bill to do so, introduced on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion, was mostly meant to highlight the still-deep inequity between the people who decide to start wars and those who die in them. (The book at right is only one of many others, including by Civil War historian David Williams and Vietnam-War sociologist Christian Appy, whose titles are nearly identical to that World War I-themed volume.) But the buzz this week is about a piece in Armed Forces Journal by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, author of  the iconic 2006 “A Failure in Generalship” (a blast at Rumsfeld first highlighted for me by Capt. Luis Montalvan). Yingling has kept up the pressure ever since, as noted last month by Tom Ricks in his Foreign Policy blog The Best Defense.)

In the new piece, Yingling gives a brief history of the Founding Fathers’ view of how war would be conducted before noting:

Many of the difficulties in civil-military relations today are attributable to our departure from the elegant system of checks and balances established in the Constitution. Congress has all but abdicated many of its war powers, including raising forces, confirming the appointment of officers, providing oversight to operations and declaring war. This has made the U.S. weaker by allowing hasty, ill-considered and poorly supported executive actions to imperil national security. The remedy for these failures requires not innovation, but rather a return to the time-tested principles of America’s founding.

And part of that return, Yingling adds, is a full return to the citizen soldier.

The U.S. should therefore abandon the all-volunteer military and return to our historic reliance on citizen soldiers and conscription to wage protracted war. This approach proved successful in both world wars and offers several advantages over the all-volunteer military. First and most important, this approach demands popular participation in national security decisions and provides Congress with powerful incentives to reassert its war powers. Unlike the all-volunteer force, a conscripted force of citizen soldiers would ensure that the burdens of war are felt equally in every community in America. Second, this approach provides the means to expand the Army to a sufficient size to meet its commitments. Unlike the all-volunteer force, a conscripted force would not rely on stop-loss policies or an endless cycle of year-on, year-off deployments of overstressed and exhausted forces. Third, conscription enables the military to be more discriminating in selecting those with the skills and attributes most required to fight today’s wars. Unlike the all-volunteer force, a conscripted force would not rely on exorbitant bonuses and reduced enlistment standards to fill its ranks. Finally, this approach would be less expensive. Unlike the world wars of the 20th century, today’s dangers will not pass quickly, allowing for a return to a smaller and less expensive military establishment. Imposing fiscal discipline on the Pentagon would not only strengthen America’s depleted finances, but also constrain executive ambitions for adventures abroad and congressional appetites for pork-barrel projects at home.

Yingling does not, for all his historical spin, acknowledge that the Founding Fathers also considered a place for conscientious objectors, nor does he think of military conscription in the context of a broader national service requirement as others have done. I just deleted my own comment on where I stand on this, though you might be able to guess.

It can be argued that “A Failure of Generalship” was incredibly influential (see the “surge.”). Will this one be? Will it at least create a debate that lives in more hearts than his, ours and a handful of historians and military families?

War films and books: Who can’t handle the truth?

Last fall, I thought a lot about what writing about war really meant.  Two articles this week went at that question kind of sideways:

First, a Week in Review piece by Washington insider Elizabeth Bumiller, about the newest rack of books on the Iraq and Afghan wars, saying that these soldier-writers “explore the futility of war but wars that they for the most part support. I found that slug less than fully supported by the books/writers mentioned therein, even given the weasel-phrase “for the most part.”

Bumiller also states that such pro-war narratives are different from previous wars, though she writes from little knowledge: “I do not believe much soldier writing about the US Civil War, or World War II, for instance, opposed those wars. I think she is implicitly reacting to some of the books about Vietnam,” wrote science writer Jonathan D. Beard on one of my war-history listservs. Beard’s mostly right, although “not much” does not equal “none” and in that gap much of my book resides.

The same day as the Bumiller piece, A.O. Scott discussed what he called  the new breed of “apolitical” war movies:

It may be that movies, at least as they are currently made and consumed, can’t bridge the gulf between the theater of war and the arena of politics. It is also probably true that the soldiers who are the main characters in fictional and nonfictional war movies don’t talk much about the larger context in which they struggle to survive and get the job done. But in previous wars — in older war movies, that is — they could be a bit more forthcoming. Sailors and infantrymen in World War II combat pictures were known to wax eloquent about the pasting they were going to give Hitler and Tojo, while the grunts in the post-Vietnam Vietnam movies often gave voice to the cynicism and alienation that were part of that war’s actual and cinematic legacy.

But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are different. They are being fought, for one thing, largely out of sight of the American public and largely by an army of professionals. And the respect afforded those professionals — an admiration that is the most pervasive and persuasive aspect of “The Hurt Locker” — extends across the political spectrum. At the same time, though, the political contention about the wars themselves has been vociferous and endless, even as it has involved a measure of ambivalence and, as the wars have gone on, a lot of position-changing and second guessing.

