Americans Got a Different Reception from the French in 1944 than They Did in Iraq in 2004

Roundup: Talking About History

Michael Hill, in the Balt Sun (Aug. 22, 2004):

... If there is a rift between the French and Americans over the war in Iraq, it is not evident in Normandy this summer. There seem to be almost as many U.S. - and British and Canadian - flags flying as tricolors of France. Sixty years after D-Day, they affirm the welcome given to liberators, the reception U.S. troops hoped for in Iraq....

Wednesday marks the 60th anniversary of the celebrated liberation of Paris. That was the end of the battle of Normandy, fought for a day on the beaches, for weeks on the bocage, the rolling Norman countryside criss-crossed by tall, thick hedgerows that concealed German troops and forced armor onto vulnerable roadways.

"Ultimately, if you look at World War II and the names that pop up as the worst of combat - the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima - realistically, the nine weeks of Normandy was about the worst there ever was," says [Joe] Balkowski whose book, Beyond the Beachhead, followed the 29th Division in the weeks after D-Day.

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of this fight, the city of Lisieux put up photographs around town, showing what it looked like as it was liberated. It was a shambles. Few of its ancient half-timber buildings remain. Like many Norman cities, it is filled with nondescript structures from the 1950s and 1960s.

No city suffered more than Caen. The British were supposed to take it a few days after D-Day, but it took weeks to defeat reinforced German troops dug in around the limited approaches to the city. American and British bombers, afraid of hitting their own troops, dropped their bombs behind the German lines, leveling the city where William the Conqueror planned his invasion of England in 1066, yet achieving no particular military advantage.

But Allied troops say they encountered little resentment despite the destruction they brought.

"These were mainly agricultural people, farmers," says Perreau, whose family's house was among those destroyed in Caen. "They were fatalists. They knew this would happen in war, that it was necessary to get rid of the Germans."

Caen now boasts a new and spectacular museum about the war, dedicated to peace. Visitors to its D-Day section are encouraged to follow the fate of a few soldiers who landed in the Allied assault. Among them is Washington native Charles W. Stockell. His biographical sketch says he was born in 1922 and was a cub reporter for The Baltimore Sun when he enlisted.

"I carried a pencil for Mark Watson," Stockell says of his job in the Washington bureau trailing behind the star reporters.

His principal memory of those days is that the windows of the Sun's offices in the National Press Building were across from a department store's models' dressing rooms. "And they never pulled down the shades," he says.

Stockell, who retired from the Army as a colonel and lives in Beaufort, S.C., was an artillery lieutenant in the 2nd Infantry when he came ashore at Omaha Beach on June 7.

"There was still some sniper fire in the area, so we just dug in for the night," he says. "When I woke up in the morning, there was this gray-green elbow sticking out of the side of my foxhole. I learned later that they had buried the body of this booby-trapped German. He had a grenade under each armpit with the pin pulled out."

Stockell confirms the brutality of fighting in Normandy. "We were in one little town, St. George d'Elle in the forest of Cerisy. The first attack I made out of that town with the company we had 200 men and five officers. One hour later after we made our assault, there were 100 dead or wounded and all five officers were dead.

"So I was in command of the company. There was some pretty terrific fighting in that area," he says.

Except for the occasional local girlfriend of a Nazi officer who would pick up her dead beau's gun and continue fighting, Stockell remembers nothing but hospitality from the French.

"They would come out of their houses, they always had a bottle of wine," says Stockell, who was wounded several times. "They would bring us things to eat, sometimes invite us over to their houses for Sunday dinner. They just could not have been nicer."

Jeffrey Herf, a historian of Germany at the University of Maryland, College Park, says this is not surprising. "Germany had occupied France since May 1940, and it had not been a pleasant occupation. There was a lot of hatred of the Germans, and whatever the French may have thought about the United States or Britain, they were coming to kick the Germans out," he says.

Herf says the occupation of France was not nearly as brutal as that endured by Eastern European countries whose inhabitants were considered racially inferior by Nazi ideology.

For the most part, the French learned to live - and to make a living - during the occupation, much as Iraqis did under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Balkowski, whose latest book, Omaha Beach, is about D-Day, has a more recent memory of the Normans' attitude toward Americans. On June 8, he was in the town of Vire - the pivot point where U.S. troops heading south from their beach landings turned east toward Germany - with a group of D-Day veterans and current troops of the 29th Division.

"Vire was captured by the 29th in early August (1944) and basically leveled," he says.

Balkowski says his group expected a formal French reception. "Instead the entire populace was out on the sidewalk with American flags, screaming madly," he says. "Basically for four hours, the entire town threw us a party. It was truly one of the highlights of my life."

For the troops who marched in Vire that day, Balkowski says, it was a taste of what it must have been like to march into Paris on Aug. 25, 1944.

Such iconic images were clearly what the Bush administration had in mind for U.S. troops going into Iraq. There was even an attempt to create an Iraqi force under exile Ahmad Chalabi similar to the Free French troops under Charles DeGaulle who landed to symbolically liberate Paris.

But the Iraq invasion did not live up to that billing. Chalabi's force failed to attract support among Iraqis. The liberators' welcome quickly turned into roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. Many in the United States turned against the war.

The basic difference is that the U.S. troops in Iraq were not kicking out a foreign invader; they were the foreign invader.

"Ordinary Frenchmen felt they had much more in common with Americans than with Germans," says George Quester, an expert on security studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Ordinary Iraqis, conversely, don't feel they have that much in common with Americans, compared, say, to Saddam Hussein."

Herf says it was wrong to compare going into Iraq with going into France, that it was more like going into Germany. "Speaking as someone who supported the war in Iraq, to me it was incomprehensible the assumption that the Baath regime and Saddam Hussein would be defeated relatively easily," he says. "That was just completely forgetting how difficult it was to defeat Nazi Germany."

Memory is a tricky thing. Balkowski says that while we now look back on being immediately greeted as liberators in France, U.S. troops had been told not to trust the locals, and most of the Normans were too concerned with daily survival to celebrate anything.

Stockell's wartime diary backs that up. His only mention of the French in his first few days there was on June 8. "Women shooting at soldiers, altho a few seem glad to see us."

In fact, the process of liberation is quite nuanced in French memory, tinged with humiliation at their defeat by the Germans, guilt over the many collaborators, and a conscious elevation of the importance of the Resistance....

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