The Lumberjack

Fake soldiers and cultural appropriation

A person struts in a military uniform. | Phil Santos

By | Phil Santos

There’s no point in explaining cultural appropriation to the military community. This isn’t because it’s futile, but rather the opposite. I served in the Navy for long enough to say that the military community has an intimate understanding of what cultural appropriation is, particularly when it’s their culture. But there’s a possibility that they don’t know this is the case as the military doesn’t come up in these conversations.

Cultural appropriation is hard to explain because there’s not really a definitive line where it is or isn’t happening. But in short, it’s when one culture takes elements from another culture without permission. It’s problematic for a number of reasons. Two of them are that cultural appropriation creates a type of cultural reverse engineering. It allows others outside a culture to benefit from the identities that don’t belong to them.

With cultural appropriation, it’s important to ask who is doing the taking and why. Most of the time, the culture that takes is the dominant culture (mainstream society), while the culture which is taken from is usually a marginalized culture (Indigenous, Black, Asian and so on). The result is a dominant culture that rejects marginalized cultures at large, except for select elements that become attributed to or “reinvented” by the dominant culture. Translation: /rock-n-roll is attributed to white people, but its pioneers were Black.

A more individualized example of cultural appropriation is easier to understand when we consider a specific kind of imposter. In 2009, under the guidance of James Arthur Ray, three people died during a “sweat lodge ceremony” he held in Sedona, Arizona. Imposters like Ray cherry pick elements of various cultures to sell to others in the form of “spiritual retreats” or “healing ceremonies.” They may call themselves a “medicine woman” or a “certified shaman.” They often go as far as claiming the culture they appropriate.

This is where the military comes in. Ask someone in the military how they feel when someone pretends to be a veteran or active duty member. The responses you’re likely to get will echo the conversations surrounding the topic of cultural appropriation. The military community even has its own term for this: Stolen valor.

Stolen valor happens when people pretend to be military members or lie about their military background. If you search “stolen valor” on YouTube, you’ll find plenty of videos showing military members confronting imposters who have appropriated their identities. Putting yourself in the shoes of a soldier who lived through war makes it easy to understand why stolen valor is outright wrong. The imposter didn’t earn the uniform, they didn’t go to war, so they should take it off. They might want to be part of military culture, but they’re not. They have no place pretending like they are.

If stolen valor is so easy to understand and relate to, what’s the hiccup with cultural appropriation? I think it’s because people understand and respect military culture more than other marginalized cultures. But they are all cultures, and one isn’t better than the other. You can say being Asian isn’t the same as being a soldier. This is the same as saying that cultures are different from one another, which is obvious and redundant. If you can understand why no one should wear a fake Medal of Honor, you understand why no one should wear a fake headdress. They both hold cultural significance that no one else is entitled to. So if you ever find yourself having difficulty explaining cultural appropriation, a comparison to the military might be what you need.