Let me start by saying I’m no slouch when it comes to criticizing pacifism among Europeans. I’ve more than once compared them to spoiled children, interested in enjoying all the benefits of economic and political security while doing little or nothing to contribute to the sharing of those burdens around the world.
But the truth is, I’m guilty of imposing a certain cultural-centric, very American, viewpoint on the world. What am I talking about? History.
Many months back, I found myself in a debate with a German on a blog somewhere. He was angry that Americans showed no interest or appreciation for the contributions Europeans made or tried to make in the war in Afghanistan and the wider war on terrorism. I shot back that it wasn’t that we didn’t appreciate the help of Europeans, it was just that, with the notable exception of the Brits, there was so damn little of it to appreciate. He went on to point out to me something critical. Something I hadn’t really considered until he showed me the world through his eyes. Through German eyes. You have no idea, he said, how difficult, politically, it is for us to put armed troops overseas. Combat troops. In a war zone. That is a huge step for us. Until 1990, it was actually against the law in Germany for us to produce military equipment designed for power projection. Only defensive systems were allowed. There’s a reason we don’t own a fleet of transport aircraft or operate an aircraft carrier. The political ramifications, both within Germany and among the surrounding countries, would be enormous.
It’s so easy to forget recent history. How differently would we Americans view the world if we had experienced what Europe had in the last two centuries: from the colonial experience to the Third Reich. Our memories, of WWII for example, are of Normandy, the battle of the Bulge and victory. Europe has a whole different set of memories:
The Hamburg Firestorm
Before half an hour had passed, the districts upon which the weight of the attack fell were transformed into a lake of fire covering an area of twenty-two square kilometres. The effect of this was to heat the air to a temperature which at times was estimated to approach 1,000 degrees centigrade. A vast suction was in this way created so that the air “stormed through the streets with immense force, bearing upon it sparks, timber and roof beams and thus spreading the fire still further and further till it became a typhoon such as had never before been witnessed, and against which all human resistance was powerless.” Trees three feet thick were broken off or uprooted, human beings were thrown to the ground or flung alive into the flames by winds which exceeded 150 miles an hour. The panic-stricken citizens knew not where to turn. Flames drove them from the shelters, but high-explosive bombs sent them scurrying back again. Once inside, they were suffocated by carbon-monoxide poisoning and their bodies reduced to ashes as though they had been placed in a crematorium, which was indeed what each shelter proved to be.
The inhabitants took refuge in the air-raid shelters, in which later they were burned to death or suffocated. In the early morning, thousands of blackened corpses could be seen in the burned-out streets. In Hamburg now, one thought was uppermost in every mind; to leave the city and abandon the battlefield. During the following nights, until 3rd August 1943, the British returned and dropped on the almost defenceless city about 3,000 block-busters, 1,200 land-mines, 25,000 H.E., 3,000,000 incendiaries, 80,000 phosphorus bombs and 500 phosphorus drums; 40,000 men were killed, a further 40,000 wounded and 900,000 were homeless or missing. This devastating raid on Hamburg had the effect of a red light on all the big German cities and on the whole German people. Everyone felt it was now high time to capitulate before any further damage was done. But the High Command insisted that the ‘total war’ should proceed. Hamburg was merely the first link in a long chain of pitiless air attacks made by the Allies on the German civilian population.
Then there’s this from liberated France:
In the middle of the fields, in the towns razed by allied bombs, Valonges, Carentan, Saint-Lô, Caen, Coutances, Lisieux, there is stupor, “a strange mix of pain and happiness,” according to Claude Lavieille, of Coutances. The sound of the superfortresses was greeted as the promise of deliverance before the deluge of fire came crashing down, killing 13,000 civilians. “It started turning, turning, turning. There was huge amount of dust. I was buried,” says Colette Leroutier, of Valognes, then a child of 8. In the same town, Madeleine Griffon sought her mother after having survived the bombings. “She was wounded. She had my brother in her arms. She told me: ‘Come kiss your brother because he’s dead and be careful because your walking on a corpse.'”
“There was gravel about one story high. We walked on it and we heard people calling out underneath,” said Janine Le Coutour, of the same town.
Bernard Beuron, of Caen, remembers a “lady with an overcoat that was supposed to be black but that was white. She was mumbling. She looked like she was outside of time.”
“We felt like the entire town of Carentan had been moved to the neighboring fields. There was everything, furniture, laundry, linens,” says Raymond Rivoal. “Since our mother hadn’t come back, we wondered where she’d gone. Unfortunately, we’re still waiting for her.”
“American bulldozers cleared the streets. Pieces of arms came out of the gravel,” says Louis Dupré, of Saint-Lô.
“The dead were stacked up on cars,” says Thérèse Lebouteiller, of Coutances. “The road to the cemetery torn up by the bomb craters. It all rattled. The bodies almost fell out. It was a very taxing day.”
“But, for us, it was the Liberation,” concludes Raymond Paris, of Sainte-Mère. “You have to have freedom taken from you to know what it is.”
I also remember a comment by an Austrian gent in a pub; he was being interviewed on the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor of California. “Great.”, he said, “We’ve exported another charismatic leader. God help us all. Let’s hope he’s better than the last one we sent to another country.” No pride felt. No heartfelt good wishes. Instantaneous guilt and foreboding. Europe is working on it’s third generation brought up on the horrors of WWII. Imagine how a movie like Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List plays over there. They’ve had those lessons and memories passed on and drummed into them for 50 years. Is it surprising it’s had an effect?
Lastly, on the subject of colonialism, I had an interesting conversation during the run-up to the Iraq war with a doctor (of medicine) from Italy. He was here in the States studying with my doctor. “It’s not going to work, you know.”, he said matter-of-factly. “We Europeans tried it many times. It’s almost hopeless. You can’t change them. Whatever changes you make are only going to be temporary. In the end, their cultural roots, their history, their tribalism, their religion, all that will win. We’ve leaned that lesson in Europe already.”
I argued, and still argue, that what we’re doing in Iraq is fundamentally different from colonialism as practiced by Europeans. We’re harldy modeling ourselves or our mission on King Leopold or Cecil Rhodes. For that reason, I think we can succeed, at least to an important degree. But we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of European history on their worldview. I also don’t think it’s helpful for us to view European disagreements on strategy as necessarily being simple anti-Americanism. Some is, no doubt. But not all. It is driven far more by their vastly different experiences in the 19th and 20th centuries than we’ve had in America. I think those differences color their worldview to degree it would benefit us to understand.