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De oppresso liber is the motto of the United States Army Special Forces.

Contents

Meaning

It is US Army tradition that the phrase is Latin for "[to free from oppression]" or "[to liberate the oppressed]".

Liber means not "to free" but simply the adjective "free", which, in the masculine singular form here used, may be interpreted as a noun, meaning "a free man"; while "oppressus" is not "oppression" but "overwhelmed, overthrown, overpowered, crushed." As it stands, the phrase might be translated "Out of the overthrown man, (comes/is made) the free man." (The structure resembles that of the motto "E pluribus unum": "Out of many, one.") Other translations, just as viable: "From a man caught, a man free," and "From the man seized, a man free."[1]

This translation may have morphed over time to resemble a small portion of a famous St. Augustine quote:

The turbulent have to be corrected,
The faint-hearted cheered up,
The weak supported;
The Gospel's opponents need to be refuted,

Its insidious enemies guarded against;
The unlearned need to be taught,
The indolent stirred up,
The argumentative checked;

The proud must be put in their place,
The desperate set on their feet,
Those engaged in quarrels reconciled;
The needy have to be helped,

The oppressed to be liberated,
The good to be encouraged,
The bad to be tolerated;
All must be loved.

Corripiendi sunt inquieti,
pusillanimes consolandi,
infirmi suscipiendi,
contradicentes redarguendi,

insidiantes cavendi,
imperiti docendi,
desidiosi excitandi,
contentiosi cohibendi,

superbientes reprimendi,
desperantes erigendi,
litigantes pacandi,
inopes adiuvandi,

oppressi liberandi,
boni approbandi,
mali tolerandi,
omnes amandi.

Cf. Isaiah 1:17:

Learn to do well:
seek judgment,
relieve the oppressed
judge for the fatherless,
defend the widow.

discite benefacere
quaerite iudicium
subvenite oppresso
judicate pupillo
defendite viduam

Lineage

The phrase stems from the exploits of World War Two OSS Jedburgh/Sussex Teams operating behind the lines in France. Colonel Aaron Bank, father of US Army Special Forces, and his teams enabled the French Resistance to grow and oppose the occupying German Army. The unconventional warfare tactics of Colonel Bank differed from the conventional warfare tactics of the rest of the US Army in that they included clandestine support for one side of an existing conflict and that they were subversive to the Nazi forces in power.

References

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