FREE SPEECH/FREE PRESS -- Veterans Day marks a surge in the online circulation of a certain versified tribute to the military as the exclusive source of our freedoms under the Bill of Rights.  It's not clear why those who claim to celebrate veterans feel it necessary to deny the role of civilian contributors to our civil liberties.  And it's not even true to history.


Usually attributed to "Author Unknown," this is the full version actually claimed under copyright by a specific individual.

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.

While this litany may have been intended to remind us of the sacrifice made by those who have not returned alive from our wars, or who have done so maimed in body or spirit—or even the majority who, stationed far from combat, gave years of their lives on call to the nation's service—it does these men and women no real honor to deny our legitimate debt to others in our heritage as well. 

For example, while all the freedoms and rights referred to in this piece were established as such after the War for Independence, they did not flow automatically or necessarily from that war, and were in no sense "given" by all those who fought it.  Many of that first generation liberated from the British Empire would have been just as happy to appoint or anoint a king, or to establish a ruling religion, or to punish disloyal speech or publication, and so forth.  

Undeniably, our freedom from King George III was won by those who fought the war.  But the Declaration of Independence was not the Constitution; years of tumult, uncertainty and civil dispute separated them, and it was the establishment of the Constitution and its Bill of Rights—by civilian politicians, writers, publishers, protesters, organizers and lawyers, side by side with war veterans—that gave us the freedoms to worship, speak, publish, protest, to live free of arbitrary search and seizure, to obtain a fair trial and yes, even to burn a flag in our extremes of disenchantment with national policy.

Granted, these constitutional rights could have ended up a historical footnote were it not for the military defense of our nation once again in the War of 1812, but again the struggle was not for freedoms to do particular things but survival as a nation (insert words of Star Spangled Banner here).  If there ever was a war waged not to win or preserve freedom from an alien power—for ourselves or others—but to confirm our established personal liberties "to do and to be" for all, it was the Civil War.  And the beginnings of healing there, not quite perfected almost a century and a half later, came in a passage of true poetic force, only seven words longer than the one above.

The world will little note, nor long remember
what we say here,
but it can never forget
what they did here.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here
to the unfinished work which they who fought here
have thus far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated
to the great task remaining before us
—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion
to that cause for which they gave
the last full measure of devotion
—that we here highly resolve
that these dead
shall not have died in vain
—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom
and that government of the people,
by the people,
for the people,
shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln's genius left us with words not of resentment but of resolve. We don't need to disparage the role played by civilians in spelling out our freedoms in order to honor the role of military veterans in securing the home of their enjoyment.  Doing so makes about as much sense as asking "Who gave you life—your mother or your father?"

Meanwhile, whether we agree about history or not, here are some things we can all do for veterans or those still serving.