There are many reasons as to why the warriors who serve this country choose to do so. Most join up out of a sense of duty and patriotism, for they have developed either through osmosis or observation a moral code, an imperative, that tells them that they must serve their country. Some join up to see the world. Some join up to be a part of something bigger than themselves. A small number, as far as I can tell, join up because there is nothing else for them to do, nowhere else for them to go. And a few, a very few, join up because war is their true calling, their entire reason for being.
Whatever their motivations for joining up, every single one of America's soldiers swears the same fundamental oath: to defend the nation and its people from all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to preserve and uphold the Constitution of the United States of America.
They willingly endure lousy pay, hard working conditions, and near-endless abuse - and for what? So that somewhere close to a third of their own countrymen can call them "baby-killers" and "mindless Myrmidons"? So that, when they come home from war, savaged by what they have seen, having lost dear friends and blood brothers to brutal combat and enemy snipers and improvised explosive devices, they can be spat upon and mocked in spite of all that they lost? So that America's supposed "allies" can sneer at them behind their backs, only to beg for their help when things go really wrong?
That is the lot of the average American soldier, and he accepts it. He doesn't like it, but he deals with it. As LTC Grossman pointed out in his superb essay, the sheep do not like the sheepdog. The sheepdog looks a little too much like the very things that the sheep fear the most. The sheep like to believe and pretend that nothing dangerous can make its way into their idyllic little pastures; if it were up to them, they would pretend that the beasts at our door are mere figments of their overactive imaginations.
The worst of them pretend that most sheepdogs are stupid, incapable of anything beyond brute strength and the capacity for mindlessly obeying and following orders. Yet any halfway informed look at history would tell us that this is simply not true.
Historically, the finest armies in the world relied on three types of men: enlisted, non-commissioned officers, and gentlemen of official rank. Armies made up of conscripts driven like galley-slaves may well have been able to get away with poorly trained, unfit, and generally useless men who were better for little other than spear- and sword-fodder; but the best-trained military outfits of the ancient world, whether we are talking about the Spartan phalanx or the Roman legion or the heavy infantry of the Byzantines, were in fact highly trained and superbly skilled.
The Roman legions, who have served throughout history as an inspiration for virtually every army since, may well have been made up of brutish and uneducated men among the foot-soldiers. Yet the average Roman legionary was capable of feats of strength and endurance that seem astonishing to our modern eyes. They were capable of marching 18-20 miles in a single day - while carrying loads of 80-100lbs.
Imagine carrying a small woman on your back - and dealing with all of her bitching and moaning - for 20 miles straight, with minimal breaks. The Romans did that as a matter of routine. And that was their line infantry, not their light infantry.
They were anything but mindless brutes. Their spiritual descendants who serve in the US Armed Forces are nothing like the stereotypes that some in this country shamefully believe in.
Warfare has evolved greatly since the days when Caesar made the Gauls cry "Uncle!", and then turned the Roman Republic into the glorious Empire that it then became. And so too has the role of the doughboy, the duckfoot, the bloody infantry.
Today's average soldier is so highly trained and skilled that he would rank as a specialist or even a master in most roughly equivalent civilian trades. But even that does not serve to distinguish him from the sheep that he protects. The average civilian could, if given sufficient time and motivation, achieve something close to a soldier's level of skill with weapons, firing from cover, manoeuvre, field-craft, basic medical care, and so on and so forth.
In fact, civilians are capable of training in hand-to-hand combat to a degree greater than that of most soldiers. A soldier only gets a few weeks at a time to learn how to fight unarmed before moving on to the next aspect of his training; a civilian, by contrast, can spend months and even years learning how to use his limbs to beat other men into a bloody pulp.
What separates a warrior from those that he protects is the desire to run toward danger, instead of away from it.
The sheepdog - in whatever form he takes, in whichever branch of the services that he chooses to apply himself - embraces the Warrior's Way, and, to paraphrase the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, that Way requires the resolute acceptance of Death.
Those who protect us accept that in order for us to live, they may perhaps have to die. Most of them do not long for or seek out death, but they understand that they have chosen a path that may one day require them to pay the ultimate price.
And many - far, far too many - have done precisely that over the existence of the Republic.
A very roughly estimated 1.35 million Americans have died across every war that this country has ever fought. Americans can - and should - disagree about whether specific wars that America has fought were actually for the good and the security of the nation, but there is no denying the fact that, when it has proven necessary to sacrifice and shed blood to defend the nation's precious liberties, the American soldier has always stepped forward and taken up that terrible burden.
There is no end to that burden. Despite the most fervent hopes of the sheep, the beasts at the door will not simply go away when the sheepdog bares his teeth and barks. And the sheepdog himself cannot simply be done away with. The sheepdog will always be called upon to defend the sheep, and the sheep will never, ever be fully aware of the dangers that lurk unseen in the void beyond the safety of the paddock.
This day is for those sheepdogs - for the soldiers, the warriors, who "ventured into the howling dark, and did not return". Without them, there would not be a United States of America. Without them, this most wonderful and celestial gift of freedom - the same freedom which allows me to write this post in the comfort of a coffee shop, the same freedom that lets you read it over a high-speed internet connection in the safety of your own home - would not exist.
As always, to all those who read my work and have served - you have my deep personal gratitude and respect. It is your sacrifices that made it possible for me to come here and live quietly, peacefully, and comfortably, and I have never forgotten or devalued that fact.
As I have said before - if I ever do disrespect those who have served or are serving, then call me on it, and hold me responsible.
And for those who have come to end-of-watch... May God bless you, and may your souls rest in peace, for you made the ultimate sacrifice for your people. This day, above all days, we remember that we are able to see our tomorrow, because you gave us your today.