Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen, The Bonus Army, An American Epic. Walker & Company, New York, 2004.

From the Revolution of 1776 onward, America’s war veterans have forced their way onto the pages of history, and they are doing so now. While today’s politicians ring the praises of soldiers, they are cutting veterans’ benefits. Even the thousands of men and women injured in the Middle East are finding it harder to get medical treatment. Veterans’ Administration hospitals are being closed, and some that continue offer questionable service. The VA hospital in Dallas, for example, is scandalized by medical examiners.

Dickson and Allen’s book shows with excruciating clarity how World War I veterans were misused during peacetime. As the Great Depression fell upon them, veterans began to seek redress in Washington. The Bonus Army of 1932 provided the most dramatic attempt. Thanks to newly-invented newsreel movies, the nation was joined together in disgust when General MacArthur’s soldiers drove thousands of veterans and their families away with fire and bayonets.

No matter how sympathetic their cause, not all veterans sought a progressive solution to the economic scourge. Large numbers of them embraced fascistic outlooks, and the American “Khaki Shirts” threatened to play the same role as the “Brown Shirts” and “Black Shirts” of Europe. In Germany and Italy, some veterans followed the worst of leaders with the cruelest ideology and with the most disastrous results. The “New Deal” programs of the Roosevelt Administration diverted most American veterans from such a role.

Other American veterans took the most advanced view of society. They looked to the Soviet Union as the one great nation not suffering the economic crisis, and they advocated similar solutions here. These veterans, too, participated in the Bonus Army and other attempts to relieve war veterans of some of their burden. It is a major distraction in Dickson and Allen’s version of the story that they continuously malign these progressive veterans by claiming that their sole aim was to introduce violence into the movement. It is unfortunately true of this book, as it is of most American history, that anti-communism distorts the account.

On the positive side, the book points out that the Bonus Army was racially integrated at a time when almost nothing else, and certainly not the active military, was. Even more important, the book tells the individual stories of great sacrifice and perseverance. Through tragedies as small as a missed meal to as large as the natural disaster that killed hundreds, the veterans continued to demand that America live up to its promises. They showed that their political effect could extend far beyond the depression and past the next great war into the treatment of veterans generations beyond.

For all of us, and especially for the many combatants being forced to risk their lives and to kill others in Iraq and Afghanistan today, there are important lessons to be learned from this account of the Bonus Army.

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