I’m too lazy to dig up the link now, but I’m pretty certain in the past I’ve written about how much I hate Stolen Valor. But mine is not the only perspective on it, which is why I’d like to discuss an article by Alex Nichols (fast becoming one of my favorite opinion writers) on the right’s Stolen Valor obsession.
When Stolen Valor videos first appeared on Youtube, I used to find them rather amusing because the targets were almost always wannabe tough guys trying to impress people at airports or bars. They ranged from young guys going out to clubs, ROTC students pretending to be the real deal, and of course- middle-aged dads living out a fantasy to compensate for their lack of an actual life. But over time, I started to notice a trend, one which Nichols points out in the article- a lot of the people who appear in these videos are homeless, and some of them are clearly mentally ill. That’s a problem, folks.
Any workable system of ethics has to be situational, not black and white. For example, there’s the thought experiment on lying. Lying is considered to be an inherently negative action, but if you are living during the Second World War and lying to protect Jews in hiding or resistance members it’s virtuous. Circumstances matter, context matters. What virtue does one need in order to determine when something normally immoral such as lying becomes moral? It’s called judgement, and these people making Stolen Valor videos out of mentally ill homeless men on the street corner apparently don’t have it.
Why do I personally hate Stolen Valor? It’s not like I had some illustrious military career, served in combat, or had buddies die in my arms (perhaps some people I know died in Iraq when they were deployed there long after I’d got out but I don’t know for sure). Since I’ve been back I’ve had two people thank me for “my service” when I mention my time in the army and I’ve always been quick to point out that my service consisted of standing around in a parking lot and the only terrorists I killed were in PS2 games. Nevertheless I hate Stolen Valor because more often than not it’s some right-wing yahoo bragging about all the “hajjis” he killed with his .50 cal sniper rifle. Worse still, you’ve got this person claiming something that you did, that you struggled to earn, when they in fact didn’t experience and have no idea what you had to go through. Yeah I was just a 31R and went to Ft. “Relaxin'” Jackson, but that takes a lot more effort than sleeping on your parents’ couch or going to college parties after you graduate high school. That’s doubly so when you’re a nerdy 17-year-old who was never known for athletic prowess at the point. So yeah, I get a bit pissed when someone who couldn’t even handle Ft. Jackson or any basic training in any branch tells me to my face that he was a decorated Navy SEAL sniper/team leader (yeah, that’s based on a specific case and the guy knew that my friends and me were in the army at the time).
But there’s another reason Stolen Valor bothers me- it was almost like a warning of what this country had to come with the Trump administration. See one thing about Stolen Valor types is that even the Call of Duty-playing military enthusiasts don’t seem to bother to do much research before crafting their military persona. When you watch those videos and you see the non-homeless, non-mentally ill guys getting tripped up, you’ll notice that they fold almost immediately under the most trivial of questions. A guy asks “what’s your MOS” and almost immediately they get this “Oh SHIT!” look in their eyes. If there’s anything worse than lying to someone in this manner, it’s being so lazy about it that you’re insulting people’s intelligence. I’ve always been amazed at how surprised these people are when they encounter someone who was actually in the military. It’s like they’re thinking: “Wait…Those ranks they keep talking about actually MEAN something? How could this happen?!”
It’s this kind of lazy, don’t-give-a-shit-if-it-sounds-even-remotely-believable aspect that makes the lies of Trump, his party, the alt-right, or the Kremlin state media so infuriating. What’s worse is when you press them and they give you this hint that even they don’t fully believe it (this was a feature very present in Eurasianist thought, as documented in the book Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism).
So yeah, that kind of lying where the liar makes zero effort to sound convincing is what pisses me off about Stolen Valor. That being said, if you can’t tell the difference between some right-wing wannabe warrior bragging about his “confirmed kills” at the gun show and some mentally ill homeless man panhandling at an intersection, and encountering the latter inspires you to go try to humiliate him for the whole internet, you seriously lack judgement and you’re a bully. I don’t give a shit if some mentally ill homeless man is claiming something I earned. I’m angered by healthy people who had every opportunity to “serve,” didn’t, and then lie to my face telling me they did more than me.
Sadly, there’s another aspect of this which Nichols could have hammered on but didn’t. As I pointed out on Twitter yesterday, part of the irony of the right’s obsession with Stolen Valor is the fact that even when they are not directly participating in it, they are largely responsible for creating it. Think about what motivates young, healthy men to lie about military service and combat. Sure, part of it is just patriarchal values and the desire to be seen as more masculine, but who is saying that military service is the pinnacle of masculinity and who constantly puts “the troops” on a pedestal? That would be the right. It’s always been then. If society and pop culture didn’t lavish such unqualified praise on any and every service member, and especially on high-speed “operators,” maybe people wouldn’t feel tempted to appropriate that life and bask in some of that attention. Obviously these people are responsible for their own actions, but we can’t pretend that society doesn’t influence our decisions.
Perhaps Stolen Valor isn’t the real issue anymore. It’s been rolled into the larger problem, which could be dubbed “people being full of shit and getting away with it on a regular basis.” In any case, homeless people need homes and the mentally ill need access to treatment- not humiliation for foolishly donning a surplus military uniform in an effort to help them get by day to day. And if you don’t like healthy people running around claiming to be military personnel, don’t just call them out- call out society and pop culture’s worshipful, unrealistic portrayal of military personnel. People in the military aren’t all virtuous incarnations of Captain America. Some of them, even your vaunted Navy SEALs, are downright criminals. A lot of them are just confused, awkward kids who are trying to make the transition to adulthood after jumping in the deep end. I should know- I was one of them.