Whether you grew up watching M*A*S*H or have been watching it in syndication, you may remember the Captain Tuttle episode from the first season. In the episode, Hawkeye and Trapper have secretly donated a large amount of supplies to Sister Teresa’s orphanage. When she asks who signed for all the donations, Hawkeye says that Captain Tuttle did it. Little does the Sister know that Hawkeye has completely made up Tuttle. The rest of the episode is spent building a false identity for Tuttle, making people believe they have met him on several occasions, and then, at the end, Hawkeye, Trapper, and Radar fake Tuttle’s death and have a funeral for him, allowing everyone in the camp to mourn the great man.
Of course, comedic as the episode may be, it made me start to wonder about how easy it would be to fake the existence of a soldier, and to what benefit, or detriment, would doing so achieve.
Legalities and Reality
First of all, there are numerous laws in place to stop people from unlawfully impersonating a member of the military. Some of the most known laws are as follows:
18 U.S. Code § 702 – Uniform of armed forces and Public Health Service
This code makes it illegal for anyone to wear the recognizable uniforms of military personnel or public health officers. Therefore, if you authentically dress up like a soldier, you can be fined or imprisoned.
Stolen Valor Act of 2013
According to this law, it is illegal for anyone to pretend that they were awarded with military medals or honors. It’s mainly targeted at people who are using the false pretenses of being a decorated military hero to con money out of people.
There are also other laws and codes to stop people from falsely obtaining military and/or vet benefits, such as housing loans, money for education, or medical coverage.
Fun Fact – because of laws like the ones listed above, people believe that military uniforms are not portrayed correctly in movies and on television as a way to avoid getting arrested. Jeff Schogol rips this urban legend apart in his article, “Why can’t Hollywood get military uniforms right?” In his article, Schogol explains that it has very little to do with avoiding legal action as much it has to do with some wardrobe designers and directors simply not doing their homework.
If you will notice, though, the majority of these laws are focused on civilians impersonating military personnel. These laws and codes also focus more on physical actions. For instance, you cannot wear an outfit and you cannot say you have a military medal. Neither of these laws cover creating fictitious soldiers that only exist on paper.
Of course, there is the following law:
18 U.S. Code § 1028 – Fraud and related activity in connection with identification documents, authentication features, and information
Now this code has a multitude of subsections, and amendments have been added to this law periodically since the 1970s. In essence, though, this code says it is illegal to create, buy, sell, or lend false identification documents, which of course makes it illegal to use false identification documents as well.
Besides the above listed code, there are also many other laws that govern identity theft and other fraud related crimes, most of which would stop law-abiding civilians from creating any fictitious persons. Ideally, the same laws should stop military personnel as well.
Conspiracy or Possibilities
No matter how many rules exists, some people still go outside of the law, even members of the military. So, one has to ask:
Is it possible that some senior members of the military could have created imaginary soldiers that only exist on paper?
The United States has one of the largest military forces in the world, and with so many soldiers, plus a never-ending supply of paperwork, hypothetically it would not be that difficult to add a few personnel files to the stacks. It’s not like the records keepers match every physical file with a physical person, after all! Therefore, it certainly seems possible that such actions could be going on in our own armed forces branches.
But if the military were creating a bunch of Captain Tuttles, as it were, what would be the end goal?
If you have soldiers, what else do you have? A paper trail. That paper trail includes everywhere the soldier has been, who they’ve served with, medical history, etc. There’s also information about when and how that soldier has been paid. Thus, if you farmed the identities of a bunch of fictitious soldiers, theoretically you could harvest those soldier’s paychecks. Data posted on Military.com showed that in the early 2000’s, “the entry-level base salary for commissioned officers, such as soldiers with a rank of second lieutenant, [was] $26,200 a year.” So, if you created 100 Captain Tuttles, for instance, then that would gross 2.6 million a year. That sort of slush fund could definitely be used to finance other projects, perhaps even projects no one would want on record.
Other than collecting salaries, another potential use for fictitious soldiers would be to handle fallout. For example, if the military were to make a mistake that caused major civilian casualties, someone would have to take the blame for those actions. If you had a whole group of fictitious soldiers, each with his or her identity carefully farmed to have a lengthy paper trail of authenticity, you could use one of those fictitious identities as the fall guy. It would be as easy as broadcasting the name and having a fake military trial. Perhaps have an actor pretend to be the fictitious soldier. Or, if using an actor were too risky, use a deep cover operative from one of the recognized or clandestine alphabet soup agencies. Whichever happened, someone would be blamed in public, and society would feel as if they received justice.
I will grant you, both of the above reasons do paint the military in a very negative light. It is completely possible that some members of the military might choose to create a bunch of Captain Tuttles in secret for nobler purposes.
For instance, in M*A*S*H, Hawkeye falsifies the paperwork to get Tuttle’s back pay, and then he donates that money to Sister Teresa’s orphanage in Tuttle’s name. He also claims that Tuttle named Sister Teresa’s orphanage as the beneficiary to his death benefits. By giving to charity, Hawkeye avoids benefiting himself from the creation of this false identity. In many ways, it seems that Hawkeye models his actions on the Robin Hood ideology, stealing from the rich military and giving to the poor orphans. Perhaps then, if any members of our military were to produce their own Captain Tuttles, then they would do well to take a page from Hawkeye Pierce and make sure that the creation of any fake soldiers was only done to benefit the masses.