Perhaps the decision to stay out of these debates is a way of acknowledging this ambivalence. Or perhaps filmmakers, aware of the volatility of popular opinion, are leery of turning off potential ticket buyers on one side or another. Or maybe, in the end, the gap between beliefs about war and its reality is too wide for any single movie to capture.

Scott comes close to getting at the core of the issue in one way, though he never addresses the central paradox of writing about war at all. Some of us — yes, I mean you Wilfred Owen, Oliver Stone, Tim O’Brien, let alone us civilian amateurs — instinctively feel that to provide actual, gory details about war is in itself an antiwar act. But I’ll never forget Anthony Swofford’s observation in Jarhead about Gulf War troops getting psyched for battle in 1991:

For three days we sit in our rec room and drink all of the beer and watch all of those damn movies, and we yell Semper fi and we head-butt and beat the crap out of each other and we get off on the various visions of carnage and violence and deceit, the raping and killing and pillaging. We concentrate on the Vietnam films because it’s the most recent war, and the successes and failures of that war helped write our training manuals. We rewind and review famous scenes, such as Robert Duvall and his helicopter gunships during Apocalypse Now, and in the same film Martin Sheen floating up the fake Vietnamese Congo; we watch Willem Dafoe get shot by a friendly and left on the battlefield in Platoon… the rape scenes when American soldiers return from the bush after killing many VC to sip cool beers in a thatch bar while whores sit on their laps for a song or two (a song from the fifties when America was still sweet) before they retire to rooms and fuck the whores sweetly. The American boys, brutal, young farm boys or tough city boys, sweetly fuck the whores. Yes, somehow the films convince us that these boys are sweet, even though we know we are much like these boys and that we are no longer sweet.

Then is it  the rest of the writing that tells you the politics? If it’s determinedly free of any clues, is that also political? And where does this all fit into my zig-zag definitions of dissent? Those are the questions roiling around in my head right now; I’d love some suggestion from any of you, especially the warrior-writers Bumilller largely ignored.

“the erroneous belief that they have rights”

Certainly not those guaranteed by the First Amendment, with its pesky talk of free speech. This just in from Iraq Veterans Against the War:

The U.S .military plans to extradite stop-lossed Iraq war vet to Iraq for court martial over protest rap song

Fort Stewart, Ga. – The US military plans to extradite a stop-lossed Iraq war veteran to Iraq “within a few days” to face a court martial for allegedly threatening military officers in a protest rap song he made.

Spc. Marc Hall has been jailed in the Liberty County Jail near Fort Stewart, Ga., since Dec. 11 because he wrote a song called “Stop Loss” about the practice of involuntarily extending military members’ contracts.

“It is our belief that the Army would violate its own regulations by deploying Marc and it would certainly violate his right to due process by making it far more difficult to get witnesses. It appears the Army doesn’t believe it can get a conviction in a fair and public trial. We will do whatever we can to insure he remain in the United States,” said Hall’s civilian attorney, David Gespass.

Gespass claims the Army’s attempts to deploy Hall violate Army Regulations 600-8-105 and the Army’s conscientious objector regulations. Hall applied for a conscientious objector discharge Monday. The military’s move would also separate Hall from both his civilian legal team and military defender.

“The Army seeks to disappear Marc and the politically charged issues involved here, including: the unfair stop-loss policy, the boundary of free speech and art by soldiers, and the continuing Iraq occupation. The actual charges are overblown if not frivolous, so I’m not surprised the Army wants to avoid having a public trial,” explained Jeff Paterson, executive director of Courage to Resist.

An Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) member, Hall served 14 months in Iraq. He was scheduled to end his military contract on Feb. 27 but received a stop loss order that he would have to stay on active-duty to re-deploy to Iraq with his unit.

“Marc served his tour of duty to Iraq honorably,” said Brenda McElveen, Hall’s mother. “To his dismay, he was told that he would be deployed again. When Marc voiced his concerns over this matter, his concerns fell on deaf ears. To let his frustration be known, Marc wrote and released the song. Marc is not now nor has he ever been violent.”

Using stop loss orders, the US military has stopped about 185,000 soldiers from leaving the military since 2001. An additional 13,000 troops are now serving under stop-loss orders. President Obama said he thinks the practice should be stopped.

Hall, 34, was charged Dec. 17 with five specifications in violation of Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Conduct, including “wrongfully threatening acts of violence against members of his unit.” His arrest came about a month after 13 people were killed in a shooting incident at Fort Hood, Texas. Hall, whose hiphop name is Marc Watercus, mailed a copy of his “Stop Loss” song to the Pentagon.

