Why Do Veterans Organize?
What Will Today’s Veterans Do about Organizing?
WILL the veteran of World War II, with a sense of possessiveness about “his war,” form an independent service club? Or will he merge his interests with those already running?
The latchstring hangs out for him at the two big servicemen’s organizations for which the majority of soldiers are eligible, or soon will be. The Veterans of Foreign Wars has an advantage over the Legion. Linked not with any one war but with overseas service, the V.F.W. can enroll a man as soon, as he steps off the plane or ship onto home soil. Veterans of World War II already make up a majority of its membership and are in a position to rum it virtually as they please from here out.
The Legion does not enroll a serviceman until he has been discharged. The full impact of World War II upon it has therefore not yet been registered. Many Legionnaires are quoted as saying, “You boys join, and we’ll let you take over and run it.” The advantage of inheriting a ready-made organization, with posts distributed through the nation, and a good deal of physical equipment and the know-how, appeals to some men of the present war: Others, in the pages of Yank and elsewhere, have criticized the Legion as stuffy, dominated by middle age, and too prone to ask “What’s in it for me?” rather than “Will it serve the best interests of the country?” The debate isn’t settled, nor can its outcome be guessed with confidence. While a good many of America’s latest veterans are joining the Legion, others keep forming independent groups here and there that may eventually fuse into one big organization.
For officers only?
The lessons of the past have something to say to young organized veterans, both about the pitfalls and the great opportunities of such groups.
One plain lesson is that any really successful veterans’ organization must be democratic. The Order of the Cincinnati, for officers only, which started in 1783 with the idea of making membership hereditary, ran into endless hard feeling from the people, and the high-and-mighty tone of its foundation had to be modified after sound advice from General Washington. There was never an all-inclusive organization for Continental veterans. Thanks to short-term, haphazard recruiting for the Continental Army, as well as to the aristocratic tone of the service in those days, officers of staff and line supplied the real backbone of continuity; through eight years they got to know each other far better than did average enlisted men. Also, travel to national reunions would have been slow and expensive for the rank and file: the great American excursion rate was still unknown.
Later hereditary officers’ clubs patterned on the Cincinnati, like; the Military Order of the Loyal Legion; after the Civil War, and the Naval and Military Order of the Spanish-American War, pulled little more weight in our national life than do genealogical societies. Consciousness of rank is no firm base for the building of a strong veterans’ organization. After discharge, the barrier between officers and men grows steadily less important; and it is safe to add that upon great numbers of young men, Army service itself has a deeply democratizing effect:
Still more contrary to democratic ways of action was a veterans’ group like the original Ku Klux Klan. Begun in 1866 in a spirit of playful mumbo-jumbo, by some ex-soldiers of Pulaski, Tennessee, who were fed up with the boredom of small-town life after the Civil War, it soon changed into a band of sheeted riders, skilled in applying the strategy of terror. Like all secret organizations that take the law into their own hands, the Klan became a mask for cowardice and personal feuding, and was ordered disbanded by the officers who had helped to start it. Its revival in name, after World War I, degenerated into still more vicious shapes, and destroyed its original claim to be a veterans’ vigilante group, “a ghost of the Confederate Army.” There had been night riders after the Revolution too, like the “Six Hundred Club” in South Carolina, which dealt in tar and feathers, arson, and occasional homicide.
Groups of this kind sometimes appeal to the young demobilized soldier, craving a bit of excitement and the lure of regalia and mass action. But their basic appeal—to ignorance, prejudice, and the peculiar brand of misnamed “Americanism” which: means putting fear into minority groups—sets them in sharp contrast with veterans’ organizations built upon respect for the nation and its institutions which they have fought a war to preserve.
A current newspaper columnist, Howard Vincent O’Brien, tells of meeting a young flyer, just back from combat, with a chest full of decorations, who aired his views about the coming world. The way he wanted it, all Negroes would be segregated or shipped to Liberia, all Jews transported to Palestine, and all American-born Orientals sent away or else penned on desert reservations. If our Constitution got in the way of these actions, said the aviator, it could be amended. In fact, he added, that while Hitler’s methods had been too harsh, his aims had been pretty good.
Perhaps there are other returning soldiers like this young pilot—technical experts of high skill, but emotionally and socially immature, potential converts to a philosophy of intolerance. Without much plan or purpose, they may have been taken in by the very ideas they have been fighting against. They may try to infect the veterans’ organizations which they join or help to form. We Americans like to think of ourselves as just and fair—men of good will. But each of us bears within himself the dormant virus of mob cruelty, race prejudice, and hatred. Only a healthy state of mind, among civilians and servicemen alike, can keep these germs from multiplying.
