Friday, January 13, 2012

Heroes are Soldiers

Some misguided person, call him Smith, wrote into the newspaper forum to complain, saying that a man who serves in Afghanistan is not a hero. Smith says the man merely has a job, like being a welder or a carpenter. Not so. You, Mr. Smith, are expressing a belief that may be common and logical among peasants in the Third World... but we are in the First World.

As my old coach would say, let's review fundamentals of democracy, let's return to ancient Greece. An average guy like you, Mr. Smith, might pass the city gates into Corinth on a Saturn's Day morning. Then you will walk briskly to the Forum. It's a special place with a wide expanse of marble floor and columns holding up the roof. You hurry there to mingle and discus the issues of the day. Such spirited talks are meaningful to you because, in contrast to a dispirited Third Worlder, you believe that Corinth belongs to you and your peers, not to whatever government you have just elected. You own Corinth.

Looking around the Forum, and gazing past the columns to the surrounding streets, you will see only civilians: no generals, no paid full-time soldiers. That is because you and other healthy men will periodically go out to a grassy field and practice standing in three ranks to fight. In the event of war a person known for having sound judgment, a good farmer or merchant, would be appointed as the general.


Two thousand years later, in 19th and 20th century America, Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman would be elected by their peers to be officers for the Blackhawk war and world war one. Of course Lincoln and his unpaid buddies couldn't afford uniforms. The Greeks were also too poor for uniforms, let alone full-time generals. While they were far poorer than a modern Third World country make no mistake: between their ears they were truly First World.

It's dangerous to view soldiering as a "job;" the Romans showed us this. For the first few hundred years their city on the seven hills was a shining example of virtue, both military and civic, an example that will gladden people's hearts as long as there are books. There was no conscription, no draft.

On a fresh dewy morning, outside the city walls on the field of Mars, the volunteers, unpaid, would stand in three ranks, heavy shields up, jabbing their short iron swords against an imaginary foe. Their arms and legs would ache, sweat would blind them, and still they'd practice. In the third rank would be middle-aged guys like me: we too were expected to go to war. "Every citizen owes his country twenty campaigns" went the popular saying. "But wait!" cries Smith, "I can't do twen-" Relax Mr. Smith, a campaign in those days often meant a weekend slave raid against another city state... just as they would be raiding us. Hence our city wall.

Have you ideals, Mr. Smith? As in Greece, the Roman citizen-soldiers had ideals; they weren't in it for the money. The army would supply the catapults, rations and so forth but no coins. Imagine: no faceless minions of an evil dictator, no working stiffs going through the motions. Instead a fundamental difference: an army of free men. The butcher, the baker, your merchant neighbor: men of volunteer spirit, like you. "Let's get this war over with so we can go home."

The volunteers were famous for their discipline. At the end of every single day's march, however tired, whatever the weather, they would build a fort to camp in. This meant ditches, ramparts, and a palisade. Backbreaking work. No other army would do that. But then they would sleep in blessed peace.


Generations passed. Eventually the army was regular: full-time and regularly paid. Still disciplined, still able to defeat any equal sized army of energetic fierce barbarians. By then the republic had garrisons across the sea. Unfortunately the past gave the Romans no warning of what was to come. From their overseas possessions flowed much wealth. Too much. The city became both rich and morally bankrupt. The new economics nearly extinguished the middle class.

Mass unemployment became normal and permanent. Happily, or so they thought, any Roman could receive what we of today would call the dole, welfare, or nanny-state allowance. Not only did they get free bread without having to sweat, but also the state would provide free events, called "circuses," such as chariot races and gladiator contests. These served to keep the idle masses, known as the mob, occupied. (Like how people on welfare are allowed a television) The old Star Trek episode, Bread and Circuses, takes place at the tipping point where virtue is being exchanged for decadance.

Not having history to guide them, the Romans must have been surprised by what happened next. Being idle with "bread and circuses" did something to their spirit... something terrible. They wouldn't volunteer to enlist in their army—although you got a free farm at the end of your life of military service—and they lost all interest in going to the Forum. No one said, "I'll write to my senator!"

The senators? In the movie Gladiator, just a little after the tipping point has passed, you can see how the senators had become mere paper tigers. Naturally, because their constituents had become wimps. I think in the film they are hoping the emperor hasn't realized this yet. Historically, after the first emperor got away with taking over the republic, the empire continued to expand for several generations but it was running on momentum. The Roman people continued to decline and rot.

