As I look back on some of my posts, I get the sense that I could be giving the impression that all military service members are strong, capable, infallible heroes striding through the modern battlefield fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way. That simply by serving their country, veterans somehow become this awe-inspiring model of virtue and morality.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
If looking at myself in the mirror didn’t throw this theory in the garbage, certainly incidents like My Lai and Abu Ghraib convince me that veterans are not virtuous angels whose actions are simply misunderstood and will eventually stand on the right side of history.
I am sure that many veterans like myself can think someone they served with that acted less than professionally, to put it mildly. It would not be accurate to create the impression that the modern military is a place of peace and harmony, where everyone gets along and fairness and equality rule the day. This ain’t a recruiting poster, and it’s not propaganda with a multitude of smiling Soldiers march off to save the day. If I were trying to paint that picture, I would not point out how prevalent toxic leadership is in today’s military. I would not mention the overwhelming and obvious fact that sexual harassment and assault is so widespread. The stigma against mental health would not exist at all in this idealized and sanitized version of the military, so there would be no need for me to write about it.
I don’t feel as though it serves any purpose to perpetuate the myth of a Virtuous Warrior, mainly because I know that it’s not true. The things that veterans have seen and experienced sometimes make it even more likely that they are less virtuous. Military service in general, and experiencing combat in particular, can cause a veteran to somehow lose focus on their core beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad; this is a key component to the concept of moral injury.
My point here is that veterans are human, and humans are fallible. We make mistakes, and sometimes they’re big ones. Sometimes the mistakes are crimes, and calling a crime a mistake is not a way to absolve responsibility, but to understand that there are times in our lives when we fail.
I recently read an article that describes the fact that the Army is investigating the allegation that Command Sergeant Major Basil Plumley, the CSM of 1/7 Cav during the Ia Drang campaign, wore decorations that he did not earn. CSM Plumley was the unit Sergeant Major during the events described in the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, memorably played by Sam Elliott in the movie. A historian has uncovered evidence that CSM Plumley may have inflated his service record and presented himself as earning commendations and awards that he did not.
To many veterans, nothing gets the blood pumping more than accusations of “stolen valor.” The idea that someone would claim to have earned something they didn’t, especially if they claimed to have served in the military and hadn’t done so, is so distasteful to a veteran that they have lobbied to get legislation passed to make it a crime. But how then do we view veterans who served honorably, in many aspects and according to many accounts, and also made mistakes?
We view them accurately: as humans, who are fallible, but also to be respected for their fallibility and humanity. And we remember them as such, with forgiveness; as Memorial Day approaches, we can choose to memorialize an idealized version of the truth or we can choose to memorialize the truth: that, in spite of his fallibility, on a November day in 1965, Basil Plumley earned a Silver Star for his actions on LZ X-Ray.
The key here is forgiveness. Many veterans struggle with the concept of forgiveness. Does the idea that such a respected Soldier as CSM Plumley exaggerated his awards cause you to lose respect for him? Or do the transgressions of General Petreaus in his personal life overshadow the amazing accomplishments in his military career? If the negative somehow tarnishes the positive, could not the positive untarnish some of the negative? If the allegations are true, then I, for one, can choose the path of forgiveness. Not so much for the memory and legacy of CSM Plumley, but for myself. Is being angry or disgusted so pleasant that I need to feel as much of it as I can, as often as I can?
We are approaching Memorial Day, as I mentioned before. On this day, we honor those who have sacrificed their lives in the service of our country. I don’t know about you, but I know that I’m not perfect, and some of those brothers and sisters that I’ve lost were not perfect either. Their lack of perfection, their fallibility, in no way diminishes their sacrifice…unless I choose to allow it to.
Kristina Evans wrote a post about the dangers of negative self-perception, the need to compare ourselves to others. How much worse does that happen when we have a skewed perception of the perfection of others? We are nowhere near as imperfect as we believe, and others are nowhere as perfect as we think they are. Keeping this awareness in mind will keep balance in our lives.
Personally, I hope the allegations against CSM Plumley are not true. If they are true, however, it does not change my respect for him, and does not diminish what I know of his service. Apart from CSM Plumley and General Moore, my personal favorite individual involved in Ia Drang campaign was Rick Rescorla; on this Memorial Day, I will choose to remember him as he was in 1965, leading his Soldiers in combat, and on September 11th, 2001…as others were evacuating the World Trade Center, Rick was going UP the towers, towards the danger rather than away from it. Any sins, any transgressions, any mistakes that he made between those two actions would not diminish the respect that I have for those two actions, nearly 37 years apart to the day…and if I can do that for the “icons” and the “famous”, I can do it for my brothers and sisters. And if I can forgive my brothers and sisters for their fallability, then I can forgive myself for the same.