There's this poem you have probably seen or heard before.
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.
The poem was written in 1970 by a guy named Charles M. Province.
It's a well-crafted little poem. It has that plain-spoken American voice that Robert Frost exemplified. The cadences and use of repetition give it a flow that makes it easy to recite.
Let's take a look at what it says.
Those repetitions are interesting. What is important in the eyes of the poem? The Soldier is mentioned seven times, freedom and the flag four times each, rights twice. This is about the Soldier, who gets a capital S to emphasize being an archetypal figure, unlike everyone else in the poem. The poem also concerns the flag, and freedom, and to a lesser degree rights.
What does it tell us about freedom and rights? They are not a product of civil society — ministers, reporters, poets, campus organizers, protesters. They are not a product of democratic institutions — lawyers, politicians. They come from the Soldier. They come only from the Soldier.
When contrasting the Soldier with the protester, we learn more about the Soldier, exploring their virtues. The Soldier's virtues reflect deference to the state and its symbols: saluting, serving, dying ... and in that last, demonstrating specifically martial service, in warfare. Other forms of service have already been dismissed as irrelevant. The protester, in contrast, is described only in their disrespect for the symbol of the state. Not only unimportant relative to the Soldier, as the other figures in the poem, but acting in direct opposition to the Soldier's deference to the flag.
We see that the protester's freedom is something the Soldier “allows”. The implication is that the Soldier might withdraw that allowance at any time.
Perhaps even should withdraw it.
- Rights and freedoms do not come from democratic institutions
- Rights and freedoms come from the Soldier
- The Soldier defers to the state, and to its symbol the flag
- The protester is the Soldier's opposite
- The Soldier is the true legislator of society
A military junta would love this poem. But it has no place being repeated in a democratic society, much less engraved on our public monuments under the title “Freedom's Flag”.
In How The Heroes Die Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station explains why this kind of romanticization of military service is unwholesome.
We are a free people, we are Americans. For us there should be nothing glorious about war.
We should honor the soldier, certainly, but we should honor the peacemakers to a far greater degree.
While it’s certainly true that, as Orwell and Churchill both said, the nation sleeps snug in its bed only because rough men stand ready to do violence on its behalf, to paint us all as generic “heroes” leaches the word of meaning and power and diminishes those acts that truly are heroic and worthy of great respect.
But it’s much, much worse than that.
To paint all veterans as heroes, superior above other citizens, worthy of worship and compulsory respect, gives lie to the equality of democracy and makes such status enviable ....