Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys–Some Thoughts on Courage and Freedom

Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys–Some Thoughts on Courage and Freedom

Our pathetic tendency to depict France as a nation of, in the words of Bart Simpson, “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” is tolerated across the political spectrum despite its absurd lack of historical legitimacy. Such silliness overlooks two salient facts: the French army was the scourge of Europe for centuries, and only one nation has lost more soldiers fighting in wars alongside America than France. Furthermore, the French mindlessly continued to sacrifice their soldiers for lost causes in Algeria and Indochina. (Of course, attributing such actions to a particular nation’s overall level of courage is a dubious assumption which may indeed conflate courage with stupidity. How much courage does it take to send other people off to die in the name of imperialism?) But the point remains that many people who really should have known better justified the foolhardy invasion of Iraq by constructing a straw man of French cowardice:

“If those perfidious Frenchies are against this war, then it must be a good idea. Now, let’s all have some Freedom Fries.”

But questioning the courage of other peoples does not enhance our national stature; in fact, it diminishes us. The hundred thousand or so Frenchman who died defending their country from the invading Nazis before their leaders surrendered were just as brave as the soldiers who defeated them, but courage alone does not win wars. Armies have gotten routed throughout history for many reasons that were not the responsibility of individual soldiers—inferior technology, smaller numbers, strategic blunders, etc. It’s odd that anyone would attribute the French surrender in WWII to cowardice, particularly in light of the ghastly casualties that nation endured during WWI. Curiously, I’ve never heard anyone accuse, say, General Cornwallis of being a poltroon.

Risking death and dismemberment in order to defend kith and kin is the supreme act of selflessness, and you don’t have to take my word for it: “Greater love has none than this, that one lays down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) But it is unwise (and perhaps even ultimately depraved) to suggest that Americans are essentially more willing to make such sacrifices. Thus, to argue that America is free because we have the bravest soldiers in the world contains the seeds of fascism because it denigrates the humanity of people living in all other nations.

Americans have been able to maintain our democracy for over two hundred years because of the strength of our institutions, including, notably, the professionalism of our armed forces. Unlike the armies in so many other countries, our military has remained deferential to civilian authority through thick and thin. Even when we elected stupid and incompetent leaders like Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush who misused and abused our soldiers by sending them on untenable, immoral and foolish errands, our soldiers have saluted and said, “Yes, sir” to their civilian masters. (Theirs is not to wonder why.) Occasionally, some decorated popinjay with a gargantuan ego, a McClellan or a MacArthur, has attempted to buck his president. Thankfully, however, our armed forces have never mutinied nor revolted en masse, and they have never attempted to directly interfere with the electoral process. This is one of our nation’s greatest contributions to civilization, right up there with The Bill of Rights, Louis Armstrong and Emily Dickinson.

So yes, America does owe its freedoms to the courage and professionalism of our foreparents, both in and out of uniform. But we need to find a way to acknowledge this debt without fetishizing our soldiers, and laughing at the alleged cowardice of others makes us all a bit smaller.

by Richard W. Bray

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