The Ethicist: Should I Reveal That My Dad Pretended to Be a Vietnam Vet?

October 29, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, here is my take on today’s post, “Should I Reveal That My Dad Pretended to Be a Vietnam Vet?

When he was alive, my father sometimes talked of his military service during the Vietnam War. He would oscillate between being open about details and not wanting to speak of his experience. Despite not having any “war buddies,” photographs or other tangible memorabilia, he offered enough details about his service (locations, activities and the name of a friend who was killed in front of him) that my siblings, as well as his friends, his wife and his wife’s family, believed he was a veteran. My mother and I, however, were never sure he was telling the truth about the nature of his service. For instance, when I was a teenager, I was with my father when he purchased a Purple Heart medal at an antiques fair. He explained that he had lost his, that it was possibly with his first wife. Although I thought it was odd he wouldn’t simply ask for it back, I was a young person who trusted her father, and I didn’t press him.

As he was making plans for the end of his life, he instructed my stepmother not to include his veteran status in his obituary. She honored his wish, though she didn’t understand why. After he died, she wanted to know more about his military service and details about where he had served, in the event that she was entitled to survivor benefits. She sent away for his records and received back his DD Form 214 (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty) showing that he had been honorably discharged in 1968 for being medically unsuitable for duty before he even finished basic training. She was naturally shocked and angry that he would go to such great lengths to pretend he had served in Vietnam, but at first she did not want to share what she had found with me, my siblings or our friends and family, lest we think less of the man whom we had all respected. Only after asking her pointedly what she had found out about where he served did she tell me the truth. I wasn’t angry, since I’d always had a suspicion that something was not quite right about the situation. Rather, I was interested to know why, psychologically, someone would pretend to have served, been injured and lost friends in a war. My stepmother, mother and I are the only ones in the family who know the truth. I attempted to tell my sister once, but she flatly refused to believe me.

We’ve all read stories of people who pose as vets for the attention, admiration and financial benefits that can come with military service. But these are stories that receive national attention when the individuals are found out and sometimes even arrested (under the Stolen Valor Act). What about someone who died knowing he lied about his service and who probably posed as a veteran only because he either felt guilty that he was physically unable to serve or he feared he was unworthy of respect because he had not sacrificed for his country? He never applied for benefits or attempted to capitalize materially on his feigned service. Do I tell the rest of my family and our friends what he did, or is it all water under the bridge now that he has passed away and is unable to explain or defend himself? Name Withheld

My response: Your questions ask for someone else to judge your potential acts for you and to suggest what to do.

I suggest that instead of asking for judgment, you take responsibility. That instead of looking for abstract answers, you consider how your choices affect others, using empathy. That instead of asking someone to make a binary choice for you, you create more options to choose from, approaching the situation as an open-ended problem to solve, leading to personal growth, not a closed choice.

What options do you have? Whatever you think at first, I bet you can think of more. Talking to more people will help you create options.

What resources do you have? Again, I bet you can find more.

How will your actions affect others? Again, I bet that more consideration will increase your ability to empathize with them and help decide.

You can do this. And the more you do, the more you’ll be able to solve problems like it without depending on newspaper columnists. The more you’ll look forward to handling such problems, since they’ll never stop arising.

The New York Times response:

All of us shave the truth, no doubt, to shape the way others perceive us. All of us have moments when we wonder whether we should challenge something our parents (or our children) want us to believe about them. Only a fanatic would think that every doubt ought to be raised, of course, just as only a fanatic would eschew the small fact-stretching kindnesses of courtesy. (Molière wrote a play about such a person; he titled it “The Misanthrope.”) But a basic measure of truthfulness is morally desirable in the central relationships of our lives. That doesn’t mean telling people everything; it does mean not actively misleading them about anything important.

Your father’s character was no doubt rich and complicated; you can’t reduce him to his misdeeds. Still, inventing a military career, the kind that comes with a Purple Heart, is an obvious betrayal of trust. Hard as this would have been, it would have been better if you’d taken up your suspicions with your father while he was around to explain himself. He could have apologized; you could have forgiven him.

Should you reveal the truth now? Just as truthfulness matters in relationships with the living, understanding important moral facts about the dead is valuable as well. People who were close to him and have a memory to hold on to will be in this respect better off if you tell them the facts. Some will also, no doubt, be upset. (Your sister may remain in denial.) But that’s part of the proper emotional response to other people’s behavior. Not everything that feels bad is bad: Some pain is worth it.

And no, you don’t owe it to your father to treat this as “water under the bridge.” The dead can have an interest in our respecting their privacy. But he isn’t entitled to have his reputation protected after his death, because he was never entitled to that protection in the first place. There can be reasons for hiding people’s sins: when they would be excessively punished for them, for example, or when they have shown remorse. But a posthumous loss of reputation is not such a reason, if the reputation was never deserved.

One final group that might be thought to have an interest here would be those who did serve honorably in Vietnam. They would have been entitled to resent someone who claimed honor for something that he didn’t do and that they did. At this point, though, not much good is done them by correcting the record, so this consideration doesn’t weigh heavily. Getting the story right is mostly important for those who actually knew your father — or thought they did.

While going through my mother’s papers prior to moving her into a nursing home (she has Alzheimer’s disease, so I cannot ask her about this), I found an eight-page love letter that she saved for 66 years. At first glance, I thought that it was from my late father. I was uncertain if I should read it, so I put it aside until I could decide what to do. Although they remained married until his death, the marriage was troubled at the end. I decided that I would start reading, and if it became “too personal,” I would stop. When I opened the letter, I was shocked to discover that it was dated four years before my parents met and was from someone I had never heard of, but with whom my mother was obviously in a very serious relationship, as he was professing deep love and discussing marriage with her. I was surprised, because over the years she had told me (or so I thought) of many other former suitors. I read the letter in its entirety. I have no idea who the gentleman is, and there is no one I can ask.

My question is simple: When faced with such a personal letter from the past, is it wrong to read it? It doesn’t change the present, and it seemed wrong just to throw it away. Name Withheld

My response: Your simple question is was it wrong. You didn’t think so when you read it. Others might disagree. In fact, of the nearly 8 billion people alive, you can bet many will disagree. Many will say their answer is absolute, perhaps citing an ancient book, their authority, the size of their community, etc, yet they’ll disagree with someone else who claims their answer is absolute.

If there is an absolute answer, I don’t see how any human can show he or she knows it to refute all others, owing to that disagreement, even (especially?) among people claiming absolutes.

More likely, it seems to me, it’s a matter of opinion. Why not follow your own, accepting that it may change as you learn and grow, also accepting that you can’t change the past?

The New York Times response:

Letters to family members are often expected to be shared. But love letters, as a rule, are exclusively meant for a particular person. It’s wrong for even the recipient to make them public without the sender’s permission. Generally speaking, then, if someone else’s love letters fall into your hands and you can’t ask the writer for permission, you shouldn’t read them. That stricture doesn’t die with the sender. We have an interest in our secrets not being told for a short time after we’re dead — though that’s an interest that should be respected, as I said in my response to our first letter, only about secrets you had a right to keep.

To be sure, people who leave copies of their own letters with literary executors permit them to make the letters available to biographers. No problem there. And there’s another qualification: Considerations of privacy dilute over the decades. Once enough time has elapsed, letters become part of the historical record, which should be open to all. In short, you shouldn’t have read the letter, unless you had reason to think the sender was long dead, but you didn’t have a duty to destroy it.

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