Recent visits to Europe–a short one in France and Spain and a second in France and Germany, where I write this–have convinced me of two things: The citizens of these countries do not hate Americans; in fact on the whole they like us and admire many American qualities. These same people dislike and distrust the Bush administration. Even so, they seem to be trying to understand what they believe is blatant American unilateralism and imperialism.
The other matter I am convinced about is that, in the wake of the Bush administration’s responses to 9/11 that range from threats, distortions of intelligence, actual war, and the many other trappings of aggressive empire-building, America’s latent paranoia about foreign affairs, its insularity and isolationism, and an enduring belief in its exceptionalism have erupted as viciously as ever before. “Freedom fries” are but one small, foolish example.
A more serious example is Michael Gonzalez’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal (June 4, 2003) trashing France, its leaders, and their foreign policies, validation of which, according to him, “keeps getting smaller and smaller, and more insignificant.” With alarming vitriol Gonzalez condemns the French with the now usual Bushism, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” which patently ignores the complexities that are inherent in international relations.
My point, however, is not to mock Gonzalez’s shrill jingoism, rather to point to his column as an example of the distaste for–and ignorance about–“old” Europe that many Americans have. That we, that those in the Western world, are befuddled by the ways of the Middle East is an ancient truism (for which, see Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, a most helpful discussion of the topic). What concerns me is that the Bush officials’ blindered, aggressive stances, not to mention their actions, make it apparent that they and far too many other Americans have little more comprehension about Europe than they have about Middle-Eastern cultures.
In a nation where a large percentage of its Congressional members do not hold passports, incomprehension and just plain ignorance about other cultures, their history and reasons for their views, are not surprising. Take the French. One does not have to be a thorough Francophile to understand that their positions on the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular stem not merely from their immediate, short-term interests but from their long involvement in the region as well as their bitter experiences with conflict. Certainly Jacques Chirac had an eye on petroleum agreements when he opposed war and supported the continued work of United Nations’ inspectors. The Bush administration did not care about petroleum just as deeply? And certainly Chirac wants France to be a major player in the region after the war. Aren’t we doing all we can to be the major player and coming dangerously close to demanding that “to the victors go the spoils”?
But what most concerns me is the willful denial on the part of many Americans that France’s and Western Europe’s reluctance about the war comes from having fought so many of them. Gonzalez has the temerity to remark that “Paris was handed [lands in the Near East] in a mandate by the League of Nations after ‘winning’ World War I, just like it received its seat on the U.N. Security Council after ‘winning’ World War II.” Such cynicism, so generalized as to be inaccurate, ignores completely the incredible numbers of French who died in the Great War, and, what we rarely acknowledge, ignores the 120,000 French casualties before the nation capitulated to Nazi Germany in 1940.
The U.S. has its scars, heaven knows, but these grisly lessons seem not to have stuck enough. How many times in our seeming naivete must we be reinstructed, as in Vietnam, about the folly of trying through armed conflict to remake another culture? We can work toward that goal, but the message of the last 60 years is that negotiation and diplomacy are far better for the human race than war. And even compromise, which is usually at the root of cooperation, need not be capitulation.
The matter of war came home to me most recently, as it has before, in France. My wife and I arrived in Paris, rented a car and drove south to Vezelay, an ancient hilltop town in the Cote d’Or, west and slightly north of Dijon. Lovely countryside in the late spring, and loads of history: Vezelay was one of the starting points for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. In 1146 St. Bernard of Clairvaux had preached the Second Crusade there, and in 1190 Richard Coeur-de-Lion passed through, bound for Jerusalem on the Third Crusade. All that is recent history; below the town lies the village of St. Pere Sous Vezelay, whose first reason for being was the salt springs nearby. These were used by humans well before 2500 B.C.
One is always moved by such history, a reminder of humankind’s life and death, and endurance. Most poignant, as it is in every French town, large or small, is the monument one always finds somewhere to those who died in World War I. In the tiny village of St. Pere the monument is in its beautiful church that was begun in 1240 and completed in 1455. Thirty-one citizens from the village died in the Great War, two each from two local families. Then, of course, 21 years later, Germany attacked France again, but there is no listing of who from St. Pere may have perished that time.
We Americans need to visit the Vezelays and St. Peres–and Verduns–of France, not to mention the Dachaus of Germany and the Auschwitzes of Poland. We need to do this not to come away believing that we must always strike first, but to learn once again, as I believe most Europeans have, that wars must not be the way to create change. The cynic about mankind asserts, “Plus ca change, plus la meme chose. ” Idealists–not ideologues–who can learn from history and be realists, see that over the long haul, hard-won, peaceful change is possible, if, with Thomas Jefferson, there is “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.”