In his Veteran’s Day speech, Zell Miller, a former governor and US senator from the state of Georgia, gets to the essence of what the soldier gives to us as Americans:
“It has been said so truthfully that it is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves beneath the flag, whose coffin is draped by the flag, who gives the protestor the freedom to abuse and burn that flag.“
There are many speeches acknowledging the sacrifices our soldiers, and their families, have made to give us the freedoms Mr Miller spoke of in his poem. These sorts of speeches are what I think of when I contemplate what a Veterans Day speech will include. And well they should, as we need to be reminded of what a dangerous and terrible job it is, this soldiering. How so many veterans have received grave wounds or died in protecting our freedoms.
However, one story surprised me. I found it in an online blog written for the Smithsonian’s national Museum of American History ‘s website by Naomi Coquillion, an education specialist for the museum. Ms Coquillion wrote about the effect it has on a soldier to recount his stories. Certainly, as Ms. Coquillion writes, talking about his or her experiences can be healing for many veterans as they unburden themselves of their difficult or terrible experiences. Certainly, most of them appreciate having their service recognized. Many elderly veterans feel an obligation to tell their stories to honor their comrades who are passing away at an ever increasing rate. While time for these solders of the past may have separated them from their terrible experiences, Ms Coquillion reports still hearing the pain in their voices and the sadness of their experiences, even 60 years later.
In researching for her article, Ms Coquillion found a poem by Siegfried Sassoon, a British veteran of the first world war, entitled Footnote on the War (on being asked to contribute to a Regimental History). In this poem, Mr Sassoon writes about his initial response to being asked to submit his recollections of the war.
“He asks me to submit my small quota of remembrances.
What can I unbury?…
Seven years have crowded past me since I wrote a word on war that left me far from merry.
And in those seven odd years I have erected a barrier, that my soul might be protected from the invading ghosts of what i saw in years when murder wore the mask of law…
Wars’s a mystery beyond my retrospection.
And I am going onward, away from that Battalion history with all of it’s expurgated dumps of dead:
and what remains to say, I leave unsaid.”
As Ms Coquillion very insightfully put it:
While we rightly celebrate the sacrifices on this Veterans Day, the significances and true meaning of those sacrifices sometimes gets lost. And, perhaps we fail to acknowledge the extent to which even sharing those experiences may be a sacrifice itself.