About a month ago, I had to visit the archive at my university in order to complete a project for one of my graduate courses in English. In true geek fashion, I not only considered this project an opportunity to do something I had never done before that I was sure was going to be awesome, but it also turned out to be as awesome as I anticipated. In fact, I long to find myself in an archive again soon.
Even further, the project required me to look at a specific collection of letters, a collection from a soldier to his lady, a Navy man with roots in the same city I was born in twenty-eight years ago. The nostalgia was intense, this experience being so closely related to experiences that hold a place close to my heart. While I don’t believe I gained an appropriate level of respect for my own father’s service to the Navy until I was almost twenty-three years old, it is now a respect I cherish. Almost anyone who knows even a few details about me knows that I am a staunch supporter of our military, because despite our political ties, these are men and women serving our country, men and women with family and friends who care deeply for them.
This young soldier, Wes, sent a letter to his girlfriend, Opal, on January 20, 1918 that included a clipping from a newspaper article. The clipping had a simple title, “Only a Soldier,” but it told a story I feel needs desperately to be told today. The author of this piece was responding to an offhand remark he heard a woman on the street say, a remark that referred to a passing solider:
“Oh, he is only a solider.”
Of course, we do the same thing so often today, don’t we? We pass by service men and women each day without even attempting to offer them a smile. Even worse, we are hateful toward them at times, justifying our ill behavior by explaining we don’t agree in the government’s actions, the war, this policy, or that new law. People argue that by suiting up, our soldiers deserve this type of disrespect because they are representing these standards and ideals by serving the institutions that initiate them.
What are they serving, though? Is it not us, as individuals, that they are serving? If we think long and hard about the reasons these men and women go into any branch of the military, is it because they have love for a recently enacted law? Are they serving the policy? Do they love the thought of going to war, of potentially destroying civilian lives abroad? Are they government lovers? I believe more often than not they simply want to serve us at the individual level. They are men and women with spouses, children, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends. When they go to serve, they see themselves as serving those specific people, and the ripples of their service positively impacting other individuals across the nation.
The author of this piece, an author I cannot know because the name was not attached, seemed to understand this idea deeply:
“Yes, the man who passed by was only a soldier to her…Little did she stop to think that that soldier…was at one time a civilian and followed his daily pursuits and happiness just as she did…She did not remember that this man…was at one time one of the most cherished sons of a happy home.”
We have become so self-important as individuals that we believe even our ideas or thoughts are more important than the life of an individual. In the shoes of another, we would do most things differently, but it is difficult to remember this in the thick of living. It is not a judgment because I too am selfish in this manner. It is the very reason I could not develop a respect for my father’s service until I was an adult. It is the very reason I can write this blog post and likely pass a solider in the street later, forgetting to offer the smile I spoke of earlier.
In forgetting, though, we leave the military men and women many others love stranded. For when they began they had pride in their service. Many of them still do, but some have surely lost that pride in the throes of an unforgiving public. As the newspaper clipping states, “he is only a soldier but he is proud to be a solider.” As he should be. As he should be allowed to be. Even in modern times, our military should be allowed to walk the streets proud of their service.
“In America today there are many thousands…who are “only a soldier” and they come from…the stately mansion and the humble cottage, they proudly cast aside the title of civilian and take up that of soldier.”
People have the right to feel how they want, and even say what they want. However, we have to remember that our words can be damaging to people. The right to say the words we want to say doesn’t negate our moral obligation to be kind to others. When we participate in offhand chatter that degrades our military, how many soldiers sit nearby and overhear? How many military families, missing their loved for weeks or even months, sit and listen with sadness? We don’t have to love the government, the war, the policies, or even the job title of solider. We just have to extend our love to people, and taking up the title of “solider” does not rob the individuals behind those titles of their humanity. Tread lightly, friends. Our thoughts are our own, but our words are a crashing wild animal, and once we open our mouths, we’ve little control over their impact.
Any person interested in the archive collection that inspired this blog post can visit this link for further information.
Camp Joseph E. Johnston (Jacksonville, Fla.) Collection, Thomas G. Carpenter Library, University of North Florida, Jacksonville, Florida