Probably just about everyone agrees that you can’t shoot soldiers for cowardice anymore. The last time the U.S. Army did so, the victim, Private Eddie Slovik, became a hero and a martyr to subsequent generations, the subject of books, movies and a recasting of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat by Kurt Vonnegut. Poor old Eddie was to have been the hero of a movie, The Execution of Private Slovik, written by Albert Maltz — one of the blacklisted Communists of the “Hollywood 10” — and produced by Frank Sinatra in 1960, but it was thought that the project would have been embarrassing to John F. Kennedy, whose presidential campaign Sinatra was supporting at the time. Instead, he made The Manchurian Candidate,which sought and received Kennedy’s imprimatur. In that film, the hero (played by Laurence Harvey) is also a victim, though a victim of the Chinese rather than his fellow Americans. It is one measure of the cultural ground we have traversed in the last 50 years (Manchurian Candidate was released in 1962) that now it’s the Chinese who are off-limits as movie bad guys — as we found when the remake of Red Dawn had to change the new invaders to North Koreans — while the U.S. military is very much not.
Hollywood’s willingness to blame America first might be borne in mind as background to a piece in today’s New York Times about how some men who were non-honorably discharged from the service during the Vietnam War era are now suing to have their discharges upgraded to honorable — and to get the veterans’ benefits to which this will entitle them — on the grounds that they are victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, an illness unknown to psychiatric science at the time. Whatever the outcome of the suit, there can be no doubt that the cultural ground has been prepared for its success by the virtual unanimity with which Hollywood has come to treat American fighting men not as heroes but as victims — or as heroes only to the extent to which they are victims.
According to the Times reporter James Dao,
The suit raises two thorny issues that could affect thousands of Vietnam veterans: Can they be given a diagnosis of PTSD retroactively, to their time in service, though the disorder was not identified until 1980? And if they can, should recently instituted policies intended to protect troops with PTSD be applied retroactively to their cases?
But the much more urgent and important question is this. Can having an illness excuse cowardice? And, if so, is there any form of cowardice that cannot be treated as a manifestation of illness? For cowardice, as traditionally understood, is pretty unmistakable in the case which the Times story offers as its only example of those on behalf of which the lawsuit is being brought. It is that of John Shepherd Jr., who refused lawful orders to put himself in harm’s way while serving with the Ninth Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta in 1969. What makes Mr Shepherd the obvious poster boy for the lawsuit is that he had previously won the Bronze Star — before he saw his platoon leader killed by a sniper in front of him. “It was a breaking point,” writes Mr Dao; “his behavior became erratic, and at some point he simply refused to go on patrol. ‘I never felt fear like I felt when he got shot,’ Mr. Shepherd said last week.”
I’m afraid, and I won’t go on patrol. Open and shut, I would have thought. It’s precisely what they executed Eddie Slovik for in January, 1945. The really interesting thing about the suit, which is being brought — wouldn’t you just know it? — by students at the Yale Law School’s veterans legal clinic, is whether, taken together with the suit filed last week to force the services to allow women in combat, it will mark a final phase of the courts’ arrogation to the civilian justice system of the right to abolish the most basic tenets, through thousands of years, of the principles of military discipline. And, if so, will that — perhaps taken together with the ruinous sequestration of a large part of America’s military budget — mark the end of our country’s ability to defend itself, let alone to fill its indispensable role of world leadership? Not that this is surprising on the part of The New York Times, but talk about burying your lead!