[sixties-l] Tin soldiers

From: radtimes (resist@best.com)
Date: Mon Aug 27 2001 - 16:51:05 EDT

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    Tin soldiers

    For years it was the war that nobody wanted to remember. But now
    thousands of Americans who have never seen combat are claiming they are
    battle-hardened Vietnam veterans. Duncan Campbell reports on the wannabe
    heroes and the men and women who hunt them down

    by Duncan Campbell
    Tuesday August 21, 2001
    The Guardian (UK)

    His mission had been a dangerous one, acting as a CIA operative working
    underground in Laos during the Vietnam war in the late 60s. And he had
    been awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded in the groin by stray
    shrapnel during combat. All of which, along with his distinguished legal
    career and outstanding academic qualifications, made Patrick Couwenberg
    ideal material for the position for which he had applied: judge in the Los
    Angeles County superior court. There was only one problem: it was all a lie.
    Last Wednesday, Judge Couwenberg, aged 55, was sacked after an
    investigation discovered that he had lied during his application to the bench
    and had lied again during the subsequent investigation to check his claims.
    The commission on judicial performance ordered his removal for "wilful and
    and prejudicial misconduct".
    The judge's economy with the truth had first come to light three years ago
    when a colleague on the San Diego bench, who was a genuine military
    veteran, read a newspaper profile of Couwenberg and smelled a rat. He had
    claimed that between 1968 and 1969 he had worked for the CIA in Laos. He
    had also claimed to have carried out other missions for the CIA in Africa in
    However, the commission's investigators discovered that not only was
    Couwenberg never in the CIA, but during the time of his claim to be working
    for them, he was actually a social worker in Orange County, California. His
    military service had been carried out in the US Naval Reserve. Couwenberg's
    explanation was a poignant one: his wife had typed out his application and
    he had been unable to tell her that the service career he had invented for
    himself when they had first met was bogus. His lawyers argued that the
    judge was suffering from a condition called "pseudologica fantastica".
    But what is remarkable about Couwenberg's case is that it is far from
    isolated. Last Friday, Professor Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer prize-winner, was
    suspended for a year without pay from his post at Mount Holyoke college in
    Massachusetts because he had also invented a Vietnam war past for
    himself. He had told his students that he had been a platoon commander
    near My Lai when he had, in fact, spent his service time teaching history at
    West Point. Yesterday, Professor Ellis said in a statement: "I intend to find
    time for self-reflection." He has already apologised to his students and to all
    Vietnam vets.
    Another judge, Michael O'Brien from Chicago, has been exposed as having
    falsely claimed to be a winner of two Medals of Honour, while the Toronto
    Blue Jays baseball team manager, Tim Johnson, was fired from his job after
    his claims to wartime heroics proved bogus. Almost every week it emerges
    that some public figure has invented a fictional war history for himself. The
    Unknown Soldier has been eclipsed by the Non Existent Soldier. Derring-do
    becomes derring-didn't.
    While truth has long been accepted as the first casualty of war, what had not
    been apparent until this year had been just how much of a casualty it had
    been, especially in Vietnam. But now a combination of dogged researchers,
    disgruntled veterans' organisations and the internet is exposing dozens of tin
    soldiers who have strutted at the head of their veterans' parades or used a
    bogus war record to parlay their way into a job or a relationship.
    "They are multiplying like cockroaches," says Mary Schantag, who logs the
    phoney war heroes on a website from her home in Skidmore, Missouri. "It's
    an epidemic. I had another eight calls only yesterday." She and her husband
    Chuck, a computer programmer and Vietnam vet who was wounded as a
    marine, came across the phenomenon by chance after setting up the PoW
    Network, a project that chronicled all former prisoners of war. People would
    call them having looked at the list of PoWs to ask why, say, their neighbour
    who had told them stories of his time in a Vietnamese prison camp was not
    listed. The Schantags would investigate, a relatively simple procedure, and
    discover that many of the claims were untrue. So they started a special
    section of their website dedicated to exposing "phoneys". Soon the trickle
    became a flood.
    While some of the phoney soldiers claimed to have served valiantly in the
    second world war, the recent rash of exposures has concerned service in
    Vietnam. "The Vietnam war is not the no-no it used to be," says Mary. "I
    think a lot of people feel that they missed the chance to face their demons,
    to sleep in the jungles in Vietnam, to face that psychological test. This
