« The Greatest Ambassad… | Home | Who Watches the Watch… »

Everyone Hates Everyone Else's Soldiers

(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:

American soldiers.

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.

seven comments

This shouldn’t be that weird of an idea either. We see this in the “occupation” of American territories as well. As much as some communities love troops stationed near by, because of jobs and money it brings, communities also detest young soldiers or marines in bars, getting DUIs and causing problems. This isn’t hate per se, but it is definitely anger.

I’m surprised that you guys haven’t been inundated by comments. While I understand the basic premise of hating the fact that Americans occupy “allied” countries, from my limited travels in Europe, I didn’t see it. I believe it is more of a disgust of the system and the times vice hatred toward the troops. I’ve traveled in Germany twice in the last 18 months and I specifically asked, especially the young, how they feel about American troops still in bases in their country. I heard no hostility. Yes, there are assholes, like your flag wrapper in Munich, but the Germans don’t seem to mind the Americans (except when they do foolish things like idle their cars forever early on cold mornings). German youth is burned out on crisises; as one told me it is the governments and the old men who create problems, we just wish to live as we choose. The Germans always seem to ask: do you want to go and visit a concentration camp?” I always reply no, it doesn’t interest me and they seem to be embarassed by that part of their past, feel an obligation to provide the time to show an evil era, the crimes of which are pounded into their heads in school. And, I do wish to highlight their very glorious history, 1920’s to 40’s notwithstanding. The Germans appear to act like their American counterparts who live near large military facilities in the States—tolerance for indescretions, but happiness that tons of currency is dumped in the local economies.

We visited a concentration camp in Germany, and it definitely was the most powerful site we probably visited in Europe. That’s just an aside, we really need to write up our experience for On V.

I think the tolerance of troops is eased by the money. However, especially in non-European countries, the presence of US troops does stoke hostilities. Especially consider the situation in Saudi Arabia.

Finally, I always felt weird saying I was a soldier in Italy. It seemed like Italians were stoked I lived in their country as an American, but less so when they heard I was a soldier. Don’t worry, though, we’ll have more on this topic through the week.

I’m going to go ahead and wholeheartedly disagree with Michael and Derek.

I mean, seriously Michael, the people in Vicenza, Italy hated us. I mean seriously. Did you forget the days when we couldn’t go outside because of the protests?

Ha! Actually, I do now recall getting called a monkey in Japan. And that time back in ’82 when we were “stuck” on the hotel roof top balconey in Greece with far too much beer and ouzo and bread and cheese while watching a massive Communist ralley in the square below…

To be clear, I wasn’t disagreeing with the point of this post. Eric C specifically asked more Europeans about their thoughts about soldiers. Also, I interacted with other Italian soldiers, who were genuinely more receptive being soldiers themselves.

That said, Eric is referencing the protests to moving/expanding the 173rd in Italy to a base called Da Molin, which invited protests that were simply the “No Da Molin” protests. As such, when the protests went on, we couldn’t go outside.

We also irritated the locals in some other ways, which I wrote about in a post a long time back: http://onviolence.com/?e=169

There was also resentment of American troops stationed in Australia during WW2, with the usual issues of American troops receiving better pay than the local troops being one of the causes of tension.

Violence broke out in Brisbane between American and Australian troops.
(Battle of Brisbane)