‘Soldiers’ by Ellease Southerland


Soldiers by Ellease Southerland, 1972

The magic trick:

Tucking in an anecdote early in the story that vastly expands the potential meanings and themes in the text

Why would a man voluntarily leave college to go to Vietnam? Why would he leave his mother? Does he love his country so much?

“Soldiers” presents a potential answer in the form of a brief aside near the beginning of the story. The protagonist is offended by a teacher who questions the legitimacy of a paper he turns in. The fancy words he uses, the teacher suggests, can’t be his own.

The rest of the story is extremely powerful. The way it describes the confusion of war, the hollow feeling of loss and, especially, the gloom and shame of a handicapped homecoming – just amazing. But all of it hinges on that little anecdote of racism. And that’s quite a trick on Southerland’s part.

The selection:

Young man, you did not write this composition. That’s how the teacher spoke to him, with that tone. And he said what is it about this composition that makes you think I didn’t write it? You think because I can get comfortable with the language when I’m talking that I can’t be correct when I’m writing? Which one of these words have you prejudged me incapable of writing? Palpable? Pejorative? Egregious? By the way he said them, she could tell he knew the words. So he said, is there something about the composition or about me? She didn’t say anything. Put an A on the paper. Gave him his A for the course. Young man! And he was twenty years old.

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