    country is so deeply in need of heroes that no one is willing to check out
    their backgrounds, they want to believe it is true. When you have someone
    who says he rescued people in darkest Cambodia, people are so desperate
    for it to be true that they don't check. It's a morality problem. It tears us
    The first phoney, as Mary calls them, came to light in 1998, and since then
    the Schantags have constantly been asked by employers, local newspapers
    and by neighbours if they can check out people's claims. All too often they
    turn out to be nonsense.
    "They often make the mistake of choosing to be in elite units like special
    forces (much like the SAS in Britain) or Navy Seals or the CIA which are very
    easy for us to check - and I am a detail freak," she says. "There are now so
    many books and so much information about the war that we are able to find
    out more about a battle than the people who were in it. The people who were
    in it only know what was happening in their vicinity, but the phoneys, the
    wannabes have all the details."
    The Schantags have no hesitation in exposing people, saying that they are
    "stealing the honour and glory" that others have fought for. The number of
    those who have invented a military past keeps growing: so far 740 bogus
    PoWs have been listed but they represent only a tiny minority of bogus
    veterans. When confronted, some of those exposed claim that their operation
    was so secret that there is no official trace of it - but even if
    operations were
    secret, a service record is not. Some threaten to sue but none has yet done
    The Schantags are by no means the only way of tracking the bogus vets. In
    1998, BG "Jug" Burkett wrote Stolen Valour, a book that has become the
    bible for the phoney-hunters. And a former Navy Seal, Larry Bailey, runs a
    website, cyberseals.org, which has a wall of shame with hundreds of names
    on it. Bailey, now a schoolteacher, reckons that more than 100,000
    Americans have invented military backgrounds for themselves, often using
    them to get benefits.
    "Epidemic is an understatement," says Bailey. "It's the craziest thing I've
    ever come across." He had first been alerted to the phenomenon when
    teaching at the Seals' training school in California. Many police departments
    contacted him to check out applicants' claims to have been Seals: "They
    were all fake." He says that "pseudologica fantastica" was "putting a big
    name on someone who has a vacuum inside them that they have to fill.
    These people are absolute scum. How do they get away with it? Well, you
    know how gullible and how lazy we are."
    Bailey's wesbite also supplies handy tips for spotting bogus Seals, who tend
    to be the kind of person who "wear camouflage clothing with multiple patches
    and ribbons . . . Talks about his medals. (Seals don't talk about their
    medals.)" For people who have asked why they bother, Bailey gives many
    reasons, one being that many women have been "emotionally swindled" by
    men claiming a war record: "There are literally thousands of lascivious
    Lotharios who prey on the unsuspecting and trusting women who believe
    their lies and misrepresentations. If we can save one such lady by exposing
    these liars, then all our time and expense will have been worth it."
    The irony behind this spate of inventions is that, 20 years ago, people were
    more likely to have told lies in order to cover up their involvement in the
    Vietnam war. While many may have embellished their part in the first or
    second world wars, the Vietnam war was not one that seemed likely to
    attract claims of involvement, because of its association with failure and
    humiliation. It is only in the last few years that Vietnam veterans have
    to emerge as heroic figures in the American media and with that realignment
    have come the stories.
    In the presidential election, Al Gore frequently used his service in Vietnam -
    which was brief and as a reporter - to contrast himself with George Bush,
    who had taken the rich boy's option of staying at home in the Reserve. Not
    that "pseudologica fantastica" is peculiar to America. There are plenty of
    fantasists in Britain who claim to have served in the SAS or the commandos
    in the Falklands or the Gulf war or to have been in bomb disposal - a popular
    fantasy - in Northern Ireland. But nowhere seems to have acquired so many
    cardboard heroes as the US, a country in the midst of a new romance with
    the second world war: three of the books on the New York Times bestsellers
    list this week are odes to second world war heroics.
    What the phoney-hunters have found is that few of those exposed show
    much contrition and some continue to protest their involvement regardless of
    the evidence. One or two, such as Professor Ellis, have apologised. "Denny"
    appears on the cyberseals website to say sorry for the "shameless pit" into
    which he has dug himself. But these are very much the exceptions. The truth
    has turned out to be even more painful than shrapnel in the groin.

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