June 30, 2012

Stolen Valor

Amid all the hubbub over the Supreme Court's decision to uphold Obama's health care plan, a second of three decisions (the third involving a suit against the mortgage banking industry) was almost lost in the shuffle. This was the overturning of the Stolen Valor Act,  which made it a misdemeanor to lie about military honors.

My initial reaction to this was one of semi-disbelief. The Supreme Court was saying it is okay to lie about one's military service? The case in point--a politician claiming to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor--made the decision even more baffling. A public official lying about the nation's highest military honor ... you're telling me that isn't a crime? Dude! My moral compass may be a bit skewed on some points, but that line of thinking seemed to me to be just plain wrong-headed.

The majority opinion basically said that the law can't solve every problem, especially one where no fraud or demonstrable harm has come about from the act. Some things are best left to the court of public opinion, as it were. And in truth, public shunning of those public figures who use a fictitious military resume to further their careers is quite appropriate. Some years back, I wrote a post about Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian who fabricated stories about service in Vietnam. He rightly faced severe public embarrassment once his falsehoods were exposed.

The Supreme Court seems to be saying that in the case of lies about military honors, public outing is the best and most effective remedy. I think it is saying something else as well. In an era when distrust of government runs wide and deep, the Court was reluctant to let the government decide what lies are allowable and which ones are punishable. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:
"Here the lie was made in a public meeting, but the statute would apply with equal force to personal, whispered conversations within a home. Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable."
 So in the end, this case was as much, if not more, about distrust of government as it was about telling lies. Was this the correct balancing of competing interests that the Supreme Court is often asked to weigh? Maybe ... maybe not, but the decision sticks in my craw nonetheless. Somehow I think the basic issue--the debasement of medals earned through blood and death--got lost in the shuffle. The Court worried about George Orwell when perhaps it should have been thinking about George Washington, who established our first military medal, the Badge of Merit, to be awarded for unusual gallantry or extraordinary service.

These things do matter, and they matter a great deal. One of the things everyone knew in Vietnam was that some medals are awarded by rank. The other thing everyone knew was that the Combat Infantryman's Badge (CIB) was worn only by those who had actually served in ground combat. A rough justice was readily dispensed for anyone foolhardy enough to wear an unearned CIB. We can't do that in civilian life, but we can speak to this though our laws, which are the embodiment of what we think of as right and wrong.

Maybe you can't trust the government, but you ought to be able to trust the opinions of those who earned their medals and who are deeply offended by the actions of those who diminish the value of those medals for their own selfish ends. The Supreme Court's decision was worse than a crime; it was a mistake.

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