Two weeks ago was all military, from WWI to SHAPE to WWII.
The highlight of that week? I met the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. I shook his hand, talked to him, was in a couple of big pictures with him, and was briefed by him. He was by far the most important person I’ve met in my entire life. Unless I’m really lucky, I’ll never meet anyone that important again.
The funny thing was though, General Breedlove really just reminded me of my Dad. When I was younger, just old enough to realize that my Dad and his old Air Force friends weren’t exactly average people, my Mom always told me that fighter pilots were a very specific breed of person. She said it was because they need a very special temperament to do what they do and stay sane. From that, I’ve decided that a fighter pilot needs to be a person who works hard and plays hard, sometimes both at the same time.
When I got to SHAPE, I never expected General Breedlove to be like the fighter pilots I’m so used to, but he was from the same mold. It came out plainly when he joked to the British officer, “They’re still trying to understand your accent!” or when he found himself a beer in record time once we got to the reception. It was all so familiar to me, because that’s exactly the kind of person I grew up with.
The other really cool thing I did was visit the WWI and WWII museums at the Cinquantenaire. The main reason I went into international affairs is my love of history, and the world wars are my favorite subjects, so I really enjoyed the exhibits. As it is the hundredth anniversary of WWI, that exhibit was much better done when compared to the WWII one. They really went into a lot of detail about Belgium’s part in the war, something American history books barely ever touch, being more focused on the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Russia. I had no idea that Belgium actually wanted to stay neutral in the war, then ended up being forced to join when Germany decided to invade France through Belgium. They were defeated and occupied, though a great many Belgians managed to escape, still aiding in the war effort.
In WWII, Belgium was a target of the Blitzkrieg. The nation fell in a little over a week and was occupied very early in the war, so their contribution was not as important as it was during WWI.
My favorite part of both exhibits was the portions where they had recreated what some things would have looked like during the war. My particular favorite was the WWI trench. Walking inside it allowed me to imagine what it would have been like to actually spend months or years hiding down there. I also found the very end of the WWII exhibit to be very powerful, as it didn’t end with the official end of the war, but by walking down a ramp of a transport ship, as though I was part of the army at Normandy.
I think what I’ve learned this is the lasting effects war can have on people. We spend so much time wondering why the Europeans are so reluctant to go to war, or create a strong defense policy. We’ve been told it’s because of the residual trauma from the world wars, but I don’t think I really understood until I went to the exhibits. For America, the wars show how strong we are, coming in at the end and turning the tide back towards our allies, but it wasn’t like that for Europe. Many of these nations were overrun, occupied by foreign militaries for years. They are so obsessed with keeping their sovereignty because they’ve actually lost it. America fought hard for our freedom in the beginning, but once we won it, we’ve never lost it, many of these people have. They know what it means to lose their sovereignty, so they are going to protect it no matter what.