Thank You, Warriors

If ever American soldiers were truly fighting for freedom, it was the regiments of African American soldiers in the Civil War. “Colored regiments” began forming after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. One of them, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, featured in the 1989 film, “Glory,” was led by a Unitarian, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick in the film), whose faith in human equality accounted for his willingness to take the assignment. Another was the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment. Sojourner Truth provided them with new words to the popular tune to sing as they marched toward battle. (Though Truth claimed authorship, some historians think she may have taken almost all the words from the "Marching Song of the First Arkansas Colored Regiment," written by that regiment's white officer, Captain Lindley Miller.)

Sweet Honey in the Rock has recorded that song. Please take 4 minutes and give it a listen. You can follow along with the words below.

We are the valiant colored Yankee soldiers enlisted for the war
We are fighting for the union. We are fighting for the law.
We can shoot a rebel further than a white man ever saw.

Look there above the center where the flag is waving bright
We are going out of slavery. We are bound for freedom’s light.
We mean to show Jeff Davis how the Africans can fight.

We are done with hoeing cotton, we are done with hoeing corn.
We are colored Yankee soldiers just as sure as you are born.
When the Rebels hear us shouting, they will think it’s Gabriel’s horn

They will have to pay us wages, the wages of their sin.
They will have to bow their foreheads to their colored kith and kin.
They will have to give us house-room or the roof will tumble in.

We be as the Proclamation, rebels hush it as you will,
The birds will sing it to us, hopping on the cotton hill,
The possum up the gum tree, couldn't keep it still,

Abraham has spoken and the message has been sent.
The prison doors have opened, and out the prisoners went.
To join the sable army of African descent.
Now that is fighting for freedom.

Peace and justice must go together, and where there is no justice, the only peace there can be is the temporary peace of suppression and enslavement. When it comes to oppressed peoples fighting against an unjust system, my heart is stirred with support for them.

Are there nonviolent ways to resist oppression? Yes. But a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience was not an option -- it wasn't something that US blacks in 1863 would have had any way of conceiving or organizing. Could victims of more modern genocide have responded with Ghandi-like civil disobedience? Maybe, sometimes. Always? I only know I don't have the heart to blame an oppressed person for fighting back with the only means they can think of: violent force.

So thank you. Thank you, fighters, warriors. Thank you for being unwilling to accept domination passing for peace. You died or risked death because you feared death less than you loved hope. Your example shows the rest of us that we, too, can commit our lives to a greater purpose, a purpose for which we may be willing to die.

Abstractions like “country” and “freedom” are the terms we hear from people far from the battlefields when they talk about what the fighting was for. Those in the midst of such battle have little thought of such abstractions. They are motivated in the moment by concrete and immediate loyalty to the mates fighting beside them, not to the large ideals they will later invoke, if they survive. Thank you, fighters, for embodying the value of concrete connection to the people around us right here and now.

We today are what we are because of fighters. There’s that joke that goes: "I'm in favor of sex. I come from a long line of people who had sex.” So, too, we must also acknowledge that we come from a long line of victors in battle. The victors generate more descendants than the vanquished – and even the vanquished are around to be vanquished because they succeeded as a people in previous fighting. Thus each of us has an ancestry made up of those able to fight and win. We all come from a long line of warriors – and we wouldn’t be here without their ability to fight, to kill, their willingness to die.

For most of human history, if there were any communities or tribes of pacificists, they were either under the protection of people who were willing to fight, or they were soon subsumed and conscripted or exterminated. Thank you, fighters. You entered situations more fearful than anything permanent civilians like me can imagine, yet you did not let your fear control you. Because you showed us what courage is, we are better able to bring courage to our peaceful pursuits.

The phrase “warrior mind” refers to a state of being concentrated yet relaxed, smoothly sizing up a situation and deploying strategies to overcome obstacles and challenges. Every time we confront difficulties rather than fleeing from them, we are drawing on the skills of our warrior ancestors – skills which today’s warriors continue to embody. Thank you, warriors. It falls now to us to build a way to transcend our heritage of violence, to utilize warrior mind for the creation and defense of institutions of peace.

Let us be fierce for justice. Essential for success in battle – and thus essential for the tribe's survival for millennia of human history – was the capacity for discipline and organization and courage. That capacity was also essential at Selma in 1965, and before that in Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns. Grateful for the warrior virtues, let us continue to seek ever more effective ways to bring those virtues to the nonviolent resistance to oppression.

Let us also remember this on Memorial Day. If Memorial Day can be described in two words, "thank you," it can also be described in another two words: "I’m sorry." Some of the deaths in war were not much about nobility and courage, let alone freedom. Sometimes politicians and generals made unfortunate choices when better alternatives were available. Some of that killing and dying served no purpose at all. Good people died, families were bereft, and I’m sorry.

Beyond the gratitude, beyond the regret, Memorial Day is simply remembering. Ultimately, the meaning of Memorial Day is described not in two words, but in one: Remember. The dead say: “We were young. We have died. Remember us.” For all who died in warfare or as a consequence of the war, tears.

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This is part 2 of 2 of "War, Peace, and Remembering"
Part 1: "We Were Young. We Have Died. Remember Us"

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