Wars are ugly, and so is the way our government often treats the men and women it sends to fight them. On this Veteran’s Day I’d like to share some examples of the history of veterans affairs as it has been covered in several comic books over the years.
Call to arms
Of course, before someone can become a veteran, they have to join the military. Getting recruits has never been much of a problem for the government, which offers a number of enticements to young men and women considering the armed forces as a career option (and when all else fails, the draft provides the ultimate motivation for enlistment). But recruiters can be like used car sellers, often promising a much sweeter deal than often turns out to be the case. As a warning to buyers to beware, doctor of sociology Joel Andreas created a comic book users manual in 1991 to help educate potential consumers, and the taxpaying public, about the true cost of war.
Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism has been updated twice since it’s original 1991 publication to include information on the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 200,000 copies have been sold in English and it has been used as a history textbook in hundreds of high schools and colleges (it’s one of very few comic books to contain footnotes). The illustrated exposé combines simple black and white drawings and archival photographs to demonstrate the high price everyone pays for militarism, including those in the military. This starts at the recruiting process, during which prospective enlistees are often promised advanced training and education during their tour of duty that never materializes.
Another reason many people are attracted to the military is the lack of good paying and secure jobs elsewhere (certainly a problem now). Addicted to War points out the disparity economic hardship causes in the makeup of the military and its casualty figures.
But during times of war, promised financial and educational advancement is not always enough to ensure sufficient troop levels. That’s when presidents and members of Congress appeal to patriotism and the American people’s sense of justice or desire for security to convince them of the need to risk their sons’ and daughters’ lives in armed conflicts overseas. But politicians have a long history of holding back vital information when making the case for war.
Real War Stories was a two-issue comic book anthology published by Eclipse Comics from 1987 to 1991 and edited by Joyce Brabner (wife of the late American Splendor creator, Harvey Pekar). The second issue features a graphic adaptation of the words of Major General Smedley Butler, one of the most decorated Marines in U.S. history. Butler served from 1898 to 1931, during which he participated in military actions around the world. By the end of his career he had received 16 medals, five of which were for heroism. He is one of 19 people to twice receive the Medal of Honor. The effect of all the combat he witnessed, and participated in, was to turn Butler into a pacifist. His 1935 book, War is a Racket, revealed that the real reason American troops were deployed to places including Honduras (1903), Nicaragua (1909-12), Mexico (1914), the Dominican Republic (1916) and China (1927) was to expand the markets and secure the profits of American businesses. Butler also appears in Addicted to War, and both comics include his lament for those deceived by their government about the reasons they were sent into combat.
Our boys were sent off to die with beautiful ideals painted in front of them. No one told them that dollars and cents were the real reason they were marching off to kill and die.
It’s often a specific act of aggression against the U.S. by a foreign power that’s given as the justification for war. When one doesn’t exist, the government sometimes makes one up. The Spanish-America War was instigated largely over the 1898 explosion and loss of the USS Maine in Havana harbor, even though the cause has never been determined (most scholars agree it was unlikely the work of Spain). Similarly, President Johnson sent U.S. troops into Vietnam based in part on two alleged August 1964 naval skirmishes with North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin. It is now known that the first skirmish was instigated by the U.S. Navy and the second one never occurred at all. These and other secrets about the cause and escalation of the Vietnam War were revealed to the American people in 1971 when high level civilian military analyst Daniel Ellsberg released classified government documents, known as the Pentagon Papers, to the public. Vietnam veteran W.D. Ehrhart shares the betrayal he felt upon learning about this deception, through writer Alan Moore and artists Stan Woch and John Totleben, in the story “Tapestries,” published in Real War Stories #1.
The false information about Saddam Hussein’s stockpiled weapons of mass destruction and implied connection with 9/11 given by our government to justify our war in Iraq continued this tradition of deceiving the public, as well as Congress.
