(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)
This isn’t part of our “Facts Behaving Badly” series, but I’ll open with a very common, very inaccurate understanding of Europeans: They hate Americans.
This “fact” isn’t true. Some Europeans dislike Americans, but they actually dislike our government’s response to 9/11. (Then again, so do Michael C and I.) And even if they do hate Americans, they actually hate each other much more. When I lived in Europe for a year, I loved asking English-speaking Europeans, “Hey, which other countries do you dislike?” They always had an answer.
The French hate the Germans and Italians. The Germans beef with the French and Italians. Croatians loathe Serbians. Most countries dislike the British, the Swedish have a rivalry with the Finnish, Italians hate most everyone, and so it goes. But “hate” isn’t the right word. These countries just prefer their own languages, cultures and foods (It’s why the British love marmite.), and they’ve been arguing over obscure border disputes for centuries. Rivalry, something akin to sports rivalries, probably makes more sense.
I bring this up to mention a group that Europeans, at least the ones I met, do hate:
I didn’t just spend a year in Europe; I spent a year in Vicenza, Italy, home to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, with Michael C, an active-duty American Army officer. An incurable distance separated us from any Italian man or woman we met. Michael C was a soldier who didn’t speak Italian, and the Army had stationed him in their country.
One memory: in a hostel in Munich, a young soldier, on the fourth of July--which, from the continental perspective, is a meaningless date--draped himself in the American flag, got rowdy drunk at the bar, and shouted at anyone--mostly Americans and British civilians, ironically--who complained, “Hey, we saved your asses in World War II.”
Which brings me to the point of this post: during the entire debate on how America should win prolonged insurgencies in two different countries, no one has made the following point:
People hate foreign soldiers stationed in their country.
Hate them. Civilians absolutely and unequivocally hate the soldiers who occupy their territory. It is an innate hatred, borne out of survival instinct and fear. It doesn’t matter if that foreign army saved the people from a dictator, or if the government invited the foreign army into the country, or that army saved the people from near certain death, or the army pays rent to the locals, the people will still despise that army. It doesn’t matter if your army is the most greatest, “highest trained, most professional, best military in history", you will still be hated.
Just ask the founding fathers; they didn’t even like our own soldiers. They wrote an entire constitutional amendment (the much forgotten third) against the quartering of our own troops, that’s how much they despised the presence of soldiers.
Take the British population during World War II. Many British, during World War II--I repeat--during World War II, disliked the American soldiers carousing their bars and sleeping with their women. The late Andy Rooney explains:
“The British Isles were overrun with American soldiers by the end of 1943. It doesn’t matter whether an occupying army is friend or enemy, it’s still uncomfortable for the country being occupied. For all that and all the problems, the British and the Americans got along well...
“Elsie Armitage, the woman who rented the room to Dick Koenig and me...would often see us in the hall door...and call out to us to come and have a spot of tea and some cake she had made. She was puzzled and embarrassed that her fifteen-year-old nephew...detested Americans. We would occasionally meet him in the hall and his wordless attitude was obvious.”
In the entire history of troops occupying a foreign country, this has to have been the single best case scenario. One country invited another country--which shares the same language, religion, culture and has an unbreakable “historic bond”--to help it fight evil personified, and still, still, young Brits hated our soldiers. Even though our presence helped save England and continental Europe from Nazi rule, young British men--not all, but at least some--irrationally despised our soldiers.
Now imagine the worst case scenario: an army has invaded. That army and its soldiers have killed thousands of civilians. They don’t speak the language, hole up in bases they rarely leave, and have a foreign religion and culture that many consider evil.
Think an insurgent group would have trouble recruiting a young man in those circumstances?
I wrote this post to put into perspective the massive burden weighing down our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. We want to believe America’s soldiers are the “greatest ambassadors of freedom” the world has ever known. And many reading this post will say, “Sure that applies to other armies, but not the American army.” Sorry, that just isn’t true. We have to realize from the outset that the populations in American occupied countries will be inclined to hate us, and we need to do everything we can to fight this hate.