(Empire and army)

And the army? Since rotten people don't volunteer, the Romans had to start enlisting paid barbarians. Unfortunately, the hired help will never be as self disciplined as owners. Over the years, as the legions became nearly all barbarian, the army gradually tossed away nearly all their heavy armor, piece by piece, until at last the only armor they wore were helmets. By the time Rome fell it was very hard to tell the "Roman" army from their foes.

The moral is clear: just as "people get the government they deserve" (are fitted for) so, too, do they get the army they deserve. Remember those United Nations troops from the Third World in Rwanda? They were useless for reducing the amount of genocide because they were non effective as soldiers. The ancient Greeks, on their rocky infertile islands, stand as a reminder: poverty is not the issue.


In a democracy citizens have rights. As Abe Lincoln said during his first inaugural speech, the people have right to replace the government, and the revolutionary right to overthrow it. What "Honest Abe" was also talking about was responsibility. Not everyone is ready to face up to owning, and deserving, their government...

In the US the sherif in elected. Police powers are delegated to the sherif, but the people are still ultimately responsible. Are you willing, Mr. Smith, to own your responsibility? If funding for the police service runs out, are you willing to be deputized for a posse, or serve on a jury? If our armed representatives are sailing off on a troopship overseas, do you accept that they sail in your name? Some of those boys, recruited from small towns, are too young to vote, and know little of the world. The innocent boys are trusting that you and the other voting citizens gathered in the forum know what you are doing. Are you worthy of their trust? Or, instead, do you think the jury and police and army arise separate from the people, like some sort of magical virgin birth? In parts of the third world, sad to say, peasants view "their betters" as having "education" and "blue blood:" Quite separate, which gives the peasants quite an excuse to disown responsibility...

Sad to say, Mr. Smith, not everyone can face up to their role: Anyone who can breath is a civilian; someone who accepts responsibility is a citizen.

 I see reservists as literally citizen-soldiers; I see all of us, figuratively, as citizen/soldiers. Just like in Greece or Rome, we are living our democracy.

 To me, servicemen are a part of our nation's treasure. I find them to be both bold and shy. They never brandish their rifles in the air. When they march it is merely a formalized military walk, not a goose step. They never sing songs of glory, preferring to sing bawdy rugby songs. They will quietly say "duty" and "mission." Then they will boldly say "job" as a joke, as a figure of speech.

In a first world democracy the army does not choose to declare war—we choose. All of us provide the rations and catapults so that some of us can represent us in battle. I would ask you, Mr. Smith, to please forget about peasants, please get your head out of the Third World. If you misinterpet a soldier as being your mere "hired sword," if you treat him as such, then you, not he, are the barbarian. Our soldiers are embedded in citizenship; they are not "the hired help." The soldiers are us... the best of us. In our affluent land of air conditioning, couches and welfare nobody goes off and does a battlefield crouch by Death's doorway, exposed to the smells and sounds of war, as a "job"... ...if ever they do, then democracy is over.

Sean "Yes, I've read starship troopers" Crawford
Calgary, Alberta


~Yes I own a dictionary,  but "genocide," like the Roman "decimate," has lost its old 1940s precision to now mean "destroy a large part of." (A pity, since to decimate requires self discipline)

~I wonder if "bought the farm" was a reference to Rome, meaning getting your promised plot of earth, if only six feet long, without a lifetime of military service first? The origin of this U.S. term is "unknown."

~In David Gerrold's first book about an ecological infestation from off planet, A Matter For Men, a high school global ethics teacher, without using the term "bread and circuses," tells the kids that cattle are comfortable, while free men are willing to be uncomfortable.

~The Dutch are repeating Rome's "idle mob" decline. A Member of Parliament and Muslim refugee, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, documents this in her book Infidel.

The Dutch assume:

that Muslim refugees will be comfortable and happy staying on welfare...

and then becoming happy to aquire the burden of feeling ownership of their civic responsibility...

including being happy with the discomfort of accepting their responsibility for the community's Freedom of Speech. 

These assumptions are wrong, of course. Men aren't meant to be cows. Alas for the Dutch, history repeats...

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