Unfit to serve
Of course, not everyone has always been equally welcome in the military. African-Americans served in segregated regiments until 1951, and were often subject to unfair treatment by their superiors. Real War Stories #2 contains a history of racial discrimination in the military, written by Joyce Brabner and illustrated by Dennis Francis, that focuses on an explosion at California’s Port Chicago during World War II. Munitions detonated while being loaded onto a cargo vessel, killing 320 sailors and civilians and injuring 390 others. Of the naval casualties, 202 were African-American (particularly hazardous jobs were often given to black sailors). When African-American survivors of the explosion were ordered to resume loading the munitions under the same hazardous conditions, more than 200 refused, and 50 of them were brought up on charges.
Women have also been historically treated as second class citizens in the military, facing sexual discrimination, harassment and assault, often with little or no action being taken against the perpetrators. A story in Real War Stories #1, “False Note,” written by Joyce Brabner and illustrated by Rebecca Huntington, relates one woman’s experiences with sexism in the U.S. Army.
Today, of course, the personas non grata in the military are gays and lesbians who continue to be denied the right to serve their country openly because of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, despite recent efforts of the courts to overturn this discriminatory and unconstitutional policy.
Welcome or not, once in the military, men and women in the service should be able to trust their government to provide them with the equipment they need to protect themselves on the battlefield. Once again, this is often not the case. In Real War Stories #2, writer Jim Naureckas and artist Bill Sienkiewicz provide a long list of faulty vehicles and equipment kept in military service for years, despite causing hundreds of deaths among U.S. troops, before corrective action was taken.
This pattern was repeated during the early years of the Iraq War, when troops were forced to travel in unarmored personnel carriers, called Humvees. At least 275 troops were killed in Humvees from 2003 to 2004, often by improvised explosive devices triggered by their vehicles. But enlisted men and women are not always exposed to dangerous equipment through Defense Department negligence. Sometimes the exposure is deliberate.
An estimated 220,000 U.S. soldiers were allegedly exposed to radiation in the 1940s and 1950s either at Hiroshima and Nagasaki or during atomic bomb tests, as shown in “Pool of Tears,” by writer Greg Baisden and artist Stephen DeStefano, also from Real War Stories #2. Many of these “atomic veterans” are still suffering from radiation induced illnesses, with no relief from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
In addition to denying veterans medical assistance for injuries and illnesses inflicted by their own military, the government has a history of denying them financial support. In fact, it’s a history that goes all the way back to our nation’s very first veterans.
Uncle Sam, by writer Steve Darnall and artist Alex Ross, was originally published as a two-issue miniseries in 1998 by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. In it, a homeless man dressed as the title character stumbles through an unnamed American city struggling to remember who he is, while experiencing vivid flashbacks of being present at various moments throughout our nation’s past. One of these moments is the 1786-87 Shays’ Rebellion, named after Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays, who led a thousand-man uprising to forcibly close Massachusetts courts that were seizing property from indebted farmers—many of whom were fellow veterans. The militia was eventually called in to stop Shays’ army, resulting in four rebels being killed and 20 wounded. Several rebels were arrested and convicted of treason, although most, including Shays, were pardoned. Two of those convicted, John Bly and Charles Rose, were hanged on December 6, 1787.
A 1975 issue of the underground political comic book anthology Slow Death, published by Last Gasp Books, told the remarkable story of another instance when U.S. troops were sent up against impoverished former soldiers. In 1924, World War I veterans were promised bonus payments for their service, but Congress delayed distributing them. During the Depression, encouraged by none other than Smedley Butler, veterans demanded the immediate disbursement of these funds. Approximately 43,000 people—17,000 WWI veterans and their families—marched on Washington, D.C., in June 1932 and set up camp along the Anacostia River. In July, after two veterans were shot and killed by D.C. police, President Hoover ordered U.S. troops to forcibly evict the “Bonus Army.” Under the command of Douglas MacArthur, with a fleet of six tanks commanded by George S. Patton, cavalry and infantry drove the veterans and their families out of the nation’s capital at bayonet point and through clouds of gas. In the end, the camp was burned to the ground, 55 veterans were injured and 135 arrested.
Today, there are more than 100,000 homeless veterans in the United States. Homeless veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are increasingly women, many of them single parents. And veterans who are wounded during their service, whether by the enemy or our own military, may find themselves in for even greater hardships when they return home.
