The passengers waiting for connections at the Dallas Fort Worth airport were tired. Like me, some had flown 10 hours, and were bracing for many more hours in flight. I didn’t pay attention when an elderly volunteer went from gate to gate, making some announcement. Maybe a restaurant is having a promotion, I thought.
But moments later, I heard a spontaneous burst of loud applause. Some passengers were whistling and cheering. Must be a rock star, or maybe a returning college football team, I guessed. But the applause was sustained, and I saw groups of passengers rising like the Mexican wave, but the first lot of passengers did not sit down. They clapped vigorously, some shouting, “Welcome home,” others, “Thank you.”
Curious, I put aside my laptop to see what was going on.
And there I saw them: young men and women, in military fatigues, their gait erect, their stride relaxed, their disposition confident, their arms waving at the people below. No one knew their names, but for this group of passengers, they were celebrities. For some soldiers, this was their moment of glory, recognition from a grateful public. They were returning from Afghanistan.
I was struck by this reception: This is supposedly an unpopular war that has stretched patience at home. In the Obama era, people want to protect jobs, secure healthcare, and the White House’s main enemy seems to be a television network; the national emergency is not a terrorist attack, but H1N1, which is not a new kind of visa, but a virus. Washington seems to want to move on from the war of choice: a grand plan to remake the Middle East; test a new military doctrine of shock and awe, and using fewer troops on multiple fronts; of exporting democracy; as the US’ critics see it, re-emphasizing its imperial overreach to keep its military industrial complex humming. Some insist it is all about oil (not really—lift sanctions, and Saddam would have traded with the US). There is also the Oedipal explanation—that Bush the Younger wanted to prove he was better than Bush the Elder: He removed Saddam, completing the unfinished business of 1991.
Americans have heard these arguments, and yet they rose at Dallas Fort Worth, applauding returning soldiers. This was in marked contrast to what British soldiers have experienced on their return. A parade in Luton—from where some Islamic extremists have been arrested in the past—was jeered at; some soldiers have reported that some bed-and-breakfast facilities did not want them as guests. Airlines in the US open their premier lounges for active soldiers.
Not everyone in Britain hates the army. With Armistice Day close—on 11 November—many wear the red poppy, in solidarity with fallen soldiers. And three decades ago, we should remember, GI Joes returning from Vietnam were insulted in parts of the US.
But those are exceptions. The contrast, of Mars and Venus, of the US and Europe, is real. Many in Britain resent the war because they feel it was thrust upon them by Tony Blair, who was keen to join a US project, even though no British interests were at stake; Britain was not under attack. Americans like to remind Britain that they liberated Europe in World War II. Some in Europe ask if Americans would have joined the war had the Japanese not attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941.
Europeans don’t like bombing—they prefer peacekeeping—building roads and bridges, winning hearts and minds. But their passivity can become tragic. Dutch troops sat by even as Serbs massacred Muslims in Srebrenica during the Balkan war: They said they did not have the authority to intervene. The US decided to attack Belgrade to stop the tyranny of Slobodan Milosevic.
Americans like to say they have no imperial ambition, but many disagree. And yet that sunny morning, people at the airport were applauding those soldiers’ return home. That was the nuance lost in the din of that applause.
Late at night, when it was no longer Monday and not yet Tuesday, as I landed at an airport, I saw men in uniform again—this time they were Indian soldiers, wearing the blue United Nations caps, returning to New Delhi after a tour of duty as peacekeepers in Sudan. I went up to them, shook hands with them and thanked them, and said: “Welcome back.” They smiled, genuinely surprised.
Nobody else seemed to care. They had gone to maintain peace far away.
Much has gone wrong with the Iraq war—the way it was conceived, marketed and executed. One consequence is the setback for the idea of external intervention to protect people living in tyranny. We no longer know what is to be done when dictators refuse to relinquish power, freedoms are denied, the innocent get jailed and sanctions don’t work. Europeans want their hands clean; Americans applaud. In India, we keep an arm’s length.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com