This week, Task and Purpose brings us an invaluable reminder of one of the less prominent but most important works of one of America’s greatest writers, Ernest Hemingway.
“Fresh off a stint driving an ambulance for the Red Cross on the Italian front during World War I, the young Hemingway landed at The Toronto Star Weekly in early 1920,” writes Task and Purpose’s Danny Leffler. It was there, against the backdrop of “the rise of stolen valor and the lousy market for war medals that accompanied the end of the Great War,” that Hemingway penned the work we’re here to remember today, “Popular in Peace–Slacker in War.”
The subject: a merciless takedown of those Canadians who dodged actual military service by working in American munitions plants, but still want to pass themselves off as veterans and reap the rewards of their countrymen’s admiration. His weapons of choice sarcasm and satire, Hemingway framed the piece as a guide for how these non-heroes could pass themselves off as having actually seen battle.
The entire piece is well worth your time, but here’s a sample of Hemingway’s “advice”:
When you are asked by a sweet young thing at a dance if you ever met Lieut. Smithers, of the R.A.F., in France or if you happened to run into Maj. MacSwear, of the C.M.R.’s, merely say “No,” in a distant tone. That will put her in her place, and, besides, it is all that any of us can say.
A good plan is to go to one of the stores handling secondhand army goods and purchase yourself a trench coat. A trench coat worn in winter-time is a better advertisement of military service than an M.C. [Military Cross]. If you cannot get a trench coat buy a pair of army shoes. They will convince everyone you meet on a streetcar that you have seen service.
The trench coat and the army issue shoes will admit you at once into that camaraderie of returned men which is the main result we obtained from the war. Your far-seeing judgment in going to the States is now vindicated, you have all the benefits of going to war and none of its drawbacks.
A very good plan would be to learn the tunes of “Mademoiselle from Armentiéres” and “Madelon.” Whistle these religious ballads as you stand in the back platform of the streetcar and you will be recognized by all as a returned man. Unless you are of hardy temperament do not attempt to learn the words of either of those two old hymns.
Lest anyone mistake this for actual advice, Hemingway made his point crystal clear in a deadly serious conclusion:
Now you have service at the front, proven patriotism and a commission firmly established, there is only one thing left to do. Go to your room alone some night. Take your bankbook out of your desk and read it through. Put it back in your desk.
Stand in front of your mirror and look yourself in the eye and remember that there are fifty-six thousand Canadians dead in France and Flanders. Then turn out the light and go to bed.
To this day, charlatans faking military service is a real problem. Sometimes the scam is in service of an ideological agenda, like the 2006 case of Jesse MacBeth, who pretended to have served in Iraq to protest the war, but often these are just degenerates trying to grab some unearned admiration or other personal gain. It’s a federal crime to wear military medals one hasn’t actually earned.