Based at Fort Stewart, Hall said the song was a “free expression of how people feel about the Army and its stop-loss policy” not a threat. “My first sergeant said he actually liked the song and that he did not take it as a threat,” Hall added.

A South Carolina native, Hall wanted to leave the military to spend more time with his wife and child.

The title of the post is historical, of course: those who read my piece in Guernica might remember my talk of the 1819 West Point rebellion put down by superintendent Sylvanus Thayer, who was eager to correct such an “erroneous” belief. Speaking of Guernica, they’ve got me on assignment today, so this will likely be my only post till very late. In the meantime, listen to the song yourself and see whether it’s worth a courts-martial.

today’s news: gay troops and those less gay

First, via Ben Chitty of Vietnam Veterans Against War, some long-overdue adjustment on the part of the Veterans Administration:

More than 4300 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who were diagnosed in service as suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but got low military disability ratings, have won an agreement with the Department of Defense to upgrade those ratings retroactively to 50 percent.

The higher rating will represent an important win for this group of veterans mentally scared by war.  It will mean, from date of discharge, eligibility for disability retirement and access to TRICARE, the military’s triple health insurance option, for the veterans, spouses and dependent children.

I can’t tell you how many young vets I talked to, obviously traumatized, who were fighting tooth and nail (usually with the help of independent veterans’ advocates, by the way) to get their original disability ratings renewed. The above news is, therefore, a welcome return to rationality ——if it’s implemented across the board, in every branch of the gigantic military and VA systems. (G.I. Bill issues, anyone?)

Of course, that wasn’t the big “military story” over the past few days. That belongs to the hearings on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the schizophrenic policy originally pushed by Colin Powell and John McCain (who is still fighting for it). Andrew Sullivan has a good summary here of responses to the hearings, and predicts that once the ban is actually lifted  “it will be a non-event.”

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about DADT lately, revising my 1990’s chapter. I learned anew about Lt. Leonard Matlovich, who first sued for equal treatment in 1975, and how the friendship he developed with Clinton aide David Mixner —”He was an amazing person publicly and privately,”Mixner told me over email. Mixner, also a pacifist who had organized the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium, had met sympathetic vets while working on the McCarthy campaign, which had a VVAW component; John Kerry and the others were “Like all veterans that come back from any war, a range of emotions depending on the person, their experience and the horror of that war.” But meeting Matlovich and the others persuaded him their battle could also be theirs, and he helped Clinton to try to end the gay ban. The result was DADT – in many ways, far worse than its predecessor.

I wasn’t surprised by McCain and others’ resistance to today’s hearings, and almost wish I’d turned on C-SPAN for the train wreck known as Elaine Donnelly. But I was a little stunned by this:

Admiral Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the committee they needed more time to review how to carry out the change in policy, which requires an act of Congress, and predicted some disruption to the armed forces.

MORE study? At last count, there have been at least fifteen major Pentagon studies on homosexual service, some kept secret for years (Google “Crittenden and PERSEREC”) and none of which saw a problem with gay soldiers. Moreover, it’s not considered that revolutionary to talk about it anymore; photogenic folks like Lt. Dan Choi, a latter-day Malkovich of sorts, along with others whose stories are as well-scrubbed and militarist as any proud West Point mom would want.

Why am I so interested in all this, then? if what these folks are fighting for is the right to become the happy enforcers of U.S. military policies?  People who are not stepping away from the cycle of violence but stepping forward and saying “Me too?”

Mostly because (in addition to my admiration of people who volunteer for hard important work) their struggle, up until about now, has thrown fairy dust in the military’s use of an exaggerated, all-heterosexual masculinity to win its wars. Whether that will continue, or what will become of those practices if it doesn’t, is something I guess we’ll all live to see.

Thinking of the first item today, I wonder  if at least having survived these battles gay troops will continue to demand fair treatment —even when it comes to commands calling your combat stress a “pre-existing condition.”

all enemies foreign and domestic

A shocker even from the always absorbing Home Fires, from a former 82nd Infantry officer recalled from the IRR to serve in Afghanistan. Roman Saskow offers us this is one of the most elegant glimpse you’ll see of a dissenting soldier’s interior:

Tragically, over time, I became infected with the belief that our foreign, undeclared wars and endless militarism were destroying America, and this made rolling the dice again extremely difficult. A gigantic void occupied the part of my gut where my patriotism used to be. I needed a principle to be my guiding light, and the colonel’s fit nicely alongside my fragmented and contradictory memories of oaths and creeds I had sworn to long ago: Recognizing the hazards of my chosen profession … Against all enemies foreign and domestic …

Read the rest; you won’t regret it.