14 July 1995: [Sigh] I Can’t Be This Old

Passports is FREE on Kindle until July 15. Today being July 14 is the major reason. It’s to commemorate a personal anniversary. (Not the two decades that have passed!) Twenty years ago today, I was here:

A famous sight, in the distance (although not photographed on exactly July 14). [Photo by me, July 1995.]
A famous sight, in the distance (although not photographed on exactly July 14). Photo by me, July 1995.]

Before digital, iPhones, iPads…. and selfies (in those days *OTHER PEOPLE* took your picture!), with my 35mm camera (that used FILM you needed to have developed in a shop! Yes, really! Ancient history!), I snapped these pictures.

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Our Reality Is Fragility

Somehow I found myself in an argument over the phone on Wednesday evening with a member of the family in the States with whom I’ve argued vehemently quite a few times before. I had thought we’d by now put that sort of behavior behind us. Apparently, though, I’d “triggered” something in that individual and all hell broke loose from that side of the Atlantic.

The phone was slammed down on me. I can’t go into why and I really shouldn’t anyway. Suffice it to say we have all probably had something like that happen in our lives at some point or another.

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The Duke

No, not *that* “Duke”. Sorry. I mean this one:

"Wellington," by Richard Holmes. [Photo by me, 2015.]
“Wellington,” by Richard Holmes. [Photo by me, 2015.]

I’ve had it since Christmas. I thought I’d finally give it a read. Uh, it’s not War and Remembrance, of course. (Thank God!)

To French followers, please do not be offended. I have already read lots about Napoleon. ;-)

Hope you’re having a good weekend, wherever you are in the world. :-)

No Plans To Evacuate (At This Time)

In 2006, the U.S. State Department helped organize a mass evacuation of U.S. citizens from Lebanon during the Hezbollah-Israel war. However, currently, there seems no similar urgency on the part of the U.S. to evacuate a far smaller number of U.S. citizens from Yemen. Lawsuits have even been filed challenging the government’s not doing so.

As of April 11, this is what the Department of State has to say:

Yemen Crisis Update, April 11, 2015
Yemen Crisis Update, April 11, 2015

The page continues in sharing how Americans can perhaps leave courtesy of “third party” assistance, such as India’s:

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World War II: “What does it say about us?”

If you visit my modest site here regularly, you know I write novels revolving around young Americans abroad in the 1990s – in France in particular. Unsurprisingly, I have many French characters, one of whom is a Second World War veteran. Before heading down that literary path, as an academic I’d studied the war and its impacts on post-war Europe.

So please pardon an extremely serious – even depressing – post. For whenever American WWII involvement is cited non-chalantly in present political debates, I take notice. In this case, a former comedian (who now has a chatter show on HBO) tweeted breezily the other day that the U.S. had won WWII without resorting to torture:


We’ll leave aside his Cold War reference. We don’t know much that happened “quietly” in “black spots” and out of sight during the Cold War. But his raising it in that manner merely demonstrates he probably has only cursory knowledge about how the West and the Soviet bloc intelligence services went at each other viciously during those years, including resorting to umbrella poisonings, and in involving themselves (and sometimes succeeding) in overthrowing unfriendly governments, and then supporting torturers within the new governments.

Let’s focus instead on asking about “us” during the Second World War, which is a conflict that in U.S. lore today is now the last “good war.” Yes, millions of Americans served honorably. Yes, they helped liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. Yes, they helped end Japanese militarism. Freedom and democracy in Europe and much of the Pacific today owes a great deal to their sacrifices and accomplishments.

