THE STOLEN VALOR ACT: a Zen Buddhist view
by Ming Zhen Shakya
In their ambition to advance themselves by gaining prestige and the power, respect, money, and other benefits that accompany it, some men will lie, cheat, and steal anything they can get away with.
In many ways, a man who lies about being decorated for his exceptional courage in battle or for suffering wounds in the course of combat is similar to a man who lies about having experienced exalted spiritual states in the course of his religious practice. Both liars do inestimable harm to those who believe their lies.
We can't determine by face value the veracity of a claim to spiritual experience since the blessing is, by definition, internal, and we have no window through which we can examine a man's soul. Likewise, when confronted by an individual who claims that he has been decorated for bravery and perhaps offers proof of his heroism by displaying the medals and ribbons of these citations, we have no reasonable way of examining historical facts to determine the authenticity of his claims.
By nature, we are disinclined to challenge such assertions when made by a fellow citizen or congregant. To do so tends to evidence a nasty cynicism and to introduce discord into hallowed precincts. We would as soon hold a cattle auction in a church or a set up a carnival in a battlefield's cemetery. We have an instinctive respect for holiness and for the courage and sacrifice made in the cause of our welfare, and we treat with due deference those who are said to possess such qualities.
All religions abjure lies and liars; but while the impossibility of discerning the truth of spiritual experience prevents us from codifying a Stolen Holiness Act, we do have a Stolen Valor Act which, at the very least, serves to warn those who are tempted to become thieves of other men's glory that there are consequences for such self-aggrandizing hypocrisy.
It is not enough to say, "Ah, he will be punished enough by the scorn heaped upon him when his lies are discovered." That should not be "when"; it should be "if". Many lies will survive and even become the stuff of legend. Where there is no penalty, the risk lessens; but where there is penalty, the risk increases to deterrence. Who among us would willingly pay income tax were it not for the threat of Leavenworth?
Because two federal jurisdictions, the 9th and the 10th Circuit Courts of Appeal, reached opposing decisions on the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act, the Supreme Court has had to take up the matter and decide whether it does or does not conform to Constitutional requirements. The case they will review is that of Xavier Alvarez.
In 2006, in the desert area of Claremont, southern California, Xavier Alvarez won election to the Board of Directors of the Three Valleys Municipal Water District. To all appearances, his claims of being a twenty-five year Marine Corps veteran with a distinguished military career had made him a highly qualified candidate. In fact, Mr. Alvarez had never served a single day in any branch of the U.S. military. He continued to make false claims of receiving various decorations for bravery, including the Congressional Medal of Honor, and of his commendable deeds as a Marine. He made the mistake of making these claims to a real ex-Marine.
Ms. Melissa Campbell, an honorably discharged Marine Corps veteran, was working in the community relations' department of a Southern California utility company. She happened to have a conversation with Director Alvarez in which he again listed his many awards. Campbell was sufficiently impressed by the heroism of her fellow Marine that she texted her husband that she had met a real Medal of Honor winner. Her husband checked him out in the Medal of Honor data banks and told her that no such person named Xavier Alvarez ever won the Medal.
Incredulous, Campbell confronted Alvarez, asking him knowledgeable-Marine questions which he could not answer. He did, however, know the tactical value of a pre-emptive strike and, knowing that he was on the cusp of being exposed as a fraud, he contacted her employer and complained that she had disrespected him in his position as a director of the Three Valley Municipal Water District. Campbell was summarily fired. Seeking redress, she contacted attorney Rees Lloyd who was known to be an advocate of Veterans' rights.
The Water District's Board of Directors had published online a biographical piece about its new member, and in this article Alvarez's claim to be a member of the American Legion was repeated. Attorney Lloyd, an Army veteran who enjoyed an association with the American Legion, was able to establish immediately that Alvarez's claim of membership was false. Lloyd disclosed this in a letter to the Board and asked that the claim be deleted from the biography.
Apprised of Alvarez's fraudulent claim of having received the Medal of Honor, the F.B.I. obtained videotaped evidence when, at a public meeting of the Water District's Board of Directors, Alvarez repeated the litany of awards he earned during the course of his distinguished military career. He was arrested on the misdemeanor charge of violating the Stolen Valor Act. At trial, Alvarez was found guilty and was sentenced to three years probation, a fine of $5,000., and was ordered to perform community service one day a week for one year at the Veteran's Hospital in Loma Linda, California. He appealed this conviction.
In San Francisco, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Stolen Valor Act and vacated Alvarez's sentence, a boon Alvarez was unable to appreciate fully since he was at the time incarcerated for having committed insurance fraud - he had claimed that his ex-wife was his present wife and succeeded in getting her medical bills paid through his employment's medical insurance.
The Court, asked to reconsider its decision, elected to affirm it. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote, "Saints may always tell the truth, but for mortals living means lying." The Judge's logic is skewed. Saints are mortals. They die. If living did, in fact, mean lying, then saints would be liars; and, further, only the dead would be qualified to testify truthfully in Judge Kozinski's court.
In an astonishingly flippant list of what he considered comparable lies, the Judge wrote, "If false factual statements are unprotected, then the government can prosecute not only the man who tells tall tales of winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, but also the JDater [an online dating service for Jewish singles] who falsely claims he's Jewish or the dentist who assures you it won't hurt a bit." He enumerates white-lie cliches that could be criminalized: "I'm allergic to latex"; "The check is in the mail"; "It's not you, it's me"; "I've got a headache"; "Ich bin ein Berliner"; "I didn't inhale"; "She's just a friend"; "I gave at the office"; and a host of other lies of convenience.
