- Published on Thursday, 08 November 2012 13:12
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Like a lot of figures from Ancient Rome what we know about Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus is based more on legend than it is historical fact. We know he was born in 519 BCE and he became a prominent figure in Roman political life. He was a gifted leader and a talented military commander, but he always considered himself first and foremost a farmer. His livelihood and his personal identity were tied to the land. However, on several occasions, in times of crisis, often at great personal cost, he put aside his personal comfort and took on a military command. However, each time he did this, when the job was done, he relinquished his military duties and returned to his farm.
Cincinnatus isn’t all that well known today, but his example, and his story were very much a part of the classical education that was common for many of our founding fathers. It so inspired them that they adopted his example as a model of what the role of the military should be in a modern democratic republic.
The Continental Army, established in 1775, was a citizen’s army. It was made up of volunteers and just like Cincinnatus, these first American veterans who went on to defeat the British, and the ones that would follow them, put aside their personal needs, risked their lives, and when the war was done, went home.
This concept of military service, unique in the history of the world, has always been a part of our national consciousness. Our veterans, whether in the Colonial era or today in the side streets of Baghdad follow in the tradition of Cincinnatus and the Continental Soldier.
The Revolution was just the start of this long tradition. During the War of 1812, in what some call the “Second War of Independence” over 100,000 Americans volunteered for service. In a small nation that was an impressive number. Years later, in an entirely different conflict over three million Americans saw service during the Civil War. These veterans didn’t fight for land, plunder, or power. They just did what they thought was right. But most of all, when the war was over, the soldiers on both sides went home, went to work, and began the task of repairing their damaged Republic.
Even in spite of the intense divisions caused by the Civil War, when the Spanish American War came in 1898, the American Volunteer Force was well represented by volunteers from both the Northern and Southern states. Some had even fought against each other in the Civil War.
In later years, as warfare became more deadly, and the numbers of combatants larger and larger, America, sometimes to its detriment, preferred a small military force. During the run up to both World War I and World War II the American military before the war was painfully undermanned and under funded. However, in each case, with an enthusiasm and dedication few other nations could have imagined, the United States rapidly built a strong and effective military organization. It was made up of men and women that George Washington, and yes, even Cincinnatus would have recognized. Our military was drawn from the ranks of farmers, industrial workers, cowboys, and office workers. Some had never imagined they would wear a uniform and fight in a battle, but millions did.
In World War II, former accountants flew B-17’s, while one-time auto workers and farmers waded ashore under enemy fire on atolls in the Pacific that most people in America had never heard of before. But just like their ancestors these veterans did their jobs, and then when the war was done, they went home.
The Cold War, the Korean War, and most of all, Vietnam, tested this principle severely, but it endured, and even today this philosophy remains at the heart of our military. The young men and women in service in Afghanistan and Iraq are all volunteers. Just like their grandfathers in World War II they come from all over the country. They’re from mining towns in West Virginia, major urban areas, and the wide open states of the West. They’re our neighbors and our friends. Some reservists and guardsmen, all of whom are volunteers, have had several tours, often with very little break in between. They have all had to put their lives on hold to serve their country.
It’s a long standing tradition, and while the ideal may not always be entirely practical in the modern warfare of the 21st century, the basic notion hasn’t changed that much. America has never been a militaristic nation and yet, in defending ourselves against attack, or defending others abroad, no nation has ever been as successful. Our veterans, those still with us today, and those from our past, are the reason why. Cincinnatus would have been pleased.