However, all of that did not come about without misery and death on what is now an incomprehensible scale. Two thousand years ago the Roman Tacitus famously wrote of his countrymen, “They make a desert, and they call it peace.” It could well be said that, between 1941-1945, America helped do much the same…. to “win” that former comedian’s version of the Second World War. Just a few examples:

  • U.S. soldiers raping Frenchwomen was not nearly as rare as we all might like to think it was.
  • After entering Dachau concentration camp near war’s end, U.S. soldiers herded captured guards together and shot them:
29 April 1945. Dachau, Bavaria, Germany: This picture shows an execution of SS troops in a coalyard in the area of Dachau concentration camp during the liberation of the camp. (Public domain.)
29 April 1945. Dachau, Bavaria, Germany: This picture shows an execution of SS troops in a coalyard in the area of Dachau concentration camp during the liberation of the camp. (Public domain.)
  • There were other occasions U.S. soldiers murdered captured PoWs, as in Sicily in 1943.
  • Following the D-Day battle, U.S. Rangers at Pointe du Hoc reportedly shot dead in cold blood French civilians they believed had fought alongside, or had artillery spotted for, the Germans.
  • In the several months’ long pre-D-Day air campaign that sought to hamper German movement by bombing roads and railways in German-occupied France, it is believed “we” may have also killed some 14,000 French civilians.
  • President Roosevelt oversaw years of carpet-bombings of Germany and Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians – including children.
  • President Truman ordered two atomic bombs dropped on cities full of Japanese non-combatants – including children.

Some of us either want us to think, or actually vaguely believe that, the U.S. fought WWII without engaging in “dirty” behavior – as if it were, say, a John Wayne movie. But the problem is even a “John Wayne” movie isn’t even always a “John Wayne” movie. In The Longest Day, the 1962 blockbuster about D-Day starring Wayne among a “cast of thousands,” note that in a brief scene a soldier behind Omaha Beach guns down a group of surrendering Germans…. at least one of whom clearly has his hands up.

November 11, 1918

At 11 AM, Britain falls silent for two minutes to remember Armistice Day. That tradition began after World War I, which ended on November 11, 1918. In the U.S., November 11 is now observed as Veterans Day.

Screen capture of the American Battle Monuments Commission's WWI page.
Screen capture of the American Battle Monuments Commission’s WWI page.

As Americans, we tend to remember World War II more than our role in World War I. The reasons why are varied, of course. On each 11th of November, though, while we honor all veterans, let us offer perhaps an extra nod to the end of the horrific First World War.

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world….

Normandy, 70 Years Ago

Seventy years ago today, the Allied liberation of Western Europe began. The first paratroops had jumped in shortly after midnight, and soldiers rushed ashore on the various Normandy beaches starting around 6:30 AM. On a stretch near a small town called Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, on what was codenamed “Omaha Beach,” Captain Richard Merrill, 2nd Ranger Battalion, remembered:

I was the first one out. The seventh man was the next one to get across the beach without being hit. All the ones in-between were hit. Two were killed; three were injured. That’s how lucky you had to be.

The exact invasion date had naturally been kept secret. Thus America awoke to the news. Hours after the landings, the President of the United States spoke to an anxious country:

Indeed, some of those soldiers of whom President Roosevelt spoke – such as those killed alongside Captain Merrill – of course did not return:

The grave of U.S. Lieutenant General Lesley McNair, in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. McNair was killed in Normandy, July 25, 1944. He was the highest ranking U.S. soldier to die in combat in the Second World War. [Photo by me, 1995.]
The grave of U.S. Lieutenant General Lesley McNair, in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. McNair was killed in Normandy, July 25, 1944. He was the highest ranking U.S. soldier to die in combat in the Second World War. [Photo by me, 1995.]

Colleville-sur-Mer is merely perhaps the best-known resting place for those who fell. The American Battle Monuments Commission has been responsible for new U.S. military cemeteries since 1923. Its web site lists all of them around the world, and also includes the names of those interred. It is well-worth a thoughtful browse.

And if as an American you ever get a chance to visit in person, you should consider doing so.

“A German bomb hit No. 257….”

We spent Bank Holiday Monday – which coincided, by chance, with U.S. Memorial Day – unexpectedly on the receiving end of impromptu family recollections of the Second World War in Britain. Over our London lunch table, my in-laws (aided by red wine) shared some childhood memories with us. We’d heard some before; but others were new to us. Here are a few particularly poignant ones:

Father-in-law: “We got one egg a week, for three of us. My mother would boil it and carefully slice it three ways.”

Mother-in-law [to my wife]: “Your father’s father was out in Patricia Bay, with those Canadian women chasing after him. He had a lovely war.”

