Photograph of the gates to the Flanders Field American WWI Cemetery in Belgium
Greetings to all from Brussels – I arrived yesterday as a Marshall Memorial Fellow. For those interested, here are some observations being discussed among the U.S. and European Fellows. Today we discussed the challenges of modern societies embracing a diversity of perspectives and views. The text originally posted here.(1) The globalized world now means that one’s next door neighbor may have a completely different religion, ethnicity, and national background. While I have found with travel and learn I am perfectly okay with such differences in backgrounds — I’m not sure if everyone has had the same experiences, or is comfortable with such dramatic diversity. For close-knit communities, having a newcomer who doesn’t match the norms of behavior for a community can create tensions, which then raises questions about how can we co-exist in an increasingly globalized world? Given that our world is becoming more and more connected, how can we together work to embrace differences in religion, ethnicity, and national background?
How can we work together and help us all to embrace diverse backgrounds and define community to include “strangers different than oneself”?
This is hard, yet ultimately in my opinion this is a sign of civilization when we don’t “kill or isolate” newcomers, or those with new and different than our own. (2) On a related note, today the Marshall Memorial Fellows in Belgium toured different American, British, and German World War One cemeteries. Each cemetery told a bit about the differences in perceived individualism versus collectivism for each nation. Specifically:
* U.S. cemeteries: individual crosses or Stars of David for each known soldier in a neat orderly line. The neat orderly line didn’t happen during the war (when the soldiers were killed) — instead this occurred because the soldiers were reburied after the war depending on the wishes of their family. Any body was temporarily buried by the deceased squad mates with the intention of returning. If the U.S. family wanted the body sent back to the States for burial it was exhumed and sent home. Otherwise, after the period of repatriation had passed, the bodies of U.S. soldiers were exhumed and buried all in a central spot with a central orderly design, including a tomb for the unknown soldiers whose bodies could not be identified and a wall for those “missing”, or never found. This included the moving Flanders Field and the now-famous poem by the Canadian Lt. Colonel John McCrae. The image of the poppies he used in the poem arose because poppies only grow when the soil has been turned, i.e. someone has been buried. They also come up blood red and only last five to six days, much like unfortunately most of the soldiers on the front line in World War One. To this day the U.S. continues the practice of repatriation and returning home soldiers from overseas conflicts, including Vietnam.* British cemeteries: scattered across Belgium for the most part, because the British buried folks where they died and did not exhume the bodies with only a few exceptions. Instead of crosses or Stars of David, everyone has a headstone with the insignia of their regiment — be it the Rifles from Australia, or the Infantry from New Zealand, or even an Irish Corps (the British promised Southern Ireland Independence if they served in World War One). Here nationality tied to the empire is emphasized. The exception is Tyne Cot — where the British made a big push in the autumn of 1917 to seize the deep water port of Bruges to cut-off Germany access to the North Sea/English Channel, where they were deploying U-boats. Unfortunately the Allied Forces opted for an infantry and cavalry push — even though 3 years of trench warfare should have demonstrated that modern machine guns made horse-ridden cavalry near impossible. More than 200,000 to 400,000 Allied troops died and 200,000 to 400,000 German troops also died at the Battle of Passchendaele. Winter set in before the Allied troops could get to Bruges — everything froze and forward movement was impossible. Normally the British forces would have used this time to bury their dead, however snow and ice also covered the field and it was impossible to find all the bodies. When the spring thaw arrived the Germans pushed the British forces back before the British could bury their dead. When World War One ended and the British finally could work with the Belgian government to bury their dead, this was one of the few exceptions where they did do — similar to the U.S. — an architect-developed memorial with 11,908 headstones in a neat line (minus a few exceptions where some had been legitimately buried in late 1917), and a wall with the names of more than 34,000 missing soldiers. Tyne Cot is the largest British war cemetery in the world. One interesting side note: the British allowed families to pick what each headstone said and did not censor controversial statements. One example for a Captain C.S. Jeffries, VC of the 34th Australian Infantry who died at age 23: “on fame’s eternal camping ground, their silent tents are spread.” * German cemeteries: the Germans buried their soldiers where they died. However, unlike the U.S. or British, they opted to bury them all together. While for some this might offend more individualistic sensibilities, for the Germans what you did on the battlefield was for the greater good of Germany, the collective. They also kept much more meticulous records of their dead. For every evening during the war, once they heard the last bugle from the Allied forces to “stand down”, the Germans would also call their troops to report for roll call. Those not accounted for were listed as missing as of that date, and those whose bodies or remains could be found were buried in a single grave. Later the people of Belgium required the Germans to consolidate their dead into only a few locations in their country.In sum, each of these examples show how different nationalities balance individualism versus nationalism as is being considered by the Marshall Memorial Fellows during our travels this month. Visiting the cemeteries prompted much reflection about human nature and living together in an increasingly connected world.
One important and rather big, thorny question I think we all should consider is did we learn anything from both WWI and WWII to ensure we never see another World War like either of them again?