Tuesday, June 1, 2010

US Memorial Day, American and European approaches to patriotism

My children asked me what Memorial Day commemorates. Like many Americans of my generation I never gave Memorial Day much thought beyond associating it with a day off work, barbecues and the beginning of summer. While I had a feeling it had something to do with honoring Americans who had died in wars, I didn’t know the exact answer so I looked it up in Wikipedia, where I learned that it was

« First enacted to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War – it is celebrated near the day of reunification after the Civil War – it was extended after World War I to honor Americans who have died in all wars. »

The Civil War origin is interesting because, for Americans, this was the most devastating war we have ever fought in terms of American casualties ; the only war since American Independence to have been fought on our own soil and the only war to have significantly impacted American civilians.

I was touched to see many of my American friends on Facebook post pictures of tombstones of their parents or grandparents who had served in the US Armed Forces, kind of exotic too because, in Europe, I have not detected much patriotism or pride in military service among anybody of my generation (children of the Baby Boom). I wonder if this does not have to do with the shadow cast by World War I, World War II or the Spanish Civil War (not to mention the relatively recent independence struggles of many former European colonies). In my children’s British school, two of their required reading books have been about the Blitz and I spent yesterday evening helping my fifth-grade daughter study for a history test on World War I—and was struck by the total of 9 million dead.

I remember an argument with an American boss who was very critical of France’s quick surrender during WWII. I responded that I don’t think they had much will to fight after World War I. Contrary to Germany, the major WWI battles were fought on their own soil. My grandfather, who fought for France in WWII, spent most of the War in German prisoner of war camps, which got progressively worse each time he escaped, marking a progressive descent into Hell. In a perverse way he did not resent the Germans, despite the inhumane living conditions and sadistic practices of the guards in Rawa-Ruska camp in the Ukraine. He felt that they were « just doing their job », whereas he reserved his true ire for his fellow Frenchmen and prisoners of war for their lack of will to fight, for not trying to escape from the POW camps and most of all for turning him in every time he escaped, resulting in various punishments ranging from solitary confinement to having his eye lashes burned off. The most psychologically damaging element of this experience came from witnessing the treatment of people who were far worse off than he. This came about when he and fellow Belgian and French POWs were used to unload train cars, filled with the near-dead occupants being shipped to a nearby concentration camp.

The war ended, my grandfather married my grandmother and they moved to the US, but the memories of his POW experience stayed with him. My uncles describe how he would toss cigarette cartons to the prisoners working along the road in chain gangs in the Rural South of the 1950s. Having been a prisoner himself, he sympathized and knew that cigarettes are their universal currency. My maternal grandfather loved his adopted homeland (he had to reaquire American nationalilty even though his father was American, because he had spent most his life in France and served in the French army during WWII). He became quite the patriotic citizen, inspiring his two older sons to volunteer for military service during the Vietnam war.

To the extent that my grandfather chose to leave France after WWII and immigrate to America and had very ambivalent feelings about his experiences in the French army during WWII, I can see why my experience of patriotism differ drastically from European counterparts whose grandparents lived through World War II or Spanish counterparts, whose grandparents grew up in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War.

The European Union has always felt like a pragmatic union to me. Pragmatism works great when « the rising tide is lifting all ships » but is a hard rallying cry in tough times when people are asked to make sacrifices. Then it gets all to easy to focus on differences and who is not « sacrificing enough ».

It has always seemed to me that nationalistic identification with any one of the European countries is something you are or aren’t born into. It has to do with the fact that your ancestors lived in the same place for many hundreds of years, alongside other people who share a common culture and ethnicity (Although this is changing with more recent waves of immigration…)—a real challenge when you try to build a union among countries, who were fighting each other and themselves 70 and 80 years ago.

As far as a pan-European « identity » among people my age, if it exists, I’d be hardpressed to define it. Patriotism is seen as sort of an embarrassing relic of and painful memory from their grandparents’ generations. The social welfare mentality leads to a lot entitlement regarding what the state should be giving them, but (like many of their generational American counterparts) not so much interest when it comes to giving back. Compulsory military service has mostly been abolished and I don’t see any real respect for voluntary military service here—the general idea seems to be that if you are smart, you choose to earn a lot more money in the private sector. On the other hand, in Europe, going into politics and public administration is seen as a more prestigious career choice than in the US…

One way I do not see a major difference with Europe is my (Gen X) and the following, Boomlet (1980 and later), US generations’ tendency to feel like JFK’s « Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country » failed, along with a lot of the other social ideals of the 1960s—and to full-heartedly embrace a much more 1980s Boomer ethos of individualism and consumerism. However, when I see the Memorial Day Facebook posts I can’t help but wonder if the US, as a much younger country whose inhabitants may or may not share a common ethnicity or past cultural heritage, does benefit from the fact that we have a national identity that is based on choosing and being taught to reaffirm a common set of values. As for the economic crisis, having a strong, federal government definitely makes it easier for the US--a federal government whose structure and integrity we had to fight a Civil War to preserve…so all in all, interesting for me to learn that the origin of Memorial Day was US reunification.

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