In the hierarchy of American conservatism, veterans rank somewhere near the top. “Our veterans, in many cases, are being treated worse than illegal immigrants,” Donald Trump said in a 2016 speech, a claim that PolitiFact rated “false.” Implicit in that statement is the belief that those with military experience deserve better treatment than those without it. Veterans appreciate this sort of flattery, and as a voting bloc they return the favor by leaning Republican. But maintaining this alliance requires a level of diligence toward those who would exploit it — namely, people who pretend to be veterans or embellish their military histories for nefarious purposes. In conservative parlance, this heinous act is known as “stolen valor,” and rooting it out has become a favorite pastime of the right-wing media.
This month, the valor thief of note was a man from Brooklyn named Papotia Reginald Wright, who claimed to be a Green Beret and boasted of receiving a Purple Heart. In response to Wright’s founding of a local veterans’ organization, amateur detectives unearthed evidence that he had only worked as a driver in non-combat zones. This relatively unimportant story first appeared in the New York Post and was later aggregated on Breitbart and Fox News. At first, it might seem strange that the national media would find it newsworthy that a local nobody lied about his army medals. But conservatism runs on righteous anger, and nothing gets conservatives feeling righteously angry like a case of stolen valor.
Never in U.S.history has anyone lied or defrauded voters like Senator Richard Blumenthal. He told stories about his Vietnam battles and....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 7, 2017
...conquests, how brave he was, and it was all a lie. He cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness like a child. Now he judges collusion?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 7, 2017
The phrase “stolen valor” was coined by Vietnam veteran B.G. Burkett in a 1998 book of the same name; in it, Burkett relentlessly fact-checked the stories of anti-war veterans in an effort to recast the war in Vietnam in a positive light. His timing was fortuitous, because the War on Terror was about to elevate stolen valor to a full-blown obsession. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, bestowing returning soldiers with more and more “valor” (i.e. patriotic bumper stickers) became essential to maintaining an influx of new recruits. In addition, the fiercely nationalistic climate of the Bush era sent politicians into an arms race over who was most performatively supportive of “the troops.” In 2005, Congress responded to a stolen valor-related scene in the movie Wedding Crashers by unanimously passing the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a federal crime to wear unearned military decorations. It looked good on paper, but no one expected law enforcement to actually expend resources verifying war stories. The responsibility, then, fell onto vigilantes.
The internet provided a perfect medium for the public shaming of valor thieves. 2011 saw the transformation of Stolenvalor.com, originally a single-page advertisement for Burkett’s book, into a hub for self-appointed private investigators. The revamped website featured an “investigative team” of pissed-off-looking retired soldiers and a section for “secured targets” — meaning valor thieves (by now, several dozen) caught in the act. Through crowdsourced tips and military records requests, stolen valor detectives engage in a rather heavy-handed simulation of military life.
The stolen valor community takes itself very, very seriously. The mission statement on the website Guardian of Valor, founded in 2012 and now the most popular outlet for stolen valor content, makes this clear: “We value our Service members, Veterans, those who have given the Ultimate Sacrifice and their families. We will do whatever is needed to protect them, and the sacrifices they have made.” A 2016 Atlantic profile of founder Anthony Anderson, an Afghanistan vet, cast him as a selfless hero bent on outing frauds in order to honor those who did serve. But in practice, his web presence is more in the realm of amoral right-wing clickbait. At the time of this writing, the first headline on the Guardian of Valor website is an aggregation of a Fox News story in which a “veteran turned cop” hands a Latino criminal a tube of K-Y Jelly and tells him that he is “going to need a lot of this.”
The malice often just isn’t there on the part of the valor thief.
Anderson also founded the official Stolen Valor Facebook page, which currently has 539,000 likes. The content here is decidedly lowbrow, and actual stolen valor posts are rare. The off-topic posts help clarify the expected fanbase for stolen valor content. One recent post features an image of Chuck Norris next to Secretary of Defense James Mattis and asks “Who wins?” Like nearly every post, it then directs the reader to “Grounds of Valor,” a store page that sells military-themed coffee grounds (produced by Counter Strike Coffee Company, the inventors of Liberal Tears bacon-flavored coffee) and heavily marked-up generic merchandise. For instance, Grounds of Valor sells a coffee mug shaped like a camera lens, identical to one listed at $7.64 on Amazon, for $25.99 plus $6.95 shipping. If that doesn’t interest you, they also sell a host of unlicensed pop culture merchandise, like Super Mario Mushroom Backpack ($55) and Harley Quinn 3 Pack Scrunchies ($15).
Anderson’s Guardian of Valor empire has been most successful on YouTube, where its videos of actual veterans confronting valor thieves in public rack up millions of views. The stolen valor genre thrives here, most often in compilation form, and without the pretense of it being a public service. Stolen valor compilations appear under “Category: Entertainment” on channels like “TrendCrave” and “Top Ten Daily.” Judging by the Minecraft avatars in the comment sections of these videos, the stolen valor audience extends beyond retired soldiers. A sampling of popular videos suggests that the potential for virality comes from the fact that most valor thieves — at least the ones who walk around in public wearing bootleg army fatigues — are homeless or mentally ill.
Most videos of people stealing valor are filmed in public by an accuser who seems ready to confront strangers at a moment’s notice. The cameraman zeroes in on the subject, typically a young-ish man wearing an ill-fitting army uniform on a street corner or in a Wal-Mart, and begins interrogating him. “What unit are you in,” he might ask. “Who is your commanding officer?” The valor thief almost never drops the charade. Instead, he (or, rarely, she) offers a series of bullshit answers that suggest a motive other than money or unearned respect. Many of them seem to honestly believe they are military heroes, and being prodded on camera by genuine veterans fails to break their confidence. They are freaks, and the goal is to put them on display for public ridicule.
Without a personal investment in the continued scarcity of “valor,” or a need to perform patriotism in a way that has a clear hero and villain, one tends to sympathize with the lunatic wearing full camouflage on the side of the highway. In these videos, the cameraman is alternately smug and aggressive, and the failure of the subject to budge in his psychotic insistence that he served eighteen tours as a Green Beret Navy SEAL in the Air Force only makes him angrier. Viewed from this angle, the cameraman becomes the butt of the joke as he tries and fails to achieve a decisive verbal victory over an obviously mentally impaired stranger. The malice often just isn’t there on the part of the valor thief. These oddballs are unintentional Abbie Hoffmans, giving the middle finger to a militaristic culture that demands (and almost always receives) constant praise.
Valor thieves, at least the unhinged ones who seem to plague our streets and shopping malls, are best viewed as a sort of waste product of American conservatism. When he was governor of California, Ronald Reagan infamously oversaw the deinstitutionalization of thousands of mental patients. Many of them became homeless. As president, Reagan slashed federal funding for mental health services. As the welfare state atrophied in the 1980s, the military-industrial complex grew and the military budget nearly doubled. The antagonistic relationship between Republican politicians and the mentally ill continues today with repeated attempts to roll back the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, which extended mental health services to millions of low-income Americans. Then as now, the military budget continues to rise. The implication is clear — if you want your interests funded, you better put on a uniform.