The Wages of War by Richard Severo and Lewis Milford


The Wages of War: When  America’s Soldiers Came Home: From Valley Forge to Vietnam, written by Richard Serevo and Lewis Milford and edited by Mark Crispin Miller (Forbidden Bookshelf/Open Road Media, 495 pp., $14.99,  E book), presents an intriguing history of American veterans’ post-war struggles through the Vietnam War. The common theme is how the United States has gone to war without a viable plan to take care of returning veterans

Part one of the book—first published in 1989 and now available in a new electronic edition—introduces Daniel  Shays, whose name is forever attached to a rebellion of veterans turned farmers in the Early Republic petitioning for their pay from a nation without a hard currency or the desire to give enlisted veterans their due. Twenty-five years after the end of the Revolution the most enlisted soldiers attained was land they acquired cashing in certificates at less than face value and little of their overdue wages. Commissioned officers, supported by Gen.Henry Knox and profiteers and bankers, fared much better.

Renewed debates over military pension followed the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. President James Monroe favored veterans benefits, but many politicians opposed them. North Carolina Sen. Nathaniel Macon, for example, described military pensions as “like sweet poison on the taste; it pleases at first, but kills at last.” Congress passed a Continental Army pension bill in 1819 over the objections of some southern Congressmen who looked on pensions as the purview of states rather than the federal government.

The peaceful years between the War of 1812 and the war with Mexico saw the standing army reduced to 6,000. But an unofficial survey found that of fifty-five recruits “nine-tenths enlisted on account of some female difficulty, thirteen changed their names and forty-three were drunk, or partially so, at the time of their enlistment.” The Mexican War ended in 1848 with veterans “given enthusiastic homecomings but little else.”

In 1862 American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote what could also apply to Vietnam War veterans. He predicted that after Union soldiers returned from the Civil War, “the quiet life of the New England villages would be spoiled and coarsened.” Elaborating on Hawthorne’s view, the  authors note: “For in the Civil War, as in Vietnam,  it was the youth of the poor and the working classes who dominated the ranks, constituting the cannon fodder and produced the survivors who would sully the quiet.”

The Civil War national rift was wide as veterans on both sides faced unemployment “amid parades and bounteous praise.” Gen. Grant’s election as president in 1868, coupled with the founding of the first powerful veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of The Republic, helped make the nation aware that veterans were rising as a political force.

Regardless of the politics leading to wars, this well-documented study establishes the fact that veterans’ pensions were always negotiable in post-war years. The late 1800s was a good time for Union veterans and their lawyers. The 1885 veteran pension budget was the government’s largest budget item.  In 1897 Union veterans received some $150 million in pensions and Confederate veterans just over $1 million.

The authors suggest that the cry “Remember the Maine” that led to the war with Spain mirrors the lack of credibility surrounding the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in Vietnam in 1965. One senator likened sending the ship to Cuba to “throwing a match into an oil well for fun.”

The troops arriving in Cuba in 1898 faced an unexpected triple threat : malaria, typhoid, and Yellow Fever. In August troops returning were quarantined in New York. Officials claimed that these diseases were not war-related and rejected many veterans’ claims, blaming their problems on “homesickness.” One War Department general opined: “Soldiers do not like sympathy; Sympathy is for women and children.”

The section on the Philippine War differs from the others. The authors provide vivid descriptions of the guerrilla tactics used against the Americans and the torture (water interrogation) and racism attributed to American soldiers. This seems to be off the subject of veterans’ benefits. Perhaps the authors meant to show the effect these grisly reports would have on veterans’ pensions after the war ended in 1902.

There are four chapters on the aftermath of World War I. They include reports on how African American and Italian veterans were treated in the racist atmosphere of the 1920s. The American Legion, founded in 1919, did little or nothing for black veterans. In 1930, the authors note, “Gold Star Mothers were offered a trip to Europe to see the graves of their sons. The black mothers were to travel separately.”  Most of them declined to go.


The 1989 dust jacket


One chapter centers on how six million veterans were dealt with by the corrupt Charles Forbes, the first Veterans Bureau Administrator. Another examines the Bonus Expeditionary Force (Bonus Army) encampment in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1932. President Herbert Hoover had the World War I veterans who were demanding their promised bonuses evicted at gunpoint, vetoed the veteran bonus bill, and lost that year’s election to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

World War II victories in Europe and Japan in 1945 brought 16 million veterans home. Civilians who suffered through the Great Depression feared the return of the soldiers. The section on WWI vets focuses on the Servicemans Readjustment Act, also known as the World War II G.I. Bill, which Roosevelt signed into law over the objections of some economists, politicians, labor unions, and news purveyors.

Before moving on to the Korean War the authors examine women veterans, including testimony from Lynda Van Devanter, the first national womens director of Vietnam Veterans of America. In 1982 Van Devanter told the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that in VA hospitals “qualified gynecologists are not available and old retired physicians are doing the exams instead, in some cases in full view of men passing through the exam area.” As to whether women veterans were “actually military,” Van Devanter told the committee: “Some sixty-five women were held on Corregidor for the duration of WW II.” She asked, “Where are the studies of those women?”

The authors have presented a clear explanation of why “35 years after the end of the Korean War Washington remained without any memorial to honor the memory of those who served in Korea.” They reveal how Korean War troops were suspected of treason while held captive in North Korea. Two chapters,” Scapegoats” and “Scapegoaters,” succinctly describe how the red scare of the early and mid 1950s led to veterans being labeled as weak when they had succumbed to torture and brainwashing in captivity.

The Vietnam War chapters cover the health and political consequences resulting from 12 million gallons of Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants sprayed during the war. The human costs of the Vietnam War are well documented. This study also estimates that the war cost from $140-676 billion, with an additional $233 billion for veterans benefits.

Veterans benefits, especially Agent Orange compensation, are shown to be a budget buster and political football from the end of the war in 1975 through the Reagan Administration in 1988. The authors report that the Centers for Disease Control did not study the Agent Orange issue because accurate records of where troops served and when they were in areas that were defoliated were unavailable. The VA, as virtually all Vietnam veterans know, spent many years resisting responsibility for Agent Orange treatment.

A veteran went to the VA for “an Agent Orange health test,” the authors note, “only to be told by a VA doctor that he was simply trying to get more money from the VA.” A VA official is quoted saying, ” Part of my job is to say no. Absolutely nobody had an Agent Orange disability.”

VVA founder Bobby Muller is quoted, recalling his enlistment: “I remember joining the Marines and standing in my dress whites and hearing ‘The Star -Spangled Banner’ and crying like a baby.”

Muller came home from the war in a wheelchair and fought the VA, legislators on Capitol Hill, and the old-line veterans service organization for years before they started to recognize the physical and psychological problems unique to American veterans of the Vietnam War.

—Curt Nelson