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Book Review : 'Wages' a Look at U.S. War Wounds That Never Healed

June 21, 1989|JONATHAN KIRSCH

The Wages of War: When America's Soldiers Came Home--From Valley Forge to Vietnam by Richard Severo and Lewis Milford (Simon and Schuster: $21.95, 438 pages)

"But I'm old and I'm nervis (sic), I'm cast from the Service," goes the plaint of Kipling's old soldier, "And all I deserve is a shillin' a day."

The same refrain--and the same strong dose of irony and indignation--is found throughout "The Wages of War," an insistently revisionist history of the veterans of America's wars, from the Revolution to Vietnam, from Shays' Rebellion to the Bonus Army. The stated theme of the book is the plight of the soldier who served well and is then treated poorly by his own country--but, along the way, the authors lead us down some intriguing byways of American politics, journalism, economics and literature. And it is an excursion through some sordid and, at times, gruesome historical terrain.

"Throughout American history, even after 'popular' wars, veterans have had to struggle against a government that has mostly sought to limit its financial liability, more like a slippery insurance company than a polity rooted in the idea of justice and fair reward," the authors declare. "There were times when such soldiers were lured into service with offers of generous pay, bonuses, and benefits, only to be scorned as mercenaries and social parasites when they tried to collect their due."

The book, although occasionally overwrought and overwritten, is full of color and fire, wit and vitriol. Severo and Milford, one a reporter and the other a lawyer, build their case in a workmanlike fashion, fact upon fact, quote by quote, to show us how cheap, cynical, mean-spirited, bigoted and hypocritical our nation could be toward the very men and women who were called upon to take up arms in defense of our most cherished democratic values.

Acts of Callousness

But they also revel in the collection of historical shocks and surprises that they have uncovered: an act of callousness by Alexander Hamilton toward a veteran of the Revolution ("Claims of 'personal hardship' are rather to be regretted than redressed"); a contemptuous letter from Nathaniel Hawthorne to his wife about Civil War veterans ("When the soldiers returned, the quiet life of the New England villages would be spoiled and coarsened"); the mass executions of Irish-Catholic deserters during the Mexican War ("My order is to hang 30," vowed the colonel in charge of the gallows, "and by God I'll do it!"); the acts of terrorism and torture by American soldiers during anti-insurgency campaigns in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War ("We have invited our clean young men to shoulder a discredited musket," Mark Twain wrote, "and do bandits' work under a flag which bandits have been accustomed to fear, not follow. . . ."); and the experimentation with LSD and fallout from nuclear tests on unsuspecting soldiers in the '50s ("Will he move quickly to clear a mine field," the experimenters wanted to know about the "atomic" soldier, "or will he 'gawk' at the eerie 'snow cap' above his head?").

The authors remind us, again and again, that there is not much new or surprising about the agonies of the Vietnam veteran. Among the military innovations of the Civil War was the use of the hypodermic syringe and a variety of opiates for treatment of battlefield injuries and, "most effectively," for symptoms of dysentery. "An estimated 10 million opium pills were issued to the Union Army, along with more than 2,841,000 ounces of other opiates," they point out. "The Civil War soldier, like his Vietnam counterpart a century later, thus came to be linked in an accusing way to drug abuse."

Battle on Home Front

The climax of "The Wages of War" is an account of the Vietnam-era veterans and their belated combat with bureaucrats and lawyers over the battlefield use of Agent Orange. Tainted by the massacre at My Lai and other excesses of the Vietnam war, and depicted in the media as a generation of misfits, these veterans encountered a kind of collective slander even when they asked government and industry to help them with the toxic aftereffects of the chemical defoliant. (Were the grotesque symptoms of poisoning by Agent Orange the result of the "afflictions of age and attendant psycho-social aberrations," asked one apologist for the military and the chemical companies, or were the veterans merely driven "to acquire financial compensation during economically depressed times?")

In one sense, the authors allow, the Vietnam veterans are different from those who served in earlier wars: "For the first time in American history, the soldiers who fought for us are now . . . telling us about their war and their anguish and how they sense their own government betrayed them," Severo and Milford conclude. "Their lessons are too important for us not to listen; they are master teachers."

A clear flame of anger and sorrow burns at the heart of "The Wages of War," a fierce conviction that America's fighting men and women--both serving soldiers and veterans--have been ill-used by their people and their nation over two centuries. What Severo and Milford write about the soldiers of the Civil War nicely summarizes their conclusions about the plight of veterans throughout our history: "They remained an underclass to the intellectuals, who found them a bit of a bore; an embarrassment to the businessmen, who refused to hire them; a convenience to politicians, who used them; and something apart to the civilians, who could not understand what soldiers-come-home really wanted. . . ."

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