First Person: The remarkable citizen soldier

“First Person” is an occasional feature showcasing pieces written by Yale community members from their own perspective. If you have an idea for a “First Person” submission, write to the Yale Daily Bulletin editor at ydb@yale.edu.

The following is an edited version of the speech presented at the Nov. 11 Veterans Day ceremony by Eric L. Robinson, a graduate student in international relations and a former Army captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ceremony was held in front of the Yale Alumni War Memorial on Beinecke Plaza.

Our nation has a fine tradition of commemorating our Armed forces, through holidays like today, or by the construction of monuments like the one behind me. Let us reflect upon this plaza, with its Corinthian columns, above these the names of the great campaigns of the western front, and most importantly inside the rotunda the names of the Yale men who went to war and never had the opportunity to return here and reflect upon their past service.

Memorial day, first and foremost, recognizes those soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who died in combat. Veterans Day began as a means to commemorate the end of the First World War, but this has shifted. It is now a day when we reflect upon a truly American cycle; that of citizen, to soldier, and once again to citizen. Ours is a republic by — and for — citizens; not for a monarch or a pontiff. Such a republic was earned and is still maintained by citizens, not by mercenaries or a specially selected warrior caste.

This is the recognition behind today: the remarkable citizen soldier; those who go to war in times of crisis and who return to lives at home when the job is done. As we recognize this American tradition of public service, it is appropriate to ask why. Why do Americans — to this day — abandon lives of comfort and wade into danger and uncertainty?

Think of harbormen from Charlestown, or farmers from Lexington, or students from Yale College who left their homes in the baking summer of 1775 to join the siege of British-held Boston. What caused them to go to war against the most powerful military force the world had ever known? On the 17th of that June, as British regulars landed before Breed’s Hill and as the Royal Navy bombarded their fortifications, what caused them to hold their ground? As the battle standard of King George rose high along this hill above Boston harbor, what caused these citizens to exchange volley after volley of musket fire, witnessing their friends and colleagues fall all around them, only retreating when their ammunition ran out?

Less than a century later, on the afternoon of the 3rd of July 1863, men from Pennsylvania and Vermont and New York crouched behind stone walls, trees and any cover they could find while they faced the most ferocious cannonade seen in war since the days of Napoleon. Shots tore up the earth, smashed into bodies and filled the air with a dark, uneasy haze. Why did they stand? They all knew that after the bombardment would come the sound of drums, the crack of rifles, a rising yell and then the cold silence of the bayonet. These American citizens stood their ground. As the wind cleared the smoke of shells, these men could see the unmistakable ranks of their foe, marching towards them under a flag of division. What steeled them for the onset of the climactic engagement of our nation’s civil war?

It was the middle of the night in December 1944, and the German army had launched a surprise offensive and had caught the U.S. Army unaware. Shattered American units streamed away from the approaching onslaught, yet others were ordered to the front to face the danger. One of these units moving towards the danger, and the town of Bastogne, was the 2nd Battalion of the 506th Infantry. The acting commander of this unit, Major Richard Winters, was approached by a retreating officer during the chaos of the first days of the battle. This officer told Major Winters about what the Germans had thrown into the fight; their tanks, artillery and infantry had overwhelmed his unit, and he informed Major Winters that soon his unit too would be cut off and surrounded by the approaching German army. Major Winters simply responded; “We’re paratroopers … we’re supposed to be surrounded.”

What gives peace to a soldier who, with only a rifle and a grenade or two, is asked to take a position and hold the approaching enemy at all costs?

What has caused these citizens to willingly place themselves in danger? History has shown that soldiers have always fought for their friends, and this remains true. Yet there is something different about the American military experience. Americans have, time and time again, placed themselves in danger to set others free. The citizens at Bunker Hill fought for liberty from a government based upon divine right of Kings; the citizens at Gettysburg fought to destroy a political movement dedicated to denying the inalienable rights declared at our nation’s foundation; and the citizens defending Bastogne fought to free Europe from the weight of genocidal tyranny. Americans reject war for ideology or to conquer. Americans mobilize for something far more noble.

Today, at this time, an Army staff sergeant is leading his squad on a patrol in Khost. An Air Force captain is flying a close-air support mission for a Marine rifle company in combat in Helmand. A Navy ensign takes her first watch on a destroyer patrolling off the coast of Somalia. As they take to their posts they carry rifles, body armor and helmets and pack water, radios and other implements of war. What we must remember is that they are also carrying the full weight of the world on their shoulders.

As Yeats might have said, a blood-dimmed tide has been loosed in the world. Our military now faces a movement dedicated to the imposition of a system which shatters the concept of citizenship and divides society simply into victim and perpetrator. This conflict has been difficult, bloody and sadly distracted, yet waging it with dedication is now the calling of our time. To abandon this campaign is to expect our oceans to keep us safe once more. The onset of chaos — or the establishment of a sinister order — is a thought too bitter to contemplate.

This is the answer to the question posed here today. American citizens fight to cast into history those who impose injustice upon unwilling subjects. By vanquishing these foes Americans have sought to establish a better world. So, let us reflect on the centuries of sacrifice that built our nation, and let us accept the need for continued sacrifice to best the passionate intensity of those who would tear it asunder. Let us be proud of this American tradition, of the citizen placing his or herself in-between danger and that which is sworn to be protected. This burden has been shouldered since the first days of the Revolution, and is being lifted at this very moment.

I, for one, am proud to have done so for a short period of my life. Now, before the day is out, find someone from this crowd gathered here and thank them for the same. They are part of a proud legacy, and the best of a great country.

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