It is always asserted that when there is no harm in the lie, there is no need to legislate against it. And where there is harm, there already exists a variety of legal remedies. If a lie is given in testimony against us, we can visit the prison's law library and figure out how to charge the liar with perjury. If a lie is used to induce us to invest in a Ponzi scheme, we can charge the convicted and bankrupt schemer with fraud and try to get our money back. Sure. And what about the honest candidate who runs against a dishonest liar who, predictably, wins the election because his claim of being a much decorated war hero is believed? Who repays the honest candidate for his campaign expenses?
The case that speaks loudest against the notion that we can always resort to other legal remedies for harm caused by false claims of military awards is that of Jesse MacBeth.
Jesse became the Favorite Son of anti-war groups when he gave videotaped accounts of the atrocities he committed as an Army Ranger serving in Iraq. He recalled with shame how he and his fellow Rangers would enter a mosque and kill innocent people who were only praying, and then would burn their bodies, stringing them up to hang from the rafters. He acknowledged that he complied with the order to kill women and children and takes responsibility for approximately 200 such deaths. Wounded in battle, he received the Purple Heart.
MacBeth's videos went viral on the internet. Describing the atrocities he witnessed and the piteous wounds that got him a Purple Heart, he traveled the guest-speaker circuit, addressing activist anti-war organizations, giving interviews to various journalists and the SocialistAlternative.org website that quoted his claim that the Army Rangers would "leave the bodies in the streets and blame it on the Shi'ites or the Sunnis." He appeared at university student rallies helping to convince his audience to support the anti-war movement's struggle against the government's lies. Everywhere he went he converted base suspicion into golden fact: the United States had plumbed new depths of depravity in order to get all that Iraqi oil. For several years he traveled and probably ate well as he made his sensational confessions at the expense of anti-war groups and political opponents of the administration. The texts of his confessions were translated into arabic and widely broadcasted in Muslim countries where they naturally engendered much hostility towards American servicemen. The anti-war activists and Islamic terrorist groups that had charged the U.S. military with savagery were now able to prove their claims.
The problem with all of this is simply that Jesse MacBeth enlisted in the Army and was discharged as "unfit for service" after 44 days of basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Since service time in the Army can be counted only after basic training is completed and since MacBeth had not completed this required training period, his military career is technically zero. He has never set foot in Iraq. Yet, using a falsified discharge certificate, and relying on MySpace and other informational internet sites that published what purported to be accurate accounts of his military experience which he had supplied, he filled out Veteran Administration forms stating that he was a three year veteran who was suffering from post traumatic stress from combat in Iraq. He received $10,400. in benefits.
When he was exposed as a fraud, honorable people who had believed his lies realized how much he had hurt their cause. Not only had his war lies tainted them by association, but he was involved in many other disreputable crimes: fraudulent use of a credit card; felony domestic violence; assault; and so on. Charged in Federal Court with making false statements in the matter of receiving Veterans' benefits and also with altering a military discharge certificate, he pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements and was sentenced to 5 months in jail and 3 years probation.
Who says his lies didn't hurt anyone? The people who believed him were hurt psychologically by the disappointment in themselves for having trusted this conman. The people who were hurt physically were the American servicemen who had to fight an enemy that was suddenly supported by honorable Muslims who also believed his lies.
Conscientious objection to war is not an ignoble position, but it is a position that should be taken on principle, not histrionics. So vile and convincing were his lies that anyone who believed them can hardly be blamed for feeling disgust towards U.S. political and military leaders. Yet, as we have all learned from the Lex Talionis, feeling disgust and hatred for someone has a peculiar boomerang effect. Sooner or later it becomes a self-inflicted wound. A more colorful way to state this truth is the Zen maxim, "To feel hatred and resentment towards another person is to drink poison and then wait for him to die."
It requires no stretch of the imagination to suppose that there are dead and wounded servicemen whose sad fate can be directly charged to MacBeth's deceits.
And are we to believe that these lies that caused such pain are, so far as the First Amendment is concerned, no different from the rogue's, "I'm allergic to latex?" Are we to accept that these words are as harmless as any other exaggeration, "tall tale" or deception as, for example, "wearing elevator shoes or a toupee" as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals insists?
Harmless? No. The Courts are not the government. The Congress is not the government. The President is not the government. For so long as this is a democracy we are the government; and to suggest that we would send men and women into battle, separating them from the comforts of their homes and families, subjecting them to the discomforts of harsh and alien lands, exposing them to the wounds of combat or the tortures of capture, and placing them in the very "Valley of Death" and giving them for such dedication to our national welfare little enough in pay for service well performed, and giving them for service "above and beyond the call of duty" an extra trifling bit of metal and silk to signify our appreciation of their uncommon valor - while at the same time saying, "Here is your award which, by the way, according to the First Amendment any coward can purchase at a flea market and advantageously wear while claiming that the deeds you did were done by him" hurts us, diminishes us, and makes us unworthy of citizenship in any realm.
Declare the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional? Rather explain why violations of it are mere misdemeanors when, at the very least, they ought to be felonies.