“Walting” – it’s srs bsns.
One particular form of bullshit history that I’ve yet to cover is one that by its nature deals with quite recent history – making it unusual for these pages but all the more relevant and insidious. It’s what British soldiers and veterans call “Walting”, after the famous fictional fantasist. It’s very much looked down upon both by those who’ve served, and no doubt officially too. But the censures that it incurs are all but non-existent. In theory, if you gain goods or services by such claims, it’s fraud. But that’s difficult to prove, or even get to court, unless the fraudster sticks their head way above the parapet and attracts the attention of the authorities. We tend not to make a fuss, word may be passed between those in the know, but as far as the public are concerned, the “Walt” is the real deal. The situation across the Atlantic is quite different. With their particular martial tradition and very active patriotism, our American cousins take the whole thing very seriously. In fact they equate it with theft – calling it “Stolen Valor” – and after some high profile cases, have enacted an actual law against it. Military impersonation has actually been going on since at least the 1970s, as this book (which seems to have leant its title to the later law) showed with its debunking of claims relating to Vietnam War service. It’s probably existed since we first started killing each other. Here’s one early example from the First World War:
“I know of a case recently where a woman was drawing three separation allowances at one time, and those who read the newspapers will have seen the account of a gentleman who posed as the holder of a Victoria Cross, and who has been living at other people’s expense in North Wales and other places, but who is now, I am happy to say, spending his time in prison.”
-Sir Charles Nicolson MP, at the reading of the Naval and Military War Pensions Bill in Parliament, June 1915.
Note that the subject appears to have been convicted of fraud rather than any particular offence to do with the impersonation of a serviceman, and that’s pretty much how the situation stands today in the UK. Here, it’s taken the popular press and the efforts of private individuals to winkle out these people and “name and shame” them. Take the classic case of Captain Sir Alan McIlwraith, CBE, DSO, MC, MiD. He was none of these things, and I urge the reader to follow his particular rabbit hole as far as their stomachs and/or sides will allow. He illustrates one common trait of the true Walt – utter resilience to the truth. He’s been back in various other guises since. It’s some twisted desire for fame and recognition, without having to actually accomplish anything. This sort of thing will have been going on for ages down the pub or wherever men gather to swap stories. The internet has made Walting even more tempting to these nutters – some even restrict their activities to the internet, presumably thinking that anonymity will make it harder for them to be called. For most though (I think) it’s just another way to promote themselves and further their interests. Some make a goodly amount of money from it, and may be conscious of their fraud – like this lovely gentleman – a recent scalp for the serving and veteran posters on the unofficial British Army forums – www.arrse.co.uk. Others seem less interested in the money, or at least even more interested in garnering respect from the poor saps that they con. Take this latest to be “outed” – Jack Livesey, MM. Except, (and you’re ahead of me here), he ain’t “MM”. Not unless MM stands for Military Moron. Because this bloke didn’t win an MM. He wasn’t in the Falklands. He wasn’t in the Parachute Regiment. He wasn’t even in the infantry. He was a chef. For three years. “The Real Casey Ryback“, the headline might have gone, if he hadn’t been making it all up. Instead, The Sun – who love to court “Our Boys” – have dutifully outed this numpty with the classic headline of “Fool Medal Racket“. You have to admit, whatever your feelings on their standards of journalism, no-one does those headlines like The Sun. Yet despite the efforts of the ARRSE guys, which I’ve been following here, his self-aggrandising website remains online. And that’s the thing – most of these people typically either stubbornly ride out the storm and claim that they were hard done by the whole time, or will disappear, only to re-emerge later on in a slightly different guise, like some sort of parasitical lying insect. It will take legal action to make them actually admit what they’ve done and perhaps even stop doing it.
OK, so the stories of these people, once outed, are pretty entertaining. But maybe we should take a lead from the Americans here. When people pretend to be things that they’re not, when the people who are get killed on a near-daily basis, it matters. And let’s face it, internet vigilantism and tabloid witchunts, however justified and evidenced, are not necessarily the most ethical ways to bring about justice. So, with due recognition of the fact that petitions are historically ignored by those in power, please do take a look at some of these characters, have a damned good laugh, and then think about signing this petition for a UK equivalent of the Stolen Valour Act. But whatever you do, don’t come up behind me…
Update (1/7/09) – BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine programme had a feature on this today (1:42 in) – note that it rather confuses the issue of the antique/replica medal markets and that of actually claiming to have earned them. I see that the original US Act had similar collateral damage effects vis militaria dealers. I don’t think limiting access to the medals themselves would do very much to limit the “crime” of walting – since we’re talking gallantry medals here, a true medal should be named. Walts have emerged with unofficial replica sets (conceivably they could do the same with “skimmed” antiques) with some excuse as to why they’ve lost their named originals (replacements should have (R) after the name. I see no point in affecting the legitimate trade in medals. Also note that Livesey was convicted of an unrelated crime of benefit fraud – since as we’ve seen, there is no specific offence relating to medal or military service fraud as yet in this country.