In fine contrast to the attitude mentioned above is the stand taken in 1943 by the Disabled American Veterans, upholding the rights to full citizenship of American soldiers of Japanese ancestry, and the pressure—from veteran and civic opinion—which caused the names of Japanese-American servicemen to be restored to the Roll of Honor, after their removal by local prejudice, in a Pacific Northwest town. The war reporter Quentin Reynolds, broadcasting on D-Day, said: “There are no Italian-Americans or Polish-Americana at the front; there are no Jews, Catholics, or Protestants; there are no New Yorkers or Californians or Texans or New Englanders; there are no white men or black men at the front—only Americans purged of the artificial barriers we still make so much of at home.” Will some of this spirit last, after demobilization?
Axes to grind
One pitfall along the road traveled by any important veterans’ group will be dug by those with selfish interests, who want the soldier influence on their side. Partisans, within or outside the group, will try to drag it into political, economic, religious, and other issues where veterans as veterans have no business to speak with one voice. As citizens, or as members of a party or church or set of interests, individual veterans may hold strong views on these matters. But to haul a veterans’ group into every debatable issue, local or national, is the quickest way of destroying its power for those rare occasions when it needs to pull its weight.
Let the organization beware of any friendly boarding party that tries to capture it. After World War I, there was a great rush of politicians to flatter “the soldier vote,” that block of 4 to 5 million citizens whose prestige held the balance of power. Soon enough they found that veterans are not robots but individuals, and that the wiser heads among them know that the organization must not wear the dog collar of any man or set of outside interests. The long-standing tie between the G.A.R. and a high protective tariff program—the annual surplus from levying this tariff earmarked by politicians for paying soldiers’ pensions—is the sort of mistake future veterans should avoid.
Give and take
Still another pitfall can be dug by the “gimme” complex. If veterans’ groups get to be known as selfish and greedy—interested in public life solely for what they can get out of it—they run the risk of bringing the reputation of all veterans into bad odor. This is not to deny a fair representation of their rights as a group. The veteran’s just claim upon education, rehabilitation, and social security can and should be put forward if the public and lawmakers show signs of neglect. Honest criticism of faulty machinery for the care of veterans, in hospitals for example, is an act of good citizenship. These things the American taxpayers need to know, and publicity given by veterans’ organizations can start a powerful wave of reform-in mass opinion, the press, and the halls of Congress. But the “gimme” reflex, through the years demanding bigger and better benefits for everybody who wore the uniform, is apt to backfire.
In the past, of course, this attitude has usually developed under provocation. Financial stinginess toward the soldier when he first took the road back to civil life left him with a very human grudge. He felt he merited better treatment, and would get it after he had formed a bloc strong enough to gain a respectful hearing. That would be the pay-off. In every case, reaction against such early indifference eventually caused Congress to do something about unprosperous, sick, and aged veterans many years after a war ended.
Now we seem to have learned that Uncle Sam should help the soldier early and promptly, not wait until the veteran has clone the best he can, and perhaps suffered defeat, in the personal reconversion. For the first time in our history, careful plans for aiding him were drawn up before demobilization—with retraining promised to the able-bodied as well as the disabled. Certain new features, like government-guaranteed loans, are being worked out in detail through experience. Here the voice of fair criticism, through veterans’ organizations or by individuals, ought to be welcome. But the over-all structure of American veterans’ benefits is solidly set up, in a spirit of greater generosity than any other government has ever shown. Our public sense of responsibility toward the veteran has been widening for several generations. No hurdy-gurdy men or apple-sellers are expected after this war. Such planning should go far to forestall the need for any belated pressure of the “gimme” sort, from organized veterans of future days.
What can the veteran give?
The opportunities for service that lie before a veterans’ group are very real: not just tending the evergreen of memory, or putting on jamborees, reunions, and parades, with all the fun that comes from dressing up again after long freedom from the old OD. Veterans’ organizations can provide not just loud-speakers and glad-handers, but intelligent, responsible leadership:
So, let us hope, it will be with veterans of World War II. “Just going home isn’t enough,” writes a sergeant from the South Pacific, remembering his father who got a piece of shrapnel in his leg at Chateau-Thierry. “He came back from France convinced that the United States had fought its
last war. ... So we tried the isolationist way, and it failed. It failed so bad several million of us are scattered from hell to breakfast cleaning up a mess that almost everybody now agrees is definitely our business. ... Maybe getting together with the rest of the world in a strong, determined organization won’t work. Maybe we’ll still have World War III. Maybe not. Down here a lot of us want to give the new way a chance.”
The veteran who has seen the robot bomb and the rocket in action and the world-shaking possibilities of atomic warfare is in a position to lead national opinion in favor of a just and durable peace, in which we shall play our share with other nations of good will. If this spirit doesn’t evaporate now that the war is over, if it insists that the same energy and intelligence which has been put to winning our biggest, toughest war be harnessed to making a creative peace—then the organized veterans of World War II will set the highest level of citizenship we have yet seen.
It is also clear that the welfare of the veteran is enmeshed with the good of the whole United States. What benefits the country will benefit him, and vice versa. We have come to see that full employment, production and consumption, civil liberties at home, and responsibility in the new world order are everybody’s business. Veterans and civilians, individuals and organizations, must pull together. We are one nation.