for release Friday April 30, 2004
by Melodie Davis
Learning From the Past
“What am I doing here?” I asked myself while exploring World War I and II memorials and battlegrounds in Belgium, Luxembourg and France two years ago this April. It was one of those marital compromises you make after 26 years of marriage. My husband, Stuart, agreed to splurge on a trip to Europe to visit our daughter studying for a semester in Belgium, if he would have a chance to take in some things he’d always wanted to see: the Maginot line, the underground fortresses in places like Verdun and Veckering, France, and the Battle of the Bulge near Bastogne, Belgium.
My husband is a real student of World War II: watching old movies; reading history, battle, and equipment books; devouring encyclopedia entries; and absorbing more documentaries on the History Channel than I care to mention.
But there I was: staring at the grave marker of General George S. Patton at the American cemetery near the capital city of Luxembourg, Luxembourg; getting the eebie jeebies in miles of tunnels in underground fortresses near the village of Veckering, France; and climbing up the Belgium-American Friendship memorial near Bastogne, Beligum, constructed by genuinely grateful Belgium citizens. Plaques there expressed appreciation to U.S. soldiers for coming—as the Belgians saw it—to their aid in an hour when they faced what they feared would be their total destruction.
Europeans grateful for Americans helping them out? It was a new thought. We read accounts and saw photos revealing the extreme cold, boredom, exhaustion, exertion and fears soldiers faced: how did they hang on? Since I believe firmly in the value of expanding one’s horizons through travel, coming face to face (as far as that is possible without living it) with the horrors of war by crawling into actual World War I trenches gave me new appreciation for the human suffering the people endured, and new desire to work for a day when we will find new ways to de-escalate conflict. If World War I was supposed to be the “war that would end all wars,” maybe it is time to revisit that concept.
Just when my daughter and I thought we had had our fill of military history, my husband looked up an obscure, almost hidden Museum of National Military History in Diekirch, Luxembourg. Housed in what looked like a metal-framed warehouse and visible only because of a few small signs pointing the way, I really wondered what we were getting into.
The place was practically empty (the guest book showed there had only been a handful of visitors that day) but it was absolutely brimming with war paraphernalia and gear, any collector’s dream. There were photos, writings, and odd memorabilia. The guns and tanks didn’t much interest me, of course, but candid, personal photos provided interesting glimpses of the camaraderie the men must have shared. There were also devastating, telling photos of slain U.S. troops—something our own press, at least in my own memory and exposure, would have sanitized and avoided printing—understandably, perhaps, out of respect to the dead and their families.
The propaganda wars engaged in by both sides as evidenced by the disheartening pamphlets, posters and fliers that were dropped on the troops were revealing. The gist of some of the pieces, written in poor English and directed to the Allies: “Young man, why are you over here? Your girlfriend is probably getting ready to write you a Dear John letter. Give up; go home. You are engaged in a useless effort.” And pamphlets in German delivered by Allied air power tried to convince them their cause was useless, too. Disinformation campaigns are nothing especially new.
The human side of the soldiers was also shown in the life-like (if a little dusty) dioramas displaying everything from infantrymen pushing a boat full of gear over two feet of snow, to soldiers cooking a Thanksgiving dinner. Posters said that the traditional birds had been shipped in from the U.S. much to the delight of the soldiers, and of the local children with whom the G.I.’s shared their turkey.
At best, in reliving history through travel, your eyes are opened to learn from the mistakes of the past, and find parts of yourself in the process. Perhaps on another trip I will get to visit the places which are special to my faith heritage where my Anabaptist forebears sacrificed their lives for their beliefs in ideals like freedom of religion and separation of church and state (for Mennonite/Anabaptist history, see www.thirdway.com). Perhaps I will have a chance to visit the caves where Anabaptists hid from people who wanted them dead for their religious beliefs, and the Limmat River near Zurich where Felix Manz was drowned for his beliefs—even after he had earlier saved his captor from drowning himself in a life and death chase.
Maybe one day humans will learn to stop killing each other over their religious beliefs.
For a free booklet, “Making War & Making Peace,” write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 824 words; end material = 105 words
We would appreciate it if you would include the "Globe Syndicate" bug at the end of the column.
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