The Ties That Bind Soldiers and Citizens

05/31/2010 02:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Exactly 2,500 years ago this year, a war was fought that made the world safe for democracy. It's a fitting tale for Memorial Day, for it not only reminds us of the eternal debt we owe our warriors, but is also a much needed object lesson in what it really means to be an active citizen -- the prerequisite of being a true patriot.

By the end of the 6th century B.C., the Persian Empire had conquered a huge swath of nations. The conquered peoples became subjugated. Just out of Persia's grasp to the west were the Greeks, who reviled life as subjects so much as to consider it equal to slavery.

That was especially so for Athens, which had become a fiercely independent and free nation after a long and hard struggle to lift the yoke of the tyranny that preceded it. Athens was also an active trader with her neighbors, and was increasingly dependent on trade in grain, fish, and other vital commodities with states in Asia Minor and other territories bordering the Persian empire. As such, they feared the impact on Athens if acquisitive Persia took those nations, and cut off their life line.

And so they prepared for war, and struck out to defend their interests. This led to clash and counter-clash, and bred very justifiable fear that Persia would eventually invade Greece itself, and that's exactly what happened -- with the invasion reaching its most threatening point when a massive Persian army landed in the nearby Greek city-state of Marathon in 490 B.C.

How did Athens confront this existential threat? It would be worthy of a myth if it weren't actually true. But to understand it, first we need to recall who the Athenians of the era were as a people.

Back then, farmers were the backbone of the agriculture-based economy. These same farmers also served as the frontline soldiers when Athens went to war. They became fierce fighters known as Hoplites, and they did Athens proud time and time again.

In their dual role as soldier and farmer, these brave and industrious Athenians kept the nation thriving whether at war or peace. They were indispensable to society. As such, they sought and obtained full participation in the political affairs of state from the aristocrats who ran things prior to the full blooming of democracy later in the century. They actively participated in town councils, as well as the Athenian assembly where all important political decisions were made. The link between a soldier and a citizen was seamless.

So when the call came to respond to the Persian threat, the farmers put down their pitchforks once again, picked up their swords and shields, and marched proudly off to war.

But Marathon was not just another battle. The Hoplites were massively outnumbered. There was no way they could possibly win. But they did. Conclusively.

The classical Greek historian Herodotus attributed it to their ferocious love of freedom, something the subjugated peoples of the Persian army lacked. Others feel that superior fighting strategy won the day. Regardless, it was a miraculous win -- truly historic -- as the Greeks had never beaten the Persians before. But it was also historic from our own perspective. For if Athens had lost, democracy would have been snuffed out in its infancy. Which would have meant no political liberty -- for them -- or very likely, for us.

And that is why we owe an enormous debt to the fighters of Marathon. Just as we do to all our fighting men and women -- past, present, and future.

For tragically, the history of man is the history of war. Now you can decry this lunatic addiction to fratricide, and I for one do. But wishing it weren't so doesn't get us very far. Even if you're a pacifist, or perhaps only against certain wars, the immutable fact is there will be war. Some of them are just. Some of them protect your freedom to live the way you do. Some protect your very right to live. And it is the members of the armed forces who do the fighting, and dying.

For us.

As such, we have a permanent responsibility to take care of their needs -- all their needs -- while they're in combat, and when they return. An obligation to help them every bit as much as we'd help our own family members if they wore the uniform. For we truly are, in this area, all one big family.

In ancient Athens there was no distinction between soldier and citizen. Today those roles are separated, but the binds that tie us cannot be severed, or we shall all suffer.

To keep that bond strong, we need to honor the memory and service of our fallen heroes, and properly support those who live to fight another day, including those who have returned from battle and need our help to heal, or resume normal lives.

But how do we do show our support exactly? By donating to veterans organizations? That's a righteous thing to do. By educating ourselves about what our troops need in time of war, and make damn sure they get it? No brainer. Let your Congressional representatives know you insist on this. By volunteering in our communities to assist vets looking for work or places to live or just someone to talk to? Yes, Yes, and Yes. Absolutely.

And there are many other ways people show they care. God bless them for it. We should all do as much. But yet, that will never be enough to fully honor the men and women who fight America's wars if we, the people, the civilians, don't take our jobs as citizens as seriously as soldiers take theirs.

With America needing to make so many critical decisions about war and peace, fighting terrorists, kicking our addiction to oil, prioritizing defense spending, and so many other issues that impact on our national security needs -- political decisions that informed citizens need to be a part of -- how can we say we support the troops with a straight face if we don't actively engage in our democracy on a regular basis?

We can't.

And we don't. Study after major study reveals that the vast majority of the American public is alarmingly ill-informed about the major issues of our time, and cyncially or apathetically disengaged from participating in political decision-making and problem-solving.

True, there are many obstacles to active citizenship. But engaging in effective self-governance is totally doable if one has the will. Here's just one of a thousand examples of how ordinary citizens can learn objective facts about a big issue and make their voice heard loudly -- without screaming.

In short -- no matter how much compassion or appreciation we have for our service members, it's really not enough if we remain passive as citizens. The true measure of how much we support the troops lies in the degree to which we commit ourselves to the hard work of democracy. Day in, and day out. For life.

Talk is cheap. So are easy emotions. Action is what builds a nation, and action is needed to protect it.

So on this Memorial Day, and every day, let's see if we can't find new ways to put our words into deeds. Make a down payment on our warrior debt by learning about the physical, psychological, and social needs of veterans -- and the needs of our troops currently deployed in combat.

And complete the circle by pledging to upgrade your own definition of civic duty.

Who knows, if enough of us did that, maybe we could prevent the next war from happening at all. Today's Hoplites would be the first to thank us.