Thursday, September 20, 2007

Musing: Then And Now

As an appropriate place to close out our exploration of The Battle of the Bulge, Greg and I decided to make a stop at the American Battlefield Cemetery of the Ardennes. Yet another beautiful and emotionally evocative site that is exquisitely maintained by the American Battlefields Commission, the first thing a visitor sees is a large, stunning monument. Upon closer approach, almost 6,000 gleaming white grave markers -- all perfectly aligned -- fill a large field behind it. (Note: There are a few photos in the current -- Sep 2007 -- photo log which barely do justice to the setting.)

While walking around the cemetery, we saw numerous grave markers with American and Belgian flags placed in front of them. Although we speculated about what their significance might be, we were unable to come up with anything definitive. Then, about a hundred Belgians started to arrive at the cemetery and we asked one of them why they were there and what the flags were for. The answer was humbling.

After the war, Belgian families "adopted" individual soldiers and their graves. The flags signify their remembrance of what the American soldiers did for them during the war and honors them for their sacrifice in liberating Belgium and its people. As the man we talked to said, "If it wasn't for the American soldiers, I would be German." As for what they were all doing there, it turns out that we just happened to visit the cemetery on the day when many of the "adoptive" families gather to hold their annual memorial service. Pretty amazing stuff.

Now, I have no direct connection with The Battle of the Bulge that I know of, so my only link with the cemetery and the soldiers buried there is that I am "American." To see the flags and meet the Belgians who were there for the memorial service was a powerful experience. I have to admit that I felt a little bit like I was intruding. It wasn't anything that was said or done on their part, it was simply that these people were having a ceremony for soldiers with whom they have had a direct, personal connection. I was really just a tourist and had only a vague sense of exploring history as my reason for being there.

This got me musing: In my recent visits to Normandy, Flanders and the Ardennes I have experienced unconditional positive regard from complete strangers in foreign lands simply because I am American. In many other places, I have experienced an unconditional disregard from complete strangers in foreign lands simply because I am American. Why is there such a striking difference?

Could it be that the thousands upon thousands of American soldiers who fought, died and were buried there were truly liberators of people who had been invaded and oppressed by an actual evil empire? Could it be that those American soldiers were part of a truly multi-national coalition that fought to save people facing actual weapons rather than possible ones? Could it be that America did not initiate WWII and had no obvious economic or political agenda for it?

Whatever the reasons, I can tell you from direct personal experience that there is a striking difference between America's goodwill in the world between then and now. True, there are still places in the world where people view America -- and Americans -- with positive regard. Sadly, there are many, many other people in the world who have a growing anti-American sentiment.

It's a damn shame, and we are all the worse for it.

1 comment:

mom said...

It is sensational and moving and true...I knew so many of the survivors who were severely damaged physically and emotionally by that battle...a cousin who had severe frostbite and became an alcoholic I believe partly due to the experience...a boyfriend at college who would tremble and sob in a was a dreadful winter...
Now we have our young boys in the desert serving the flag and being spit it religious? Is it it just the damn oil? thanks for posting this.