15 November 2010

Poetry Corner: 'It is the soldier...'

Maybe it isn't a poem, but it looks like one when printed in centered italic verses in the letters page of The Saratogian. It's a request from reader Bill Nevitt of Corinth, who wanted it to run "in honor of Veterans Day." It appeared three days later. Some of you may have seen it elsewhere. It goes like this"

It is the soldier, not the president, who gives us democracy.

It is the soldier, not the Congress, who takes care of us.

It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to demonstrate.

Clearly, Nevitt is asking for it. He trips up right out of the gate, I learn, by making a common misattribution of this litany to "Father Dennis O'Brien, Chaplain, USMC." O'Brien is credited with it all over the internet, though he never took credit for it himself. It turns out that the thing was written by someone named Charles Michael Province back in 1970. O'Brien was mistakenly credited as the author when he forwarded a copy for publication in the "Dear Abby" column.

Discredit, then, to whom it's due. Let's take this point by point.

Province is correct that the President of the United States did not and does not "give us democracy." As some strict constructionists will argue, no one has given us democracy, since the U.S. is only a democratic republic. It is an independent nation as a result of a war, but the soldiers themselves did not determine its future as a constitutional republic -- the Constitution did. Soldiers had no role in the drafting or ratification of that document.

What it means for either the soldier or Congress to "take care of us" is, of course, a matter of ongoing debate. Let's dismiss this line as hopelessly vague.

As for freedom of press and speech, it's unclear how the soldier can "give" these to anyone when he doesn't enjoy them himself as a matter of military discipline. To be literal about it, Americans were given these particular freedoms by the congressional authors of the First Amendment to the Constitution, and soldiers had no special role in drafting or ratifying the amendment.

To be honest, I understand what Province and Nevitt are trying to say. They want us to understand that we retain all of the above freedoms because "the soldier" protects the nation from foreign powers that might otherwise conquer and thus enslave Americans. But what if the soldier fails in his mission? What if the country were occupied by a foreign power actually bent on enslaving us? Should we concede that, by virtue of foreign occupation alone, we are slaves, and act accordingly? Without "the soldier," we might lose the "rights" that encourage us to speak, publish or demonstrate without fear of reprisal, but would we lose the ability to do these things? Does our freedom as Americans consist of nothing more than impunity, an assurance (or promise)that we won't suffer for what we say? From what I infer, many Americans think that way. But real freedom should come with a disregard for consequences, except when they impede other people's freedoms. Who is more free, after all: the person who denounces a tyrant in public, fully expecting to be arrested, or the person who has every right to think independently, never does, but acts as if he has? Freedom isn't simply a matter of guarantees and immunities. On some fundamental level, it depends on courage, and not only the armed courage of the soldier, but also, and perhaps most importantly, the readiness and willingness of people to do the right thing and say what needs to be said whether it's safe to do so or not. If only the soldier's courage counts, what's his sacrifice for the rest of us actually worth? It's actually the rest of us who give the soldier something to fight for. Remembering our responsibilities as free people would be the best way to honor Veterans' Day in the future.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is the Constitution, not the soldier, which gives us democracy.

It is ourselves, not the soldier, who takes care of us.

It is our courage, not the soldier, who gives us freedom of press, freedom of speech and freedom to peaceable assembly.