e-mail us

At War -- Commentary

How America lost Europe’s good will


I’ve been in Europe while debate about war in Iraq has raged on. I feel like I got here in time to see the end of a movie that I’d started to watch years ago. The first scene happened in Holland; the last scene happened a few days ago in Ireland.

In two conversations with young people 20 years apart, I got a glimpse of what the United States is facing now and in the immediate future. Few people wanted to believe the story when I told it the first time. I am not sure it will be understood now. But I think it’s crucial to try.

At the time of the first conversation, in 1980, the U.S. government had begun to wire Sicily and the outskirts of London with Cruise missiles, the first attempt in the West at erecting a “nuclear shield.” The design then had nothing to do with putting nuclear warheads into orbit to shoot incoming missiles out of the sky. This shield depended instead on putting first response warheads on European soil.

Politicians claimed that the United States would be providing missiles to defend Europe from Soviet incursion. But the transparency of the argument was not lost on the peace movement in England or Italy. If the United States installed nuclear weapons in Europe, they argued, the first nuclear war would be fought in European cities. Not in the neighborhoods of New York or Washington, where, as far as they were concerned, it belonged if it was a U.S.-Soviet war.

Resistance was intense. Young protesters held sit-down strikes in Trafalgar Square and organized demonstrations everywhere. I myself had gone on a personal peace mission to churches from Sicily to England in an attempt to elicit religious opposition to the plan. But Europe was, in large part, passive. Given the fact that Europe had suffered massive destruction at the hands of Nazi Germany, I found myself dumbstruck by the docility I encountered in the face of possible nuclear annihilation.

Priests answered my concerns with bloodless talk about just war theories, as if nuclear holocaust had anything to do with justice.

Politicians talked to me about “readiness” as an antidote to war but failed to consider the fact that fear is just as often a cause of violence as powerlessness is.

Average citizens shrugged off the arguments completely.

When I got to Holland I finally began to understand the situation.

We were in one of those small brick cottages that are so common in the Lowlands. Eight of us crowded into a tiny living room, sitting on small wooden chairs and thin couches for hot tea and cheese. The old people in the family loved America. “Whatever America wants, we will do,” the father said in answer to whether he was concerned at the thought of becoming a nuclear target now. He got up and went to the window and pulled back the lace curtains. “I stood at this window when the American Army marched down this street and liberated this village,” he said. “As long as I live I will remember that America freed us from our enemy.”

But his youngest son, a youth of about 19, fairly jumped to his feet. “Poppa,” he said, “you don’t understand. America is the enemy now. They are not our liberators. They are out to make us the target so that they are never touched.”

“Enough!” the father said.

I sat in the room and calculated. In 20 years, the older man’s generation would be out of power and the young man’s generation would be taking over. Then, I knew, the United States would no longer be at the disposal of Europe.

I found out yesterday that the dates were pretty accurate.

The young Irish medical student who stopped to talk has worked her way around the world carrying a backpack. But she describes her journey as allowing her to see “American foreign policy firsthand.” She’s a polite young woman, careful not to insult me but just as careful to make her point. “I was in New York on 9/11,” she said. “It was terrible. But more terrible was the fact that good, kind, generous Americans don’t understand it. I couldn’t believe how little they know about what they do.”

And then she said, “I was astounded. They kept saying that after 9/11 the world changed. Well, they are dead wrong. The world didn’t change at all. The only thing that changed is that finally violence happened there. Their violence has been happening everywhere. Now the effects of their foreign policies are happening there, too.”

Maybe she’s wrong. Maybe she’s confused. But one thing is sure: She is the next generation of Europeans who doubt U.S. good will, who mistrust U.S. policies, who resist U.S. intrusion in European politics and whose newspapers -- now under the control of those the same age as would be the boy I talked with in Holland years ago -- are calling George Bush “a greater threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein.”

Clearly, the “war” we are fighting is not the war we must win. We must win the hearts of this generation of Europeans. And we are not going to win it by making “preemptive war” on anybody.

Sr. Joan Chittister, a frequent contributor to NCR, is a member of the Erie, Pa., Benedictines.

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 2003