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The Soldier: One Part of the National Body

A week or so ago, the following poem written by army veteran Charles M. Province back in 1970, was in the news:

It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.

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 protest.

It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

©Copyright 1970, 2005 by Charles M. Province

Reading this poem put 1 Corinthians 12:14-25 into my mind:

Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?

But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another.

I am not here to attribute motives to Mr. Province. I am saying that the effect of his poem on the reader is one of “Nothing worthwhile has been done by anyone but soldiers.” Or, “We are soldiers – you need us, but we don’t need you.”

Although Paul’s words for the Corinthians were intended as an illustration of the Body of Christ, I think they have application to American society. Our society is made out of many parts – soldiers, ministers, reporters, poets, campus organizers, lawyers, politicians, not to mention bricklayers, truckers, teachers, factory workers, police, firefighters, computer programmers, librarians and more. For the most part, you couldn’t yank out one entire profession or other class of people and still have a thriving society. Try doing without garbage collectors for a month and see how that works for you. Soldiers are one part of society and as a group are dedicated patriots risking their lives for their country. But a society only made up of soldiers couldn’t exist for very long. No society made up of one group could exist long. We need each other.

I’d like to also say a few words about the specific claims in this poem. It is important to remember that in most circumstances, soldiers are not free agents. Their function generally is to follow the orders of the regime that employs them. Here in the United States, they also take an oath to defend the United States Constitution. This Constitution puts the military at the orders of the civilian government, provided those orders are in accord with the Constitution.

In practice, this means that the armed forces uphold what the civilian government tells it to uphold. It does not create rights on its own. It does not write laws or constitutions. If there was a military coup and the generals started writing laws and constitutions, they would be politicians and lawyers as well as soldiers.

Another way to put this is that a nation’s military is a tool. If the nation is a free society, that military will generally be used in support of those values. If the nation is a dictatorship, that nation’s military will do all it can to support the regime and suppress the freedom of its people, at least as long as it views the government as legitimate.

Finally, I’d like to point out that full civil rights for African-Americans came about in this country not by the broad use of the Army, but by mass protests by African-Americans themselves and through legislation passed by Congress.

“What about the Civil War?” I hear you cry. First, the war was fought primarily to keep the Union together. Second, until the Emancipation Proclamation, Union forces did not routinely free slaves they came across. Third, it was the politicians in Congress that conferred some of the rights of citizenship on former slaves with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Without that legal framework, people could have been re-enslaved and the American military would have no recourse short of a coup to reverse it. Finally, despite the 13th-15th Amendments, Jim Crow laws denied African-Americans most of their rights until the non-military Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

One can reasonably argue that without a military, our society would be under the thumb of a foreign power and we’d have no rights. But that goes back to my point from 1 Corinthians 12, that we all need each other. Politicians can’t promote freedom without soldiers, but soldiers can’t protect freedom if it hasn’t been enacted by politicians. Not unless we’d like to try the path of military government. That hasn’t worked out well most of the places it has been tried.

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