Imagine what it must feel like to be greeted in a foreign country as a liberator. It must be one of the most gratifying feelings in the world to know that your sacrifice and effort has safeguarded the security, freedom, and future prosperity of a nation. From my own personal experience, I can assure you that such an event is indeed rewarding, awe-inspiring and leaves a lasting impression.
Obviously, I have never seen the days or nights of battle, the bloodshed, the pain, or the destruction, and yet, six years ago, when I visited the beaches of Normandy where the famous and celebrated D-Day invasion took place, my classmates and I were thanked and greeted as liberators. We, the young people, generations removed from the war, were still considered to be liberators and were honored for an act not of our doing. Still, that didn’t seem to make any difference, because we embodied, by virtue of being American citizens, the traits of the American soldiers who fought so valiantly that day. We were told that despite the assumption that the French dislike America, it could not be denied or forgotten that without the bravery of the soldiers who fought on D-Day and without the willingness of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to work with the international community, a free France might not exist.
From that moment on the beach, I realized what it meant to be American and understood how important the events that took place in France half a century ago were in shaping how others came to view American values, which we as young American students both embodied and symbolized. The soldiers and administration had done more than just liberate France; they had set a standard for what it meant to be American, a standard of which all Americans could be proud.
Then, this summer, upon returning to Europe, I was no longer welcomed by the warm and friendly greeting, at least not to the extent that I had felt six years before. For the first time in my life, I felt guilty for being an American, as did many other Americans I encountered, and was ashamed at the possible legacy that this current war in Iraq has left and will leave throughout the world.
Of course, the American military has fought bravely and overcome many obstacles as it battles insurgent attacks it was not prepared for nor could have predicted. Upon reaching the mark of 1,000 U.S. soldiers dead, we should all take a moment to be proud of our military for even setting foot on such dangerous terrain. However, we must ask ourselves, what is the legacy we are leaving for posterity? When a free and open Iraq is finally achieved, as I believe it will be one day, and when future generations have the opportunity to visit the country, how will they be greeted? If the American soldiers and Bush administration are remembered as occupiers who mistreated Iraqis, I can guarantee they will not be greeted as liberators, but rather as a painful reminder of a turbulent time in Iraqi history.
Therefore, it is important to remember that this election is about the big picture and something more significant than military war records, national security, the economy, health care, and other bread and butter issues that most Americans should rightfully care about. There is a choice, a choice between continuing to act as an imperialist nation, or reclaiming our long-standing tradition as a global leader and international participant, not just in words but in action. Real American values hang in the balance.
Breaking free of the American bubble, our characterization as imperialists becomes a reality and the question of working internationally is not about European countries wishing to diminish American power and domination or to make America bow down to other world leaders. Our will and strength cannot be broken because Americans have always combined determination and hard work to achieve success even in the face of adversity. Because much of Europe, specifically Spain and the United Kingdom, has imperialist histories, it seeks to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
From my discussions with Europeans and daily reading of European opinion articles, Europe still has hope for the U.S. and believes that we will return to our role as global participant and world leader. But first, we have to regain the respect we so quickly lost during the War in Iraq, and then, and only then, can we give future generations what was passed down to us: the essence of what it means to be American. This November, we still have the chance to reclaim our American values.
Alicia Washington is a senior in Trumbull College. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.