Letter from Military History – September 2011

By Michael W. Robbins
7/8/2011 • MH Editorial

Valor and Lies

Napoléon Bonaparte purportedly observed it was remarkable what men would do for “a bit of colored ribbon.” Presumably the great general was referring to acts of valor and mortal risk on the battlefield—not to acts of fraud. But it is remarkable the lengths to which some men will go to falsify military service records. In March 2010 Military History published an article on these acts of flagrant dishonesty: “Thieves Among Honor,” by veteran military affairs reporter William H. McMichael.

The Stolen Valor Act, signed into law in 2006, makes it a federal misdemeanor to falsely claim a military decoration. One might have thought that would put a legal crimp on false claims. Instead, we are now treated to public acts of chutzpah that for years wannabe heroes have been putting over on their families, friends, employers, communities and such agencies as the Department of Veterans Affairs. One false “Marine” recently claimed in federal court that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional because it infringes on his First Amendment right to free speech. In another case the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that such lying is protected free speech. In other words, the bogus Marine is asserting his right under the Constitution to lie about his nonexistent military record, achievements and honors, even his identity.

So now it appears there are two lawful paths to Medals of Honor, Silver Stars, Distinguished Flying Crosses and other official symbols of valor: One is to be cited by our armed services for verified acts of true valor. The other is to buy a real or fake medal and then lie freely about it.

Some attorneys and judges argue that such mendacity doesn’t rise to the level of actual fraud or other crimes, largely because it’s difficult to prove that such lies directly harm anyone—the “little white lie” defense. But such free speech claims are harmful: Many of those prosecuted under the act lied to claim benefits from the VA or to inflate their resumes and thus their chances for employment/promotion in the many organizations that rightly take into account one’s military service.

Most important, such falsehoods are injurious to our armed services and the credibility of their sincere efforts to extend tangible recognition to citizens who served extraordinarily and at great personal cost. The public and legal acceptance of such lies as harmless free speech tarnishes the achievement of every genuine medal recipient and casts public doubt on their records, reputations and “their sacred honor.”

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