A matter of perspective

What conflict defined the 20th century more than any other? For an American, it would certainly be WWII. The first half of the century led up to and included it; the second half was shaped by it.

Counterintuitively, it is not the same for our "special relationship" partners across the Atlantic. I was reminded of this when I read a recent obituary in The Economist. As I’ve said before, I particularly enjoy reading those; they’re always so well written and I learn so much about the times I have lived in. (But sometimes I’m a little behind, this one ran May 26.)

The deceased was Albert ("Smiler") Marshall, who at 108 was the last British cavalryman of the First World War. As a cavalryman, of course, he embodied the loss of romantic innocence that his generation suffered in that conflict.

Anyway, what really struck me about the piece was this passage:

Very few men—perhaps a dozen now in Britain—survive from the conflict that marked modern history, and seared the modern conscience, more than any other.

The Great War traumatized Britain in a way that remains hard for Americans to understand. We saw it in British attitudes toward fighting Hitler — it’s why Chamberlain was a hero when he came back from Munich.

It’s even why, I suppose, the British public is so much less supportive of Tony Blair‘s decisions regarding the war in Iraq than Americans are of President Bush’s. (You think we’ve got dissent here, you haven’t seen dissent.) That might seem a stretch, but it seems as likely as anything else to explain the divergence of national characters when it comes to martial matters.

Europeans wonder when we’ll lose our bloodyminded cowboy innocence, and grow up. We wonder at their squeamishness. But to the extent that we can understand them at all, we can pretty much pinpoint where they lost their sense of the glory of war. It was at the Somme, and in the never-ending mud of the trenches.

We celebrate Sergeant York. They celebrate nothing about the whole, horrid mess. This continues to separate us.

There are many who would not have it so. I detect in the rhetoric of many who oppose this war a disappointment that we are not more like the British in this respect. Many believe that Vietnam should have done for this country what the First World War did for the UK. Actually, for them, it did. They seem perplexed that other Americans haven’t "grown up" the way they have, or the way the Brits — or more to the point, the French and the Germans — have. (And don’t forget soon-to-be-ex-Speaker David Wilkins’ new friends up north.)

This causes there to be more acrimony in the debate over the war than would be there otherwise. The fact that the rest of us didn’t become John Kerry causes them to look upon us with contempt — when they’re not just blaming it on "that cowboy."

One thought on “A matter of perspective

  1. james potter

    i am not sure the comparison to britain is accurate. britain has a history of using diplomacy with a strong navy.–the land wars just traumatized them greatly. i think america’s ambivilance toward the iraq matter involves two themes–many people are troubled by preemptive attacks by a democracy and conversely, as long as it is a volunteer’s war it doesn’t matter to many of us. europe is war weary and happy to decrease its defense expenditures; america sees force as easier than diplomacy when its armed forces are vastly superior; our neutrality in ww1 and ww2 were partially the products of a weak military.


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