Once I went hot-air ballooning in Normandy. It was the summer of 1991. It was exciting to float over the beautiful French hills and the farms with crisp crops in the fields. It was dusk, and we amused ourselves calling out “Bonsoir!” to cows and people in little cars. We had been up for an hour or so when we had a problem and had to land. We looked for an open field, aimed toward it, and came down a little hard. The gondola dragged, tipped and spilled us out. A half dozen of us emerged scrambling and laughing with relief.
Suddenly before us stood an old man with a cracked and weathered face. He was about 80, in rough work clothes. He was like a Life magazine photo from 1938: “French farmer hoes his field.” He’d seen us coming from his farmhouse and stood before us with a look of astonishment as the huge bright balloon deflated and tumbled about.
One of us spoke French and explained our situation. The farmer said, or asked, “You are American.” We nodded, and he made a gesture—I’ll be back!—and ran to the house. He came back with an ancient bottle of Calvados, the local brandy. It was literally covered in dust and dry dirt, as if someone had saved it a long time.
He told us—this will seem unlikely, and it amazed us—that he had not seen an American in many, many years, and we asked when. “The invasion,” he said. The Normandy invasion.
Then he poured the Calvados and made a toast. I wish I had notes on what he said. Our French speaker translated it into something like, “To old times.” And we raised our glasses knowing we were having a moment of unearned tenderness. Lucky Yanks, that a wind had blown us to it.
That was 16 years ago, and I haven’t seen some of the people with me since that day, but I know every one of us remembers it and keeps it in his good-memory horde.
He didn’t welcome us because he knew us. He didn’t treat us like royalty because we had done anything for him. He honored us because we were related to, were the sons and daughters of, the men of the Normandy Invasion. The men who had fought their way through France hedgerow by hedgerow, who’d jumped from planes in the dark and climbed the cliffs and given France back to the French. He thought we were of their sort. And he knew they were good. He’d seen them, when he was young.
* * *
I’ve been thinking of the old man because of Iraq and the coming debate on our future there. Whatever we do or should do, there is one fact that is going to be left on the ground there when we’re gone. That is the impression made by, and the future memories left by, American troops in their dealings with the Iraqi people.
I don’t mean the impression left by the power and strength of our military. I mean the impression left by the character of our troops— by their nature and generosity, by their kindness. By their tradition of these things.
The American troops in Iraq, our men and women, are inspiring, and we all know it. But whenever you say it, you sound like a greasy pol: “I support our valiant troops, though I oppose the war,” or “If you oppose the war, you are ignoring the safety and imperiling the sacrifice of our gallant troops.”
I suspect that in their sophistication—and they are sophisticated—our troops are grimly amused by this. Soldiers are used to being used. They just do their job.
We know of the broad humanitarian aspects of the occupation—the hospitals being built, the schools restored, the services administered, the kids treated by armed forces doctors. But then there are all the stories that don’t quite make it to the top of the heap, and that in a way tell you more. The lieutenant in the First Cavalry who was concerned about Iraqi kids in the countryside who didn’t have shoes, so he wrote home, started a drive, and got 3,000 pairs sent over. The lieutenant colonel from California who spent his off-hours emailing hospitals back home to get a wheelchair for a girl with cerebral palsy.
The Internet is littered with these stories. So is Iraq. I always notice the pictures from the wire services, pictures that have nothing to do with government propaganda. The Marine on patrol laughing with the local street kids; the nurse treating the sick mother.
A funny thing. We’re so used to thinking of American troops as good guys that we forget: They’re good guys! They have American class.
And it is not possible that the good people of Iraq are not noticing, and that in some way down the road the sum of these acts will not come to have some special meaning, some special weight of its own. The actor Gary Sinise helps run Operation Iraqi Children, which delivers school supplies with the help of U.S. forces. When he visits Baghdad grade schools, the kids yell, “Lieutenant Dan!”—his role in “Forrest Gump,” the story of another good man.
* * *
Some say we’re the Roman Empire, but I don’t think the soldiers of Rome were known for their kindness, nor the people of Rome for their decency. Some speak of Abu Ghraib, but the humiliation of prisoners there was news because it was American troops acting in a way that was out of the order of things, and apart from tradition. It was weird. And they were busted by other American troops.
You could say soldiers of every country do some good in war beyond fighting, and that is true enough. But this makes me think of the statue I saw once in Vienna, a heroic casting of a Red Army soldier. Quite stirring. The man who showed it to me pleasantly said it had a local nickname, “The Unknown Rapist.” There are similar memorials in Estonia and Berlin; they all have the same nickname. My point is not to insult Russian soldiers, who had been born into a world of communism, atheism, and Stalin’s institutionalization of brutish ways of being. I only mean to note the stellar reputation of American troops in the same war at the same time. They were good guys.
They’re still good.
We should ponder, some day when this is over, what it is we do to grow such men, and women, what exactly goes into the making of them.
Whatever is decided in Washington I hope our soldiers know what we really think of them, and what millions in Iraq must, also. I hope some day they get some earned tenderness, and wind up over the hills of Iraq, and land, and an old guy comes out and says, “Are you an American?” And they say yes and he says, “A toast, to old times.”