The Bonus Army Lesson 

Support our troops has become code for supporting the war. But that logic doesn't work.

The phrase "support our troops," in popular political language, has become the rallying cry for those who supported the preventive war launched on Iraq -- a country that posed no threat to America and has since been turned into a greenhouse for the cultivation of terrorists.

From a marketing standpoint, the phrase is an ingenious antidote to the so-called Vietnam War syndrome -- a pseudopsychological remnant of America's exit from the Vietnam War, tail between legs, because its citizens couldn't stomach the needless death of thousands of its young.

The Vietnam War syndrome gave rise to the Powell doctrine, named after retired general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose experience in Vietnam convinced him that when America goes to war it should do so with overwhelming force.

Though Powell was supposedly the voice of restraint in George W. Bush's first administration, even those within the inner circle who disagreed with Powell bought into his war doctrine, as was evidenced by the "shock and awe" campaign that initiated the Iraq war.

It's not that soldiers don't deserve our support. They do, namely because good soldiers are the embodiment of courage, willing to risk their lives in the name of national defense.

Even Gandhi appreciated true warriors. "My nonviolence does not admit of running away from danger and leaving dear ones unprotected," he wrote. "Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence to cowardice. I can no more preach nonviolence to a coward than I can tempt a blind man to enjoy healthy scenes. ... As a coward, which I was for years, I harbored violence. I began to prize nonviolence only when I began to shed cowardice."

Using this logic, soldiers, by and large, are closer to appreciating nonviolence than the majority of those in the peace movement.

So yes, we should "support our troops." But it doesn't logically follow that such a sentiment means supporting the policies that put troops in harm's way uneccessarily. Unfortunately, many of the president's supporters have somehow been convinced that public criticism of the policies dreamed up by privileged people in secure, plush offices is tantamount to not supporting the troops.

So how are troops really supported? For an excellent historical reminder that soldiers are supported by organized action outside of the political process, get a copy of The Bonus Army: An American Epic authored by Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen.

The Bonus Army tells the story of how the GI Bill came to be. In the summer of 1932, 45,000 World War I vets marched on Washington demanding bonus pay promised them before the war. But a bill that would have allayed their grievance was defeated in the Senate after it passed the House.

Fearing the racial implications of an integrated "bonus army" erroneously believed to be controlled by communists, President Herbert Hoover, Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, and others decided that the protesting soldiers had to be removed from Washington by force. And they were, with tanks, tear gas, and bayonet-tipped rifles.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt seized the moment and used the issue to help propel him to the White House. In the book's prologue, the authors discuss how they set out to answer a question raised in a 1994 thesis paper. "'Why,' [it was] asked, 'had historians seen the Bonus March as an insignificant event?'"

Following that lead, the authors "discovered an odyssey that began in Portland in 1932, wove through the Great Depression and into World War II, and returned finally to Washington, where in June 1944 FDR signed into law the GI Bill."

Because of the GI Bill, the book notes, the doors of colleges and universities were blown open for the middle and lower classes. The number of college grads more than doubled between 1940 and 1950.

By the cutoff date of July 25, 1956, 2,232,000 vets had enrolled in college using the GI Bill. Their educations produced 450,000 engineers, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, and more than a million other college-trained men and women.

In addition, 11 million homes were financed by GI Bill loans in the 1950s. The economic and social impact on American society was staggering. You might mention these facts the next time a neocon starts ranting how government programs only make things worse.

"The enduring legacy of the Bonus Army," write Dickson and Allen, "goes well beyond the GI Bill. ... [They] taught an American lesson to those who fretted over revolution: If you have a grievance, take it to Washington, and if you want to be heard, bring a lot of people with you."

In other words, supporting our troops means more than writing letters to soldiers, putting a flag sticker on your SUV, and tying a yellow ribbon around your old oak tree.

As you read these words, there are veterans in VA hospitals paying for their own meals while the president's budget, among other things, would more than double the co-payment charged to veterans for prescription drugs and would require some to pay a new fee of $250 a year to use government health care.

Why? To pay war bills while giving disproportionate tax cuts to those who least need it. That's how this administration is supporting our troops.

Sean Gonsalves is a syndicated columnist and a staff reporter for the Cape Cod Times.


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