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Letter From America: Memorial Day

...As a common soldier I was not involved in making such determinations, in fact the thought never crossed my mind. However, those days of careless youth have passed and my view of the world and humanity has widened and I am permitted to see a bigger picture. Therefore, today, whilst recognising the part played by the military of all nations, I do not let my gratitude for them swell into the delusion that they are responsible for all that is good in the world, for they are not...

Ronnie Bray challenges the idea that all those who wear military uniforms are automatically heroes.

Today I got an e-mail message that attempted to make the point that America is built by its military service people. The burden of the message is:

MEMORIAL DAY

It is the VETERAN, not the preacher, who has given us freedom of religion
It is the VETERAN, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press
It is the VETERAN, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech
It is the VETERAN, not the campus organiser, who has given us freedom to assemble
It is the VETERAN, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial
It is the VETERAN, not the politician, Who has given us the right to vote
It is the VETERAN who salutes the Flag
It is the VETERAN who serves under the Flag

Sadly, this post contains statements that are simply untrue. The USA is not the place it is simply because of its military men and women, for, as in all nations, they are the creatures of whichever government is in power, not the creators of military policy, nor the dreamers of dreams that send surges of creativity throughout the nation to make new ideas and goals as the old ones no longer serve new generations well, and the relentless search for betterment continues.

I say this as a former British Army soldier and I know that nothing my comrades, my relatives in earlier conflicts, some of whom were killed by enemy action, or me, did anything other than work, fight, and die at the behest of their political masters, as all soldiers do. That is the nature of the profession of soldiers whether sought voluntarily or imposed by national necessity.

Soldiers dream dreams, but generally of their homes, loved ones, and families. Philosophers, poets, writers, politicians, schoolteachers, musicians, and artists dream creatively, have visions of better ways, work earnestly to bring their visions to fruition, and strive to instil whatever benefits ensue into the hearts and minds of their contemporaries, particularly the young.

Disparaging the positive contributions of ministers of religion, theologians, newspapermen and women, poets, social activists, fearless lawyers, judges, statute makers, honest politicians, and so forth that weave the fabric of our societies is short sighted and unworthy of a patriot. Yet this message attempts to do exactly that.

The difficulties such a view invites can be read in the bleak histories of nations whose primary concern was for military might that deliberately denigrated the contributions of and denied expression to visionaries, poets, and that presses of natural freedom to print the truth, that persecuted and killed spiritual leaders and theologians, that stifled political dissent; and overrode centuries of just laws to impose their own cruel codes that deprived millions of the God-given right to think, speak, live and breathe in peace.

The century that witnessed the grave atrocities that political philosophy encouraged and justified is hardly cold, yet its lessons have been forgotten by those who for reasons that exalt militarism above all other stations in life, thereby erasing the accomplishments of noble souls that have striven to advance excellence, and inculcate positive virtues of egalitarianism, truth, justice, tolerance, and mercy into the rising generations in the gleaming hope that the world they have inherited and shall bequeath will profit from wiser outlooks and better judgements than those forced upon them by their predecessors.

I have an issue with the too commonly applied title of 'Hero' when it is unthinkingly applied to any man or woman in uniform. Putting on a military uniform does not transform men and women into heroes. It makes of them soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women.

A hero is someone whose actions go over and beyond the call of duty to rescue others or pursue military action that will save their companions without regard for their personal safety.

Most of us that have served under our countries' banners were rarely in situations calling for us to be heroic. If we were, only the most remarkable would to step up and engage in extraordinarily courageous acts without consideration of their personal safety.

I do not diminish the role of any military personnel in any situation, but I think that ascribing all serving men and women as heroes is inordinate and improper aggrandisement, and that because of it when a hero appears there is nothing to distinguish him or her from the rest of their comrades.

Military personnel whether conscripted or volunteer, are ordinary people doing, sometimes, extraordinary things, in, sometimes, extraordinary places, and, sometimes, in extraordinary circumstances. It is appropriate to recognise their service, especially when they are in the front lines, but to shove aside all others needed to keep one soldier on the field of battle as if they were things of naught, distorts the nature of human societies, and unfairly elevates soldiers and soldiery above every other human endeavour.

This thoughtless process shoves into dark hinterlands those inventors, scientists, munitions workers, shipbuilders, tank and vehicle makers, armourers, that manufacture such mundane things as safety equipment, arms great and small, armaments, aeroplanes, military clothing and equipment, and those that pack, ship, and deliver them to military depots the world over.

Only when we reach the sober view that national defence and military offence are joint ventures between home industries and the military that are dependant on their products, however banal they might seem, can we arrive at a fair and balanced view of the contributions made by each person in the process, whether wearing uniform or not.

I was deployed to the Suez canal Zone and to Cyprus in the mid 50s, where I gave little thought to those that made my equipment, manufactured my firearms and ammunition, sewed up my britches, shirts, and battle wear, wove and fashioned my webbing components, made my boots, socks, gloves, and outerwear, my steel helmet, the vehicles I repaired, and the parts I used to fix them up were part of an even bigger army back home and in the USA for whom I gave no thought.

'I now can see with other eyes,' and have long recognised that when I was a lone soldier guarding a desert outpost some miles outside the Egyptian city of Suez, under constant threat of attack by the Mujahadeen, there were thousands of people back home upon whom I was directly or indirectly dependent, and that without their contribution I would not have been able to do what I was doing with any degree of safety. As it was, despite their efforts, many of my comrades in arms fell to their almost daily depredations.

When I reflect on these things I feel a sense of injustice to the group of those doing essential work in homes, schools, factories, and political and journalistic endeavours when their signal contributions are debased or set at naught for false and misguided reasons. It is not necessary to debase one group in order to honour another, in fact it is downright wrong and counter-productive to do so, and the sooner thoughtless jingoists come to appreciate that fact the better.

I do not suppose that there was ever a more jingoistic nation than Great Britain in its high days of Empire, when it was considered that to be English was next to being God. Fortunately, age has matured my understanding and I see what I was doing in the Land of the Pharaohs as nothing more than the last gasp of British imperialism.

As a common soldier I was not involved in making such determinations, in fact the thought never crossed my mind. However, those days of careless youth have passed and my view of the world and humanity has widened and I am permitted to see a bigger picture. Therefore, today, whilst recognising the part played by the military of all nations, I do not let my gratitude for them swell into the delusion that they are responsible for all that is good in the world, for they are not.

And so I am moved to pray, "God bless America. Keep its eyes clear, and its head on straight, and grant all nations and people the same benison"


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