In an era where social media is one of the largest influences on public opinion, the old adage “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” seems to ring true- and it often does so at a painful pitch.
From public shaming, conspiracy theorists posting videos of military hardware being transported by rail to a training exercise and Worldstar beat-down videos, such things likely had innocuous intent by the person filming- only to become a monster that not even they could control once it hit the internet.
One such just campaign-turned nightmare is the “Stolen Valor” cases- something that many of us as veterans can both admit we have enjoyed watching while simultaneously wondering in the back of our minds, “has this gone too far?”
Granted, I see these cases come across my desk on a daily basis. From the under-21 Special Forces-Ranger-SEAL First Sergeants to notable firearms instructors who lied about their military service, I’m coming to surmise that the stolen valor phenomena isn’t all that uncommon because, well, human beings are inherently dishonest. If it weren’t the case, why do we reward people for their honesty?
Philosophical musings aside, a recent case came to my attention that involved a young man claiming he had enlisted in the National Guard, deployed to a combat zone and left the military a First Sergeant. Seems like an easy mark, right? Immediately, I began to relish in the idea of sinking my teeth into the case and eviscerating someone who was clearly taking the unspoken military tradition of embellishment (who hasn’t raised their PT score a few numbers or mixed up a few details to their deployment?) about two-hundred steps too far.
Then, I started digging for more information, turning up his affiliations in JROTC.
However, upon closer inspection, I realized -through distressed commentary from people claiming to be the siblings and family members of the young man- that this individual apparently has mental condition, which has skewed his personal perception of what is real and what isn’t. To this young man, the “reality” he was imparting on the camera man was likely very real in his own little world, his symptoms aggravated by the level of inclusiveness offered by JROTC programs in secondary schools.
“I can’t do this,” I said to myself. “There is ‘stolen valor-shaming’ and then there is a “witch-hunt.”
And so, this Op-Ed was born.
Look, I get it. It’s incredibly easy to take joy in watching fraudulent people receive their comeuppances and be hoisted by their own petard with only a little mild questioning. It’s admittedly entertaining and fulfils some sense of lost justice in a world where societal priorities seem skewed- with one’s pride, mentality and service serving as a beacon of sanity in such a desolate social wasteland.
However, we often take “stolen valor” events too far ourselves, turning them into broad-stroke witch hunts that occasionally show wanton regard for the cases in which we are carrying out our swift revenge upon or who exactly we are ridiculing.
Sometimes, our vengeful strikes are just. Calling out the guy who makes money based on a fraudulent claim of military service is just. Guys like former Navy SEAL Don Shipley researching and exposing fraudulent SEALs is beyond okay. Busting the guy in ACUs at the airport with an upside down 101st Airborne patch who is trying to bump up to first class? Have at ‘em, boys.
However, if there was anything I learned from my own military service and dealings with muddled forms of counter-insurgency alongside men often far savvier than I, it was the importance of occasionally using a proverbial lockpick kit where a sledgehammer would have been a much more enjoyable method of entry. Researching one’s targets, measuring force and deciding if something is really worth the fallout or not is a mindset that separates the US military apart from countless armed forces around the world. Be it our near double-decade of constant warfare or just the American ideal of “doing the right thing,” we’ve come to -for the most part- become masters at knowing just how much force needs to be applied at the right time. To quote Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (which was once on the recommended reading list of every branch in the Armed Forces), “If you wanted to teach a baby a lesson, would you cut its head off?”
The answer of course, is a resounding “no,” unless you operate under the flag of ISIS. Unfortunately, the American public at large has taken up similar -albeit less bloody- tactics when it comes to social media. We love to tear someone apart and revel in it like a pack of rabid hyenas, often with little regard or research involving the situation or the respective victim/target. At the same time, we partake in the very same behaviour we often deride as below us.
As service members and veterans, we are better than that. We should really start doing more research into such matters and quit justifying our own personal miseries in the form of lashing out at every single case of “stolen valor” without doing any sleuthing of our own. Much like videos of police shootings, it is very easy to take something out of context.
I could have eviscerated a special needs kid today. A lot of my readers would have shared it (many without even reading the article) and this kid’s life would have been more miserable than it might already be- and for what? To engage in a poorly-researched “stolen valor” fury-orgy akin to the behavior of the Social Justice Warriors many of us hold contempt for?
No, I chose the lock pick over the sledgehammer this time. Because we’re better than that- and if we aren’t, then we should be.
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