Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Protect Purple Heart Imposters, But Change The Law To Deter Them

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 30 August 2011.

There are two medals soldiers don’t want — the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart — because usually you have to die or be injured to receive them.

The respect one gains after being awarded such medals naturally leads to false claims, impersonators faking that they actually hold the award. Thus, the Stolen Valor Act 2005 makes false claims a federal crime. Unfortunately, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found it unconstitutional. The Justice Department wants to bring the matter before the Supreme Court.

I am a Purple Heart recipient myself following a suicide car-bombing outside of Baghdad, Iraq, in 2004. During that tour 10 men in my unit were killed. They all received the Purple Heart posthumously. My unit handed out many Purple Hearts that tour. I, like most veterans, don’t take such matters lightly. We sacrificed a lot for these awards. All gave some, some gave all. When false claimants are wrongly accorded the respect attached to military awards, they steal from the legacy of brave men and women who paid a high price for them.

The Court of Appeals based its ruling on the fact that the law is “content based,” meaning it is a government restriction on free speech on a certain topic, that topic being the claim of holding military awards whether false or not. The majority opinion argued that everyone eventually lies about something to others, whether as benign as age, weight, or size, or as far as education or military awards and the government doesn’t have a sufficient interest in deciding which lies are OK and which are not.

Laws relating to fraud and deception do not allow a person to intentionally deceive others for what they perceive as gain. Those who make a false claim to have won a military decoration hope to gain the respect accorded recipients of such an award. This argument is based upon the intent to gain from another through false statements, something altogether different from a “content based” restriction.

Unfortunately, Congress didn’t write the law that way. They wrote it in such a way that restricts making such statements outright instead of focusing on fraud and deceit. Though a subtle difference, the Supreme Court closely guards freedom of speech. The Court of Appeals ruling is correct. Unfortunately, this means the Justice Department will likely lose and the law will be struck down.

The good news is that the law can, and should, be rewritten within constitutional limits. It is correct so. Freedom of speech must be protected and it is one of the rights our troops fight for. The issue at hand is not the fact that someone makes a false claim; it is that they are fraudulently attempting to gain from it. The victims of the crime are the veterans who truly paid the price they steal from. Law is sometimes strangely elegant. This law should be struck down, but it should be rewritten to honor the sacrifice of those who have earned it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Soldiers and Suicide

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 17 August 2011.

Thirty-two American soldiers committed suicide this July, the highest number since the Army started releasing monthly figures. That is one soldier per day, and one more than died in the recent helicopter attack that killed 31 American troops, including more than 20 Navy Seals. The annual number of suicides in the Marine Corps, which doesn't release monthly figures, is on pace with the Army. These figures do not include the suicide rate among veterans, which averages 18 per day.

Institutionally, the military recognises this is a problem; culturally, it does not.

My battalion deployed to Iraq in April 2003. We came home after an extended 15 months of combat in July 2004. We returned home for a year and redeployed in November 2005. During these two tours, my unit lost 13 soldiers in combat and handed out twice as many Purple Hearts, including my own. I left for the Army Reserves in 2007. There I was told that my "deployment clock" was at zero and, though I had just returned, could deploy again. Fortunately, it didn't come to that, though I know it did for others. My story is not unique. Ask another vet and you'll hear the same.

I have friends still serving. Some have done as many as four tours in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Everyone who went knows someone who didn't come back. Relationships have also been casualties. Of the first five years of my marriage, I spent more than half that time away. The wars have caused many divorces, and many military children are growing up with one or both parents missing because of death or deployment. The memory of what happened "over there", and the difficulty dealing with that memory, lead many to divorce, to drink or, worse, to commit suicide.

Each time we came home, we were told that if we needed counselling, we would be given time. But as we got back to the daily grind of military life, this proved untrue. The problem was never a lack of services. There were always counsellors available and everyone received mandatory "reintegration" training. But I know leaders who expressed suspicions about soldiers who sought help.

