Peggy Noonan tells the story of a trip to Normandy in 1991. Meeting an old man, he asked if they were American. When they affirmed this, the man insisted on a toast of calvados with the group. Because he remembered Americans. He remembered them liberating France, fighting and dying for people they did not know. He remembered the good guys.
He didn't welcome us because he knew us. He didn't treat us like royalty because we had done anything for him. He honored us because we were related to, were the sons and daughters of, the men of the Normandy Invasion. The men who had fought their way through France hedgerow by hedgerow, who'd jumped from planes in the dark and climbed the cliffs and given France back to the French. He thought we were of their sort. And he knew they were good. He'd seen them, when he was young.
I've been thinking of the old man because of Iraq and the coming debate on our future there. Whatever we do or should do, there is one fact that is going to be left on the ground there when we're gone. That is the impression made by, and the future memories left by, American troops in their dealings with the Iraqi people.
I don't mean the impression left by the power and strength of our military. I mean the impression left by the character of our troops– by their nature and generosity, by their kindness. By their tradition of these things.
The American troops in Iraq, our men and women, are inspiring, and we all know it. But whenever you say it, you sound like a greasy pol: "I support our valiant troops, though I oppose the war," or "If you oppose the war, you are ignoring the safety and imperiling the sacrifice of our gallant troops."
I suspect that in their sophistication–and they are sophisticated–our troops are grimly amused by this. Soldiers are used to being used. They just do their job.
Noonan is quite right. You cannot write positive things about the American troops as the good guys without sounding like a "greasy pol". On the other hand, the anti-war left stridently attempts to impose a different narrative on the troops. Painting them in as bad a light as they can muster. Relentless screeching about Abu Ghraib, despite the fact that the reason that became news is because it was so out of character. Relentless smears of them and their efforts, a la Scott Thomas Beauchamp or Jesse Macbeth.
Noonan points out that there are statues of Russian soldiers in various places in Europe that are locally called "The Unknown Rapist":
But this makes me think of the statue I saw once in Vienna, a heroic casting of a Red Army soldier. Quite stirring. The man who showed it to me pleasantly said it had a local nickname, "The Unknown Rapist." There are similar memorials in Estonia and Berlin; they all have the same nickname.
There is a reason for that, one that isn't talked about.
The first rapes in East Prussia were an eruption of pure rage, bloody revenge for Wehrmacht atrocities on Soviet soil in the march to Stalingrad; soldiers destroyed homes, raped women — some as young as 12 — and killed children. But revenge could not have been the sole motive, for even Soviet prisoners of war and Jewish survivors were not safe; some, as young as 16, were raped by the soldiers who set them free. By the time the first libidinous Soviet wandered into the diarist's cellar a few months later — pointing menacingly to a teenage girl and asking "How many year?" — German women appeared to the Red Army simply as rightful spoils of war.
It was systematic, it was routine. Over and over and over again. And I rather doubt that a Russian balloonist tumbling to earth in those areas would be treated to a toast.