Alex Massie

Fred Thompson’s message to the world: your dead don’t count

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Many years ago now, I had occasion to change trains at Pisa en route to Perugia and it was there, I think, that I first became aware of the Ugly American phenomenon. The station was pretty quiet as I recall, or rather it would have been had the air not been filled with the screeching complaints of a well-upholstered middle-aged American lady, dressed in the standard issue kit for European expeditions: too tight t-shirt, loose shorts, white socks and sneakers, complaining loudly about the station masters' reluctance or inability to confirm that the reservation she held for her party was valid or not.

So far so normal. This was Italy. The trains run on time because the timetables are generous and so on. Nonetheless, this was, I believe, the first time I ever heard the phrase "Saved your sorry asses". In her furious exasperation at the Italian's inability to speak English - a shocking offence to be added to what was evidently a litany of grievances that demonstrated Europe's hideous difference and inferiority to the United States - it became apparent that Italians were insufficiently grateful to the United States for, yes, "saving" their "sorry asses" half a century ago. These people, I ask you, you think they'd remember to show some respect? But no, not at all.

Fast forward a decade and recall the New York Post's assault on France in the run-up to the Iraq war. The Post despatched one its star writers to France to write a disgraceful piece arguing, if memory serves, that the bodies' of dead American soldiers should be brought back to the United States in protest at the French government's cowardly and ungrateful reluctance to support President Bush's plans for war. The French, you see, owed it to United States on account of having their "sorry asses" saved in 1944. It seems that for some Americans there is no statute of limitation that applies to these things. 60 years on the rest of the world should remember to tug a forelock before American idealism and goodness.

Because, as Fred Thompson constantly reminds us, Americans are unique. Only Americans fight for ideals and the liberty of all mankind. It is America's sacred duty to save the world time and time again whatever the cost and even if doing so rather regrettably ensures that the United states becomes the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world. Such squalid, materialistic concerns are the province of lesser nations.

Here's Thomson:

"This country has shed more blood for the liberty of other countries than all other countries put together."

Because, of course, the US fights for principle alone! Need one point out that, though fighting for liberty was part of the American war effort in the battle against fascism, it was scarcely the inspiration for it. Had it been so the US might not have waited to be attacked before entering the lists. No, the US came into the war for reasons of national interest and national defense little different (in theory if not in exact practice) to those imposed upon other combatants. To say this is not to diminish the nobility of the service rendered by those young boys from Oregon or Oklahoma; Alabama or Pennsylvania. But to pretend otherwise is to ignore the truth.

Still the idea that the American sacrifice is unique is powerful. If it's true then it also amplifies the grandeur of the glory won by America's best and bravest wherever they may give that final, full measure of devotion to their country. Sometimes, indeed, it seems as though there's not enough glory to go round, so the script must be rewritten.

A couple of examples: the movie U-571 was not a great hit (or a great film for that matter), but it was notable for another reason. It told the story of how an Enigma machine was captured from a crippled German submarine - and thus set in train a sequnce of events that was vital to winning the Battle of the Atlantic. The film was a conflation of a number of true stories with one significant exception: the submariners who captured the code machine and carried out other operations were in real-life British  - in the movie they became American.

This was not a new phenomenon. Errol Flynn's 1945 movie Objective Burma was not released in Britain after an outcry over the fact that it gave the impression that the Burma campaign - a largely* British-Australian venture - was actually an American operation.

The point is not that movies should emphasise or even acknowledge the allied nature of the war effort (though it would do no harm if they did. Yes, that means you Mr Spielberg). Nor do I mean to denigrate or cheapen the sacrifices made by American soldiers. I merely make the suggestion that Hollywood could surely find enough genuinely American stories to tell without having to pinch acts of heroism that properly belong to other countries.

The more this happens, of course, the more the impression is fostered that the US carried the day alone. As a Briton, I'm duty bound to observe that our role in the war effort is remembered more frequently than other nations'. The poor Canadians, despite their valour in two World Wars, are overlooked entirely.