The Justice Society of America was the world’s first superhero team, making it’s debut on the cover of All Star Comics #3, published by DC Comics in the winter of 1940. While promoting the Allied effort during WWII as earnestly as any superheroes, the JSA also focused on war orphans and the starving masses of occupied Europe in stories that pointed out the cost of war on civilians. All Star Comics #27 (Winter 1945) contained the story “A Place in the World,” about disabled veterans being accepted as equals when they return home from the war (it actually advocated on behalf of all people with disabilities). The cover shows a G.I. who lost an arm in combat being saluted by JSA members Dr. Mid-Nite (who can only see in darkness), Wildcat, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, Green Lantern, Johnny Thunder and the Flash.
Addicted to War takes a dimmer view of society’s treatment of wounded veterans. A case in point concerns a condition known as Gulf War Syndrome suffered by approximately 200,000 veterans of the 1991 war in Iraq. Symptoms have included fatigue, loss of muscle control, headaches, dizziness and loss of balance, memory problems, muscle and joint pain, indigestion, skin problems, immune system problems, and birth defects. The exact cause is unknown, but scientists consider the most likely culprits to be pesticides and pills given to protect troops from nerve agents. For years, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied claims from soldiers with this condition, and it was only this past February that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki instructed that these cases be reopened.
But the VA continues to fail the increasing numbers of disabled veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other VA hospitals reported in 2007 made international headlines and disgraced our nation. And specific conditions have continued to remain untreated at all. It was only in July that the government announced it would make it easier for veterans to received treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Even in death, fallen veterans are often let down by the military they gave their lives to serve. In Real War Stories #2, Jim Naureckas and Bill Sienkiewicz reveal the military practice of “bodywashing.” This is when military personnel are killed while conducting covert operations, and the circumstances, and possibly the location, of their deaths are falsified to conceal their activities.
In the Iraq War, deaths have been embellished, possibly to serve as propaganda garnering public support for the war effort. The most famous of these cases is that of former professional football player Pat Tillman, who gave up his lucrative career to join the military after 9/11, serving as a U.S. Army Ranger in Afghanistan. He was killed by friendly fire in April 2004, but the military reported that he had died heroically while engaging the enemy. Similarly, Iraq veteran Jessica Lynch, who had been captured by the Iraqis after a fire fight, testified before Congress that the Pentagon had erroneously portrayed her as a “Rambo from the hills of West Virginia,” when in fact, she never fired a shot after her truck was ambushed.
Sadly, it turns out the military can’t even be trusted with the remains of fallen military personnel. This year it was revealed that hundreds of graves at Arlington National Cemetery have been unmarked or mislabeled and at least four urns were unearthed and dumped in landfill piles.
Code of justice
All wars are inherently unjust because, in every case, they cause civilian casualties and massive destruction to civic infrastructure and the natural environment. But before any of these crimes occur, the first victims of war are always the enlisted men and women who volunteer, or are forced, to wage them.
They are misled by recruiters about the benefits of military service and lied to by politicians about the reasons they are sent into combat to risk their lives and take those of others. Some of those who serve must endure betrayal by both comrades-in-arms and commanding officers who consider them unfit for duty because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. Once on the battlefield, the very government they have sworn to protect denies them the equipment they need to survive, deciding to sacrifice a few lives to save a few dollars. Many of those who do make it home alive, wounded and traumatized, are abandoned by the system that has promised to provide them with medical care and financial assistance in honor of their service. Adding insult to the final injury, those who don’t make it home alive may have their deaths used as propaganda tools and their bodies misplaced.
The world deserves a better alternative to solving conflicts than war, and veterans who serve honorably deserve more than just having a day named after them.
Major General Smedley Butler’s Marines are known for their motto Semper Fidelis, “Always Faithful,” which is displayed in part by their battlefield pledge to leave no comrade behind, living or dead.
It shouldn’t be too much to ask the U.S. government to show the men and women who fight its wars the same commitment.