The problem is that military leaders at the lowest levels still see the expression of grief over the difficult experiences of military life and combat as a weakness. In the military, those seen as weak do not thrive. Weakness, real or perceived, stands in the way of advancement, awards and promotions. For our military to really fix this problem, this view must be changed. "Mental maintenance" needs to become part of military culture, so that our men and women in uniform can cope with an environment of continuous, long deployments in combat – and with the invisible mental scars.

It also has to be acknowledged by our leaders that we are asking our men and women in uniform to face situations in which they will be confronted with things no normal person could experience without effect. Only an abnormal normal human being could experience the things I've seen and not be affected. This is the price we ask those who serve to pay. For the last decade, America has been asking its troops to face these situations without the promise of proper support. Mental wounds are not visible, but they should not be trivialised.

When leaders send troops into combat, they are asking them not only to risk their lives, but everything that is dear to them in life: their family relationships, their future and even their mental stability. We owe it to our troops to address this problem at every level in the military, and our leaders owe it to them to make sure they are not asking our troops to take such high risks unnecessarily.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Remember Berlin: America Has Lost its Heroic Face

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 17 August 2011.

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. I married into a proud family of West Berliners. My wife can remember French soldiers closing down their street every time their general needed to leave. The first chocolate her mother ever ate was given to her by an American soldier. They’ll tell you if it wasn’t for the Berlin Airlift, West Berliners would have starved to death in 1948. The CARE packages Americans sent over for decades showed a people that were once our enemy that we can move on.

In Berlin, the tanks of two world superpowers stared each other down on Checkpoint Charlie in 1961. West Germans shared Americans’ fear of impending nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Throughout the Cold War, Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge was used to exchange captured spies. Everyone remembers the day the wall came down in November 1989. In our cynical world today, where every action America takes is suspected of self-interest, there are Germans who can attest that what Americans did for them went well beyond that.

America positioned itself as a power that was not only strong enough to defeat the Soviet Union, but also deserved to defeat them. This wasn’t achieved through an attitude of superiority, but through exhibiting shared values and contrasting them with the opposing side. While Communists were building walls and towers, America built libraries and dancehalls. We wanted to win and Europeans wanted us to win. Our side offered carrots while the other side offered only sticks.

Today, the world feels America acts only in its own interest. When America makes a moral argument, it often comes across as moral superiority. The "with us or against us" attitude of the Bush administration and the isolationism that has infected Republican presidential candidates are examples. President Barack Obama has done a better job working with allies and partners, but making conciliatory speeches and holding more summits isn’t enough.

America’s enemies today are different. They are non-state actors in under-developed nations or developed states with ambiguous intentions, mostly in regions of the world that have different languages, cultures, and values from us. America should not apologize for itself, nor accept or adjust to conditions contrary to what it stands for. However, we do have to act like the side that is deserving of victory again.

The other side in this fight, mostly dictatorships and Islamic fascists, want to control how people live their lives. We won’t defeat them by doing the same thing. Acting only in self-interest with self-righteousness won’t get it done. We have to convince the world again that when America wins, they win. This may lead to hard choices. It means no more befriending dictatorships for energy or stability. It may mean more interventions, not less. It means remaining engaged in the world, not withdrawing from it. America is a force for good. We have to convince the world that it’s true once again.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Systematic Change is Needed, At Least in the Short Term

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 11 August 2011.

When buying a dishwasher, a factor not likely to be considered is how the dishes will get washed after the machine breaks, as every dishwasher eventually stops working at some point. So it is with every machine or system. There is nothing in this world that, once created, works forever without end.

Americans believe deeply that low taxes, less regulation, and capital in private hands will translate into economic growth. As a general idea, this has arguably proven true, but there are reasonable limits. It is recognized that taxes must be high enough to fund necessary government activities, though it is debatable what those necessary activities are. Our economic system, like a broken dishwasher, is in need of repair. The symptoms are well-known, and it was inevitable that it would happen sometime. To fix it, things will have to change, at least until the problems have been resolved.

