Today the Supreme Court struck down what has been called the Stolen Valor Law—an act that would make it illegal to claim to have received a military honor you did not, in fact, receive. The name itself is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not clear to me how valor can be stolen. My husband is a veteran or the US Air Force. I can think of no plausible way that someone else claiming, falsely or not, to have been decorated in combat takes away his valiant service. Aside from the name, though, I am not at all sure how I feel about this decision.
On a personal level, I think anyone who has the audacity to lie about military service has, at the very least, some extended accommodations awaiting them in Purgatory. It falls under a class of behavior that makes you a sorry excuse for a human being. Included in that class would be telling children there is no Santa and cheating on your dying wife. These things make you despicable, to be sure, but I’m not convinced they should make you a criminal.
In general, I am opposed to making it illegal to say things. Those efforts usually start out well intentioned and end with people like Joe McCarthy. The one broad exception to this would be saying things that are completely untrue IF that dishonesty could potentially cause demonstrable harm to someone. For example, it is not difficult to foresee how someone could be caused serious harm or injury if I were to waltz into my local ER and pretend to be a medical doctor. That should be a crime, and it is. It’s called fraud.
If someone were to claim military service to collect a military pension, educational benefits, or VA medical services, then that would potentially cause harm by stealing services that you had not rightfully earned. That would also be fraud. Any potential, serious harm that could be caused by someone falsely claiming military service or honor would be covered by existing laws. Being an awful person is not illegal, but does carry certain social sanctions. These social sanctions are often more effective in controlling or altering behaviors than any legal sanctions ever could be. My neighbors and I don’t have to meet any burden of proof to not talk to you at the neighborhood picnic; we just simply don’t have to talk to you. What will stop me from claiming to my friends and neighbors that I have served in the military when I did not will be the same pressure that keeps me from claiming that I invented Post-Its, toured with The Bangles, caught a 40 lb. mackerel, or starred in an off-Broadway production of Oklahoma: my friends and neighbors can easily find out the truth, and when they do I will be shunned and ridiculed.
Telling my neighbor I served in Iraq when I did not makes me contemptible, but it does nothing to negate or detract from the dedicated, selfless service of those men and women who did actually serve. Making it a crime, ironically, does chip away at one of the freedoms that they pledged their lives to defend.