What does it mean to be a soldier of freedom? Is patriotism in a republic to be measured with blood or money? Does a military chain of command transmit democratic values? Americans have lionized, scorned, and patronized our own troops—often during the same war. Can soldiers and civilians truly look one another in the eye?
Such questions arise from recent work on the volatile relationship between free government and its military defenders. Wars still dominate popular history, but veterans of the last century’s world wars transformed the United States quite apart from their military performance. Some did so by marching in supplication, then by studying physics and pharmacy rather than battlefield maps. Shameful mistreatment of World War I veterans helped bring the New Deal to power, though Franklin Roosevelt himself repudiated their cause. The “greatest generation” of World War II veterans created middle-class America largely from a GI Bill steeped in pork-barrel politics. Postwar segregationists inadvertently shoved returning servicemen forward in a leveling tide, while anti-government conservatives engineered lasting miracles with federal largesse.
Paradoxes abound from these misbegotten campaigns. In The Bonus Army, Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen retrieve what they call “a great American epic lost in the margins of history.” After World War I, with some four million US veterans facing stiff competition from replacement workers back home, Congress authorized retroactive military bonuses to make amends for the Army’s meager wartime wage of one dollar per day. But two presidents repeatedly vetoed the measure. “Patriotism which is bought and paid for is not patriotism,” objected Calvin Coolidge. In 1924, Congress finally overrode the veto, awarding each soldier a healthy but elusive bonus—not cashable until 1945—and the Great Depression turned this tantalizing promise into the flashpoint for instructive drama.
Dickson and Allen concentrate their tale in 1932, the third and “cruelest year” after the stock market crash. Nearly three thousand more banks had failed over the past twelve months, and half the nation’s outstanding mortgages were in default. In May, some three hundred desperate veterans hopped railway cars from Oregon on a quixotic mission to obtain advance payment of the World War I bonus certificates. They soaped the rails to impede trains that denied them free passage, but they adapted military organization to special rules—no panhandling, no violence, no extremism, no participation without valid discharge papers. Buglers sounded reveille every morning. Newspapers chronicled episodes of hardship and escape all along the eastward path, touching off a nationwide exodus of reinforcements for the ragtag “Bonus Expeditionary Force” (BEF). Some 15,000 veterans with more than a thousand wives and children converged by June to throw up squalid camps along Washington’s Anacostia Flats, forming “the largest Hooverville in the country.”
The account by Dickson and Allen recalls the subliminal force of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with gaunt stories of character at the limits of dignity. To help their family survive, the seven-year-old Oliver twins pummeled each other for nickels in …