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War Veterans: A Historical Perspective

by Alfred Jones

What do we in America today have in common with societies of the past with regard to those who were called upon to keep us safe, bleed and die for us and serve as a strong warning to others who might covet our lands both near and far?

Throughout history a military person was seen as a second class citizen, one who is expendable and in a sense, a throw away person. In the Roman Republic, all citizens were potential soldiers. In time of war, you put down your plow and joined your fellow citizens to do battle. After the war, you went home to carry on your civilian duties.

war veterans

Bonus Army marchers confront the police.

The time came when it was necessary to employ a full time professional military. In ancient Greece, it was pretty much the same. Although the government paid you, the primary motivation was in the spoils of war and the plunder available to conquering armies.

It was very different in Egypt. Since they were not given to conquest like both the Greeks or Romans, they used a civilian army for the most part, sending everyone home after their military service.

Our sticking point is the concept “after their military service”. What happened to our military after their term of service expired? The Greeks relied on both mercenary soldiers and the Spartans who were totally military all their life from early childhood until the age of 65.

There was a chronic problem in the Roman world regarding what to do with military people after you reached retirement age or a time when your contracted term of service expired. Young men were promised land once they retired. There were other benefits available to veterans. However, the post military benefits were not always forthcoming as promised.

The rank and file of the military came from the lower socioeconomic levels of society. You may have had officer class elite, but this was not the case with the foot soldiers. In other words, these people who fought in many battles for the Empire had no clout once they were discharged. Seldom if ever were they given good land in Italy, but were encouraged to relocate in Gaul or Germany where there may have been no secure areas and there may have been a need to continue to protect yourself from the hostile locals.

Both the British and French soldier was generally seen as cannon fodder. English soldiers or sailors may not have had a name, but a number designation. There was no more horrible existence in the world than that experienced in the British navy. After your discharge, you were still the same low life individual that you were aboard ship or on the battle field. In England, this attitude continued on until the beginning of the Second World War. The old Chelsea Military hospital in London was an attempt to provide for former military, but this was merger at best.

The treatment of military people in China was without a doubt the most severe since the days of ancient Sparta. Today, the treatment of former military in China is often without serious criticism, but still leaves much to be desired and is fraught with corruption on an administrative level. Of all the Asian nations, the Japanese seem to take veteran needs more seriously than most.

The military during the Revolutionary War was made up of citizen soldiers and there were few if any issues to address regarding soldiers after independence was gained. The constitution mandated that the owning of arms was important primarily so that one could both maintain efficiency and be available in the event that they were needed to fight for their country.

During the Civil War, you could either fight or pay someone else to do it for you. The status of former union soldiers was not well structured after the war and in point of fact, the Indian Wars more or less continued the role of the military. What was left of the Southern army was encouraged to fend for themselves as best they could.

The entire concept of “retirement” across the board was pretty much the same. If you were getting too old to continue to be productive, you were sent home with a gold watch.

Unlike any other nation in the world, America has been involved in so many military campaigns that the retirement years of the military was never taken seriously. After the First World War, the military was promised a (small) bonus, It was not forthcoming in a time of need following the great depression. Veteran groups went hat in hand to the government and received a deaf ear. The need continued as did the number of those who wanted to have the matter addressed. It was not long before an army of veterans, the “Bonus Army”, descended on Washington. No problem, send in MacArthur with orders to dispatch them by force. He ordered that their make shift dwellings be burned and a shoot to kill order was given.

One can wonder how many men and women would have volunteered for military service at the outset of WW2 thus making conscription necessary.

The very lowest period for American veterans was in the days which followed Vietnam. Medical care was in shambles, the civilian attitude reflected the anger over the war and the hostility was taken out on the returning veterans.

America has fought so many wars over the past hundred years that the number of veterans has grown all out of proportion and our zeal or ability to provide for them, becomes less and less. The majority of efforts that address veterans problems, comes from veteran groups themselves. The Romans had to do this as well. War veterans revolted, instigated all sorts of self-developed remedies to provide for their collective needs.

If we will take the time to read the plight of soldiers throughout history, we might begin to take seriously the question of their post war needs and make better plans for providing for them. The first thing that can be suggested is that we anticipate problems going into a war in the first place. At no time in history, ancient or modern, has this been done.

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