Today’s New York Times has an article about 92 year old, Massachusetts born and Brooklyn, New York resident Matti Mattson being granted Spanish citizenship this week for his service in the 2,800 member Abraham Lincoln Brigade (American volunteers fighting Franco) in the Spanish Civil War circa 1936. He is an American who is a veteran of a populist army in a foreign war that our government opposed and he paid dearly for his sacrifice for the American ideals of democracy and freedom. We think we have veteran’s problems? No way! You need to read this. This is an eye opener if you are unfamiliar with this part of our history.
He came home to the U.S. from the Spanish Civil War (his side lost) and was thrown out of pilot training in WWII for his Abraham Lincoln Brigade membership, and served as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army during that war. He was hounded by the F.B.I. for many years (as were the others in that Brigade) for potential Communist membership. As far as I know, not one case of that being true was ever proven for these guys. Talk about being in the wrong war, on the wrong side, at the wrong time! Wow! This makes Viet Nam veterans and how they were handled upon their return from war look normal!
These guys served because they thought it was the right thing to do. Franco and his fascist forces were crushing Spain and eventually they crushed it completely. These guys fought in a citizens’ army that was allied with the Soviet Union and Mexico. That made them enemies of the U.S. To tell you the truth, I am very surprised that Spain has come along far enough to recognize the foreign brigades that fought against Franco. That is really saying something. He ran that country like a prison for decades. Now they are granting citizenship to foreign old men in their nineties that fought in the people’s army. I think we could learn a lesson in democracy from this. Spain is leading the way here.
Ernest Hemingway wrote about these guys and about this war. It was his war, the war the defined who he was as a writer and a man and what he saw as vaulable in life. That was the time that America could openly and willingly accept all sorts of political views that were not "in the mainstream" without the blaring, screaming poison of the Reich Wing attempting all it could to stain the reputation of the believer or the snotty, upscale, arrogance of the very wealthy left wing to play down the importance of actually doing and not just talking about international service to fellow human beings in need.
These guys lived their lives as veterans of a war that we found disgraceful until very recently. They had no benefits, no rights, no honors, not anything that would even resemble traditional gratitude from anyone for their sacrifice and pain on behalf of others. All that they had was their honor. It was enough to sustain one of them into his 92nd year.
We could all learn something from these Americans. They put duty before some phony sense of "honor" that someone else refused to give them. They put their humanity on the line in a doomed cause, for a foreign people, in a confused political atmosphere that their own country would never fully recognize as honorable or valuable in any way.
In my mind, veterans like this have so much to teach us about what being a veteran is all about.
CWO3 Tom Barnes, USCG (Ret.)