Father-in-law: “Uncle B’s tank was hit by enemy fire in Tunisia. He spent months in hospital there. As soon as he was better, they sent him back out to fight. He ended up at Monte Cassino, but he never talked about it. It must’ve been hell.”

Mother-in-law: “My father stationed in Scotland would send us food packages. I just remember meat. At the cinema once we saw an American film in which children were sitting at a dinner table. One complained to the mother, ‘Oh, no, not chicken again.’ The whole cinema groaned. What we all would have given to have had a chicken dinner.”

Father-in-law: “Uncle M. trained with the RAF in South Africa. He qualified as a pilot just as the war ended. Lucky devil. Saw no fighting.”

Mother-in-law: “I don’t remember fear. Once I remember a ‘V’ bomb hitting not far away. We didn’t think anything of it. Maybe we were so young, we didn’t understand. It was a lark.”

Father-in-law: “At night, the Luftwaffe would fly overhead, and the air defence had these huge searchlights all around London that illuminated as far as the eye could see. Occasionally, they’d spot a German bomber, and our boys would knock it out of the sky. They were kids, just like our lads. 18, 19, 20 years old.”

Mother-in-law: “I spent the beginning of the war with my aunt in Ireland. But my older sister didn’t go. My mother finally sent for me to come back to London. [Tears in her eyes, she added] She believed if we were going to die, she wanted us all to die together.”

Father-in-law: “You can’t imagine how terrifying it was to see the RAF dogfighting in daylight with the Germans. You would see planes circle and circle, leaving their wakes behind them. If one of them went down, we always cheered when we knew it was the bloody enemy.”

Father-in-law: “A German bomb hit No. 257, across the road from our house. It blew out all of our windows. My mother screamed to us to get under the stairs.”

 Free Stock Photo: Illustration of St Pauls Cathedral in London, England.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of St Pauls Cathedral in London, England.

Mother-in-law: “We wouldn’t have won the war without the Americans….”

Me: “….We were a bit late turning up.”

Mother-in-law: “What mattered is you came and we couldn’t have won without you.”

As soon as I could, I jotted down what I could recall of what they had said. You don’t hear stuff like that twice sometimes. What one may learn during what starts out as an innocuous meal….

“Disengaging” From “The World”?

On one hand, we had heard for years that the U.S. was too engaged; it was the world’s policeman, or the world’s cowboy, or the imperialist. On the other hand, we had been told, and continue to hear, that the U.S. must be prepared to intervene anywhere, anytime, within, apparently, minutes. All that is worth bearing in mind, as we read this by Peter Foster, in The Telegraph:

….the current geopolitical landscape, which is being shaped by a “notable decline” in US foreign policy characterized by Barack Obama’s ultra-pragmatism in foreign affairs….

….the idea that the US is both challenged by a rising China but also withdrawing from the world, [is] creating deep uncertainty among old allies over how far the US is prepared to underwrite the existing world order….

….in a new world order where everyone now doubts where they stand, the US remains confident it can look after itself. But as the US disengages, Britain, particularly a Britain drifting away from Europe, should be much less sanguine.

I never know quite how to approach such talk. “The idea” underlying the piece’s premise is simply wrong: the U.S. is not “disengaging,” and will not, from “the world.” Americans are not living in “1920”. They know that.

Rather it appears that after a decade of wars and economic upheaval at home, Americans are currently just a bit weary. In short, they are not “disengaging” so much as resisting finding themselves drawn front and center into seemingly every dispute – especially military – everywhere. However, even if their leaders occasionally blunder, Americans earnestly wish their U.S. always to be a solid, reliable ally.

Early today, RAF Lakenheath reported sadly:

1/8/2014 – ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England — Four Airmen were killed in a U.S. Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crash at about 6 p.m. yesterday near Salthouse on the Norfolk coast.

Names of the Airmen killed in the crash will be released 24 hours after next-of-kin notifications.

U.S. military officials are coordinating the recovery efforts with the U.K. police and the Ministry of Defence. The authorities have secured the crash site and established a cordon….

Almost 6,000 U.S personnel are at RAF Lakenheath. Britain remains, for Americans, an extraordinary ally and friend. Despite what some journalists have convinced themselves, that is not changing anytime soon.