Patriots and trying times

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / October 5, 2009
Ethiopian heroes honored
Brig.-Gen. Tesfaye Habte-Mariam (left) and Brig.-Gen. Kassaye Chemeda when they were honored recently in Washington, DC
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” said Thomas Paine, one of the Founders of the American Republic, at the onset of the American Revolution. It could be said equally that these are times that try a nation’s soul.

Ethiopia today is stranded in a sea of political, economic and social troubles; and it continues to be strafed by the slings and arrows of wicked villains, thugs and scoundrels, to paraphrase Shakespeare. But before Ethiopia became the playground of outlaws, she was the land of patriot-soldiers who protected her boundaries from foreign invaders, defended her honor and dignity against the insolent and cowardly hordes, and guaranteed her independence and freedom from enemies who sought to slice and dice her.

Those patriots were the members of her armed forces of yesteryears who marched the arid lowland deserts in the blistering heat, endured the biting cold of the craggy highland mountains and defended against the aggressor in the bushes, the swamps, the valleys and the once-dense forests. They were underpaid and overworked, under-funded and overburdened. They were under-appreciated. They faced unimaginable hardship in their decades of selfless service. Many suffered hunger, thirst, disease and isolation in their remote outposts. But they marched on, sailed the sea and flew over the glorious skies to make sure Ethiopia kept her independence for another 3,000 years.

A couple of weeks ago, an event was held in Washington, D.C. to honor former members of Ethiopia’s armed forces. The event, dubbed “Evening of Ethiopian Heroes” (Ye Jegnotch Mishet), was organized by the Committee to Honor Ethiopian Heroes. The purpose of the event was to pay homage to the brave patriot-soldiers, to show them the high respect and appreciation they have earned for their sacrifices, and to express to them profound gratitude for their long service. The sample list of named soldiers1 was drawn to represent all ranks of the hundreds of thousands of veterans, fallen soldiers and those missing in action. For the occasion two legendary retired generals, Tesfaye Habte Mariam and Kassaye Chemeda, were honored for their exemplary and extraordinary service to their country. Ali Berke, a militia fighter known for his heroism in various theatres of conflict, was honored in absentia. Last year General Legesse Tefera and others were honored by the Committee. Truth be told, these generals and many of their officer colleagues proved to be extraordinary military leaders because the troops they commanded made them so; and the honor goes to their loyal troops as well.

True Courage and True Colors

Ethiopian history offers accounts of mercenaries who took up arms against their country and people dreaming of riches and political power. There were those who betrayed the honor and dignity of their uniforms to advance their political ambitions and to grab power, along the way abusing and misusing professional military institutions as tools of repression of the civilian population. But there were also the true soldiers, the soldiers’ soldiers, like the ones honored in Washington who performed their duties with skill, professionalism, integrity and honor. These were a special breed of soldiers who had mastered not only the art of war and the ways of peace, but also lived the values of country, duty and honor everyday of their lives.

Military skills can be taught and learned, but courage, integrity and humility are the specialty of the patriot-soldier. These honored soldier took up their profession for one purpose only: to defend their people and their homeland. In peace time or at war, in good times or bad, these patriot-soldiers never wore their ethnic stripes, and never displayed their tribal marks. Under fire, they showed only two things: true courage they inherited from their forefathers and their true colors -- the Green, Yellow and Red. They put their flag and country above all things, including their own safety and their families’ well being; and they did it all with unquestioning devotion and unconditional love.

Never Was So much Owed By So Many To So Few

History will tell of the great sacrifices and courage of these patriot-soldiers when freedom rings in Ethiopia. But we know a lot from reading the autobiographies and battlefield accounts of the generals honored at this event. We are moved to tears by the horrible toll war exacts on the mind, the soul and body of the soldier, and the unfortunate civilians caught in the tragedy of conflict. We know these patriot-soldiers carry with them the emotional and spiritual burdens and scars of their battlefield experiences; and we can only imagine their great sacrifices from the injuries and disabilities they suffered defending their country.

We are familiar with the efforts that have been made to slander, defame and shame these patriot-soldiers. We know these soldiers were put in jail by criminals who sought to cover up their own crimes. The criminals tried every treacherous means to demoralize, discredit and dishonor them. But the patriot-soldiers marched on; they harbor no grudges and ill will to those who have mistreated and abused them. They stand tall above all as patriot-soldiers, and we can say to them from the depths of our hearts: “Never have so many owed so much to so few.”

What Goes on in the Minds of Old Patriot-Soldiers?

Old patriot-soldiers are good at hiding their pain, heartache and suffering. It is a professional virtue they have developed from experiencing years of hardships few of us can imagine, let alone endure. Those of us who have not walked a mile in their boots -- never tasted life in the windswept deserts, never held sentry in desolate mountain outposts, never set eyes on the horrors of war, never heard the “crash of guns, the rattle of musketry and the strange and mournful mutter of the battlefield” -- often wonder: “What goes on in the minds of old patriot-soldiers?” What do they think of their legacy of decades of dedicated service and sacrifice to their country? What do they say to each other when they see the land they defended with their blood, sweat and tears cut up like a slab of meat and handed away to the enemy? What do they think when thy see their people forced into ethnic corrals like cattle; and their lifelong sacrifices for the unity, harmony and territorial integrity of their country turn into a faint memory. What do they see in their dreams about the country they loved so much and the people they served so selflessly?

How do old patriot-soldiers survive in these trying times?

Those of us who never answered the call to service, we have learned some very hard lessons. These old patriot-soldiers have taught us that the unity, security and integrity of Ethiopia can never be taken for granted. Our burden is to deliver the lesson we have learned to the new generation: “There is a price to be paid to have a country united under the rule of law. That price is eternal vigilance against enemies foreign and domestic.”

Old Soldiers Never Die; They Live in Our Hearts Forever

It has been said that “men love their country, not because it is great, but because it is their own.” These patriot-soldiers love Ethiopia even though she is very poor and down on her luck; and her skin is covered with ticks that suck her lifeblood away. They love her because she is all they have got.

Most of us spend our lives asking whether we could have done this thing or that for our motherland; we question ourselves in the deep of the night if we could have made this contribution or that sacrifice. These patriot-soldiers do not have to ask themselves any questions. Unlike us, they have answered the call.

It has been said that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Not our patriot-soldiers. They never die, and they never fade away. They just live in our hearts forever. I have no doubts that when these old patriot-soldiers rest their heads for the last time, just before they close their eyes for eternity, in their last breaths will be the words: “God bless Ethiopia, my home, sweet home!”

We owe them an eternal debt of gratitude (Ye Mairesa Wulleta). May God bless them all!!!

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at