Our largest banks understand that they triggered this recession. Some argue they can regulate the problem themselves – that would be plausible, if this were just a downturn. Instead, we have an international crisis that has driven major banks to extinction and shaken the world markets. These banks turned to government to save them from ruin. They pleaded for government assistance, citing certain collapse if help were not provided. It is because of this that new regulations are needed for the immediate future. You don’t fill up the tank again without fixing the leak first.

The debt is a problem and has been for a while. Taking radical measures is ill advised during a recession, if not always. The world was not worried about America’s debt until Republicans started screaming about it; we were not in danger of a lowered credit rating until we earned it by shaking world confidence.

To fix the debt problem, the easiest, most efficient, and most commonsense way to go about it is to cut government spending in the few places we can afford it as well as increasing tax revenue. This will undoubtedly calm the markets. The policies would not be permanent, but they are needed until the problem is fixed. Failing to do both is a half-assed approach that will do nothing to improve our economic situation.

Businesses are laying-off workers and freezing spending to save cash, and citizens should not get the same treatment from their government. A business can think only about its own survival; government must think about its citizens’ survival. Unfortunately, this may require government to spend money as a safe guard while the private sector recovers. Unemployment must be lowered before making deeper cuts to reduce debt, and when government spends, the money comes into private hands.

These are components of one large, interconnected problem. Unfortunately, many politicians see it as piecemeal, smaller, and separate problems and are treating it as such. They’re trying to fix the machine by hitting the buttons harder or plugging it back in. Regulation must prevent financial excess from happening again, and the debt must be reduced through increased revenue and cuts. At some point you have to get serious and fix what’s broken. After that, life can go back to business as usual.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Wanted the Debt Talks to End Differently? Voters Must First Sacrifice Self-Interest

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 4 August 2011.

The debt standoff came down to the wire and, as expected, a deal was reached in time to avert predicted negative international repercussions. No one likes the deal. Representatives held their noses as they cast their votes. Extremists on both sides of the political spectrum call it a betrayal. Average Americans do not know what to think yet. How it will play out over the next year or decade is unclear. What is clear is that our representative bodies are not serving us as a nation very well.

However, it is not entirely their fault. After all, elected officials do not elect themselves. We have a democracy where less than half of those eligible vote. Those that do vote are often motivated by self-interest or support of a narrow set of interests. The issues that seem to propel most Americans to the polls are keeping taxes low, social issues, and business interests, and our elected leaders are a reflection of that. That is how democracy works and it also is why our goals are often short-term, shortsighted, and seem to be utterly divided or quite often just adrift.

It was not a surprise the agreement came down to the last minute. What was surprising, especially to the rest of the world, was America — the world’s leader — seemed willing to march over a cliff despite many opportunities to reach practical agreement. This brinksmanship has called our judgment into question and caused many to ask if we should be trusted to lead or if our model should be followed. The crisis has cost us more than money; it has cost us credibility.

Our elected leaders in both parties have adopted nearsighted, short-term goals along a narrow, self-interested line of policies that are a reflection of an electorate uncertain about the future. Our politicians know how to win elections, but they don’t know how to lead. The American people punish those who require sacrifice in the short term for the national good in the long run.

For the last 10 years we have fought a “War on Terror” and security is consistently among Americans’ top issues of concern. Our willingness to cut our Defense and State budgets before we will suffer even a small, targeted tax increase for less than 10% of Americans reflects dangerous self-interest. That this standoff will be repeated this fall and once again next year reflects limited thinking. That we would be willing to lose even more credibility by doing it again reflects shortsightedness. That some Americans seem willing to accept cuts to programs for the middle and lower classes in hopes it may create jobs reflects the desperation of the situation.

With this budget deal we are all losers. America needs a clear, farsighted strategy that reassures Americans of the future and reassures the world we are still a good partner and leader. Average Americans will have to cede self-interest. We need to put leaders, not politicians, in office who think about America, not themselves. To do this, Americans will have to do the same.