Impressions about the military and wars overseas can be complicated and even deceptive. When I was 8 my father told me that Europeans had fought a war that lasted 100 years. With only the World War II films to go by I decided then and there they were the most barbaric people on earth. Over time I have had cause to remember that impression because many years later now living in London I have sometimes felt that the tables have turned. Now it is they who see Americans as barbarians and they who are seeking isolation from “American wars” as a Daily Telegraph journalist wrote. In my briefings for American students headed for Britain I always warned them that British troops fighting alongside the US military and all the ceremony around Remembrance Day (Veterans Day) hide a cultural gap between how Americans and the British feel about their military.
Today Americans evince a positive view of the military overall. Those who do not are careful how they voice criticism lest their comments be misinterpreted as unpatriotic and unsupporting of the military: men, women and families. It is certainly different in the UK and particularly among the young who have only known peace in Europe and the middle aged who remember and never moved on from the anti Vietnam war protests in America in the 1960s which they supported. The military to them is another world. As this is a significant chunk of the population, support for troops can appear divided. They are certainly honored in death but the public support for them while they are fighting is not clear. I was struck by a letter to a newspaper written by a chaplain serving with British troops in Iraq. In it he implored the British public to emulate Americans by writing letters to their troops. The public responded but I remember being shocked someone felt it necessary to ask.
If you are living abroad for the first time or are planning to do so, it is important not to draw conclusions regarding how a society feels about their military and/or the US based on what their armies are doing. In Britain many people see their troops primarily as peacekeepers whatever the reality and are put off by the fact that Americans seem comfortable with their military. If you enter into a conversation about wars this is something to keep in mind.
Interestingly, there is no problem with Americans and the military comfort zone when it comes to criticizing them for their role in the first and second world wars. If you are moving to Britain you may be surprised to learn that we did not save the allied side in those wars – at least not in the British version of events. British officials speaking to American audiences may refer to the “sacrifice of Americans” and “shoulder to shoulder” but Con Couglin of the Daily Telegraph was more in tune with public opinion when he wrote “… the Americans have an irritating habit of turning up late, and then claiming all the glory, as was the case in the two world wars.” With regard to World War II these words betray feelings of hurt, anger and exasperation that have accumulated over the years when Americans proclaimed that they had saved the British without crediting their bravery in holding out alone against Hitler after the fall of France and before the Soviet Union entered the war thus keeping the Atlantic and the US homeland from being on the front line. Nevertheless, I would rather they pointed this out directly instead of acting as though the wars were a dinner party and we had rudely kept the hostess waiting or even worse assuming that we should adopt a colonial stance and jump straight into a conflict on a timetable dictated by treaties they signed but we didn’t.
When in conversation over complex military topics be sure you understand and credit the sacrifices other countries have made for their own freedom. Then if need be, remind them that wars are not parties and that we went into both wars at precisely the right time for us – when we were attacked.
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