James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Friday, April 06, 2007

Thoughts on a quick trip to Normandy

Got home a couple of days ago from a very quick trip to France, and have some stray thoughts rattling around in my skull, separate from the accumulated information and insights that were the purpose of my brief visit.

Can't resist putting a couple of them down, but the comments will be brief. Within a few days I'll get back to what is more usual here.

I went with a friend on a guided tour of D-Day battle sites. The trip included daily lectures by a retired U.S. Army colonel who is a military historian. We saw a number of short films, and made visits to several museums dedicated to the events of June 1944 in Normandy. At some of the museums we got additional observations from staff curators and historians. There also were a number of short, informal explanatory talks at places such as the Omaha and Utah beaches.

My traveling companion and I became friends in kindergarten. We went through all of our schooling together, although we had different majors in college and pursued different careers. We even served in the same National Guard unit after graduation from university and completing Army active duty. These days we and our wives get together with some other folks at least once a month.

We also share a deep interest in history, particularly the period that begins just before World War I and runs to the present – with special focus on World War II and its role in shaping our world.

My old pal is what generally would be described as a moderate conservative with a strong tendency to liberal/progressive positions on social issues. I, of course, am an unrelenting liberal.

Most of the 20 other people on the tour – only three women – showed themselves to be what I think of as blue-collar middle class conservatives. They're highly skilled craftsmen and trades people who believe the U.S. of A. is always in the right in international affairs, but that it has become way too liberal about things like gender equality and gay rights. They know that one must always “support our troops,” which means to most of them unquestioningly supporting any war our leaders take us into.

A couple, including a highly educated former business executive who now writes a syndicated weekly newspaper column, are more upscale right wingers.

An example: One older fellow, traveling with a charming, somewhat younger woman who is not his wife, was good company until the question of church denominations and their beliefs became a topic for dinner discussion one night. The man said he'd been a Missouri Synod Lutheran most of his life, but that he left the denomination and became an Anglican -- “not an Episcopalian” -- a few years ago because the Missouri Synod had become “too liberal," especially "about things like gays.”

He got murmurs of understanding and agreement from others at our table, while my pal and I gave each other arched-eyebrow "He's gotta be kidding" looks.

You have to know a bit about the various Christian denominations in America to appreciate his assessment of the Missouri Synod. The short version is that the synod always has been somewhat, and often far, to the right of the Roman Catholic Church and about even with Southern Baptists on most issues, but especially those involving any aspect of gender or sexuality.

I was raised in a Missouri Synod church, but left it at the age of 15 because of what I identified as its extreme right-wing posture.

So it was interesting when our tour lecturer noted in one talk that while “there's been a lot of tension between our countries in recent years,” most of the people of Normandy still are deeply grateful for their deliverance in World War II and remain friendly to Americans.

Like the comments about the Missouri Synod's liberalism, that statement drew understanding nods from most of our fellow travelers, but provoked a couple of quick and different thoughts in my head.

First, I have spent a total of five or six weeks in France in the past four years, traveling only with my wife, not on tours that shelter you from contact with locals, and have had only one unfriendly encounter that might – and only might -- be attributed to hostility toward the people of the United States.

Secondly, the “tensions” of which the colonel spoke seem in my experience to be very much more deeply felt on this side of the ocean, and are entirely attributable to French audacity in declining to be slaves to American foreign policy.

A widely held though little discussed view in this country, one clearly shared by almost all of my fellow Normandy tourists, is that America has somehow acquired a divine right to call the shots for all other countries, and any sovereign nation that does not bend knee to our government's will is not just wrong but, mysteriously, also somehow “cowardly.”

There didn't seem to be much to be gained in pointing out that the French were dead right in their belief that the neocon decision to invade Iraq was both stupid and morally and legally wrong.

Other than that I'm still digesting what I saw and heard from a purely historical perspective.

Oh, and puzzling yet again over one little mystery that grabs my attention every time I go to Europe: What amusement do Europeans derive from winding white sandpaper on rollers and placing those rolls in bathrooms?

As the king said to Anna: “It is a puzzlement.”