No, instead there is this niggardly, bean-counting approach that declines to recognise the horrendous sacrifices made by other countries in what was, after all, a shared cause. An American President once recognised this. Heres Ronald Reagan speaking at the 40th anniversary of the Normandy landings:

I think I know what you may be thinking right now--thinking, "We were just part of a bigger effort; everyone was brave that day.'' Well, everyone was. Do you remember the story of Bill Millin of the 51st Highlanders? Forty years ago today, British troops were pinned down near a bridge, waiting desperately for help. Suddenly, they heard the sound of bagpipes, and some thought they were dreaming. Well, they weren't. They looked up and saw Bill Millin with his bagpipes, leading the reinforcements and ignoring the smack of the bullets into the ground around him.

Lord Lovat was with him--Lord Lovat of Scotland, who calmly announced when he got to the bridge, "Sorry I'm a few minutes late,'' as if he'd been delayed by a traffic jam, when in truth he'd just come from the bloody fighting on Sword Beach, which he and his men had just taken.

There was the impossible valor of the Poles who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of Europe as the invasion took hold, and the unsurpassed courage of the Canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast. They knew what awaited them there, but they would not be deterred. And once they hit Juno Beach, they never looked back.

All of these men were part of a rollcall of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore: the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland's 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England's armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard's "Matchbox Fleet'' and you, the American Rangers.

Not the least of Fred Thomson's disqualifications from the Presidency is that one cannot imagine him speaking with anything like this generosity of spirit.

Then again, much of the American right seems to prefer Thompson to Reagan these days. (Sure, they speak of Ronnie but only in the most superficial fashion). Here, for instance, is National Review's David Freddoso arguing - complete with the required sneer - that Thompson is right. If it ain't the Americans who top the league table of Sacrifice for Noble, Disinterested Reasons and Other People's Freedoms, then:

The alternative is the "British Commonwealth." So ANZAC and Indian soldiers — and even soldiers stolen by force from occupied Ireland — are to be counted as British? Well, that's interesting.

Ignoring the sophomoric crack about "occupied Ireland," perhaps Mr Freddoso should remember that there was no conscription on the island of Ireland during the First World War and none in Northern Ireland either. Perhaps he might also remember the thousands of Irishmen - from north and south, catholic and protestant alike - who fought in both world wars. And he might also recall that many of the thousands of the southern Irish who volunteered for service in 1914 did so because they believed a swift conclusion to the war would advance - nay be necessary to - the cause of Home Rule for Ireland. In that respect, then, these soldiers were indeed fighting for their own liberty and that of brave little Belgium. (The same might be said of the Indian Army in WW2: their service advanced the argument for Indian Independence no end). But these matters are complicated and, in any case, I digress.

The point is that these men's sacrifices are snubbed by Thompson's yahooism. Look, when Mark Steyn is moved to write:

Sorry, guys, if that's the level of bragadocio required, include me out. It should not be necessary in "supporting our troops" to denigrate everybody's else.

then you should realise you have a problem.

No-one  who has visited the cemeteries of northern France or stood on the cliffs of Normandy is ever likely to forget the heroism of the American soldiers who played such a vital part in winning the war. Nor has Europe forgotten. But that does not mean that even the most pro-American of us need swallow or put up with vulgar claims to American superiority that denigrate and diminish and insult the memories of those who served from other countries. Indeed, Thompson's know-nothingness could almost be designed to increase anti-American sentiment. Certainly it must foster resentment amongst anyone unfortunate enough to have come across this blundering buftie.

Ye gods, this post has rumbled on long enough. But for more on all this - including other references to Reagan's Pointe du Hoc speech - see Douthat and Larison here and here.

*Updated for clarity: there were American troops in Burma - think of Merril's Marauders in the northern campaign for instance - but the Flynn movie simply wrote the British and Australian troops out of the theatre entirely. It wasn't shown in Britain until 1952, and even then screenings were prefaced by an apology.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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