Books in Review, January/February 2014
The Couple Who Wouldn’t Quit On
REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON
It’s no secret that during the Vietnam War the overwhelming majority of draft-age American males did everything they could to get out of fighting in the nation’s most controversial overseas war. Then, strangely and ironically, a few decades after the war ended the wannabe phenomenon arose. Men who never served in the military, or who served away from the action, claimed that they had fought (inevitably heroically and with high honors) in the Vietnam War.
What’s behind the wannabe phenomenon? Doug Sterner and his wife Pam Sterner address that question in Restoring Valor: One Couple’s Mission To Expose Fraudulent War Heroes and Protect America’s Military Awards System (Skyhorse, 262 pp., $24.95). The book tells the story of how the Sterners worked for years lobbying Congress to enact the Stolen Valor Act, and also details their personal efforts to unmask Vietnam War and other wannabes.
Why do imposters do it? “My response to this question,” Doug Sterner writes, “is because they can! The lack of proper record keeping in the services, the limited access to the truth by the public, and the inherent desire not to question a veteran’s service make stolen valor easy to get away with.”
Fraudsters, he says, “build upon their fraud because of what they derive from it. The questions of benefiting personally should be moot. If people did not benefit from claiming to be military veterans, wounded warriors, or decorated heroes, they’d quit doing it… It is fed and maintained by need and greed.”
In December 2006 when Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act making it illegal to lie about one’s military service, Roll Call magazine wrote: “In a Frank Capra-esque unfolding of events, Pam Sterner and her husband, Doug, turned a long-shot piece of legislation into reality. It took countless meetings, phone calls, faxes, and even a trip to Washington, D.C., [from their home in Colorado] to lobby in person, but all of that effort helped the Sternerstwo self-described ‘ordinary people’achieve something that very few people outside the political arena ever do.”
The Sterners explain how, after several legal challenges, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the first Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional in June 2012 on First Amendment grounds. Congress took up a revised version of the statute, which President Obama signed into law on June 13, 2013. The new act narrows the law’s focus by making it a federal crime to misrepresent one’s military service “with the intent to obtain anything of value.”
In this readable book filled with reconstructed dialogue, the self-described “fraud busters” offer many examples of how Doug Sterner, a two-tour Vietnam veteran who served with the 14th Engineer Battalion, has helped uncover the real stories of men who falsely claimed they earned high military decorations (including the Medal of Honor). The Sterners include appendices on how to ferret out wannabes and how to navigate what can be a daunting maze of official records to do so.
The fates of the hundreds of American pilots and other air crewmen shot down over North Vietnam and held prisoner in the infamous Hanoi Hilton is one of the best-known and widely described aspects of the Vietnam War. A ton of memoirs by former POWs, biographies of former POWs, and accounts of groups of POWs have appeared since the men were released en masse in 1973.
Alvin Townley’s Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned (Thomas Dunne, 432 pp., $27.99) falls in the third category. This well-written account, which draws heavily on the previous body of POW literature, focuses on about a dozen captives. It also goes over the oft-told story of the POW wives at home who, against long odds, successfully lobbyed the government on their husbands’ behalf.
Much of the narrative looks at two of the longest-held and most renowned POWs, James Bond Stockdale (who wrote three memoirs, including In Love and War with his wife Sybil) and Jeremiah Denton (who told his story in When Hell Was in Session). Townley recounts, in detail, how Stockdale, Denton, and the other POWs endured years of almost unimaginable physical and mental torture, and the ways the men coped with the physical pain and emotional torment.
Townley, the author of a book about the legacy of Eagle Scouts, writes reverently of the POWswhom he calls “American stalwarts,” “defiant patriots,” and “corralled incorrigibles” in a fast-flowing narrative with much reconstructed dialogue.
John T. Shaw’s JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency (Palgrave Macmillan, 228 pp., $26) is a well-written, pioneering look at President John F. Kennedy’s 1953-60 tenure as the junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. Kennedy “participated actively and sometimes boldly” during his time in the Senate “in the central policy debates of his time,” Shaw notes. That included “France’s faltering military interventions in Vietnam and Algeria” and “the appropriate defense posture for America during the Cold War.”
Kennedy had a decidedly negative view of the French war in Vietnam. He strongly favored “check[ing] the southern drive of communism,” there. But JFK said he did not want to do that relying “on the force of arms.” Rather, Kennedy called for building “strong native non-communist sentiment within these areas.”
In 1953, his first year in the Senate, Kennedy “took center stage” in the debate over whether or not the U.S. should continue to support the French. JFK spoke out in favor of sending U.S. aid, but also called on France to grant independence to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Kennedy, in his search for a non-military solution to the problem of stopping communism in Vietnam, believed that Ngo Dinh Diem, the vehement anticommunist the CIA helped install as South Vietnam’s premier in 1954, would be the leader who could do so. In a June 1, 1956, speech JFK changed his stance on what America should do in Vietnam. He no longer warned that the U.S. should not get heavily involved militarily in the effort to stop the Vietnamese communists, framing his argument in staunch, 1950s Cold War rhetoric.
South Vietnam “represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia,” JFK said, “the keystone in the arch, the finger in the dyke.” South Vietnam, he said, “is our offspring. We cannot abandon it.”
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