There’s an old poem that has been surfacing recently on various pro-war websites and blogs called “It Is The Soldier”:
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 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.
–attributed to either Charles M. Province or Father Dennis Edward O’Brien
I’ve seen this militaristic screed on several conservative blogs, often accompanied by inspirational pictures of Old Glory flapping against a rich, blue sky. If the blogger has a relative serving in the military, his or her picture is usually also included with the poem. It’s an understandably seductive notion for military personnel: the idea that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself, actively involved in securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. During the 2008 presidential campaign, an anti-war protester interrupted Sarah Palin during a rally in Florida, and as security removed the protester from the site, Palin called out after him, "Bless your heart sir, my son is in Iraq fighting for your right to protest." That comment brought the crowd to their feet, and footage of the statement went viral among right wing blogs.
Both Palin’s comments and the “It Is The Soldier” poem are examples of the dangerous tendency in this country to romanticize the military, attributing all of our freedoms and liberties to the steadfast vigilance of American might. While it's nice to think that it is the soldier, not the reporter or poet, who gives us the freedom of speech and of the press, a quick look at the history of free speech and free press in the US shows that those freedoms are most often threatened during times of war. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were implemented to stifle dissent during an undeclared naval war with France. Writers, speakers, activists, and abolitionists were harassed with various sedition and criminal conspiracy laws throughout the 19th century. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 made it illegal to criticize the US's entry into WWI. The 1940 Alien Registration Act was used mainly as a tool against Communist or Socialist Worker groups, and during and after WWII dissent was suppressed with loyalty oaths, censorship, and blacklists. The government also actively suppressed Vietnam War protest movements (often violently), and FISA the USA PATRIOT Act have increased domestic spying powers during the current War on Terror. No American war has ever protected or expanded our first amendment rights. No US battle has ever been fought to provide dissidents more room to operate. The battles for our fragile first amendment rights have often been left to the poets, reporters, activists, lawyers, and organizers who exercise them, at times facing the very soldiers who are supposedly responsible for protecting those rights.
And it's not just the First Amendment that the little people have fought and bled and died for. Child labor laws, the eight hour day, the five day work week, workplace safety standards, the minimum wage: all of these victories were won through battles fought by regular people just like you and me. These were wars that we never learn about in history class. The casualties of this war have no national monument. Dedicated men and women, practically powerless against the formidable leaders of industry and their allies in government, somehow managed to rise up and overcome unimaginable adversity to win victories that would have put David and his slingshot to shame. As children, we didn’t have to experience the horrors of working sixteen hours underground in the coal mines each day. We don’t have to put our elderly grandparents to work in order to put scraps of food on the table. We don’t have to worry about dying young because our only option in life is to do dangerous work in unsafe conditions. This is their legacy to us, and, unfortunately, it’s a legacy that is too easy to take for granted. Just look at another phenomenon from the recent election: Joe the Plumber. A hundred years ago a guy who identified himself by just his name and his working class occupation would have been the poster child for the socialist revolution, not a conservative icon crusading to protect those in the upper tiers of the tax code from a small tax hike. As workers, we’ve become completely disconnected from our heritage. Jurgis the Meatpacker is spinning in his fictional grave.
The United We Stand Project attempts to address these two issues at once: by repurposing the style of WWI and WWII propaganda posters to glorify the struggles of American worker, we gently protest our nation’s unhealthy over-glorification of the military while also reestablishing the connection between workers and their heroic, hard-fought history.