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In the tradition of Cincinnatus

I am always surprised how many lessons which we hold dear have their beginnings in the ancient world. There are more than we realize.

On Veterans Day we celebrate what many people refer to as the citizen soldier. This is the average person who, when the need arises, puts down the tools of his or her civilian trade or profession, and takes up the tools of war.

This view of military service was one of the foundations of the American Revolution and has served us well throughout the life of our nation.

But, this isn’t something new. The citizen soldier, a concept admired by our Founding Fathers, had its beginning 2,500 years ago, with a famous Roman called Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. Try and say that name three times.

He was a Roman aristocrat who, when called to service, led the armies of Rome against a number of Rome’s early enemies. His army defeated them all. He was an exceptionally talented military leader. He was a hero and after his victories many assumed he would stay on as a civilian emperor or dictator. But instead, he declined the offer. He had protected Rome and done his civic duty. Having completed his military service his only desire was to return to his farm. He wanted no particular honors or rewards; he just wanted to go home.

Warfare, and the business of protecting our country, has changed since the days of Cincinnatus, but the principle this noble Roman championed remains the same. During the American Revolution most of the soldiers in the state militias and the Continental Army weren’t professionals. George Washington had some military experience, but he was by no means a professional soldier. Henry Knox, Washington’s able head of artillery, had no military experience at all. He was a bookbinder. But, like most citizen soldiers, he learned fast.

The same was true for the thousands of young men who volunteered for service during the War of Independence. Demonstrating that distant tie to Cincinnatus, Washington’s officers in the Continental Army formed a society appropriately called the Order of the Cincinnati.

This concept of people giving up one way of life to, at least temporarily, learn the business of war in order to protect their country, has endured to the present day. The stories are endless. During the Civil War, farmers, machinists, laborers, lawyers, ministers and doctors gave up their civilian ways to fight for their beliefs. Our area is full of these stories.

Decades later, in both the First and Second World Wars, young people left familiar places and their civilian jobs to fight in places like Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood, North Africa, Sicily, and Guadalcanal.

My father was typical of many in his generation. In 1941 he was a draftsman in Washington, D.C. working for the federal government. But, after he joined the Navy he spent several years as a Navy Hydrographic Survey technician in the Pacific. Iwo Jima and Okinawa were a long ways from his drafting table at the Department of Interior.

Later conflicts, of which there have been many, resulted in the same response. Average people, called to service, left their homes and jobs, and went to war.

One of my friends at the Federal Aviation Administration had just finished college when he was drafted in 1966. He had wanted to be a biologist. Though, arguably, his first interest was his motorcycle. He spent the next four years (he served two tours) managing a forward supply base in Vietnam. It wasn’t by any means a safe job. He used to keep a loaded shotgun next to his bunk since the base was regularly raided by the Viet Cong. He is proud of his time in the service, but most important to him, he felt it was something he needed to do. That’s a spirit that has been carried on since, most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Veterans Day, we celebrate that spirit. It’s the foundation of our Republic, and that philosophy, so well characterized by that long ago Roman Cincinnatus, carries on today.

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