A Centenary’s Legacy Beneath Our Feet

The battlefield at Verdun, France (Wikimedia Commons)

The new year brings the centenary commemoration of World War I in Europe, whose legacy reverberates through our history, policy and literature. From the peace experiments of the European Union, NATO and the United Nations to the tendentious borders of southeastern Europe and the Middle East, World War One continues to affect us in our every day. In its fratricidal horror it has become, in some sense, Europe’s civil war. To me its sound down the decades makes William Faulkner’s adage — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — all the more resonant and poignant.

While living in Belgium I was immediately struck how the legacy of the combat from that war, and the wars that followed, continued to lurk just beneath the topsoil.  I visited Verdun, the site of a year-long Franco-German engagement in 1916 resulting in a million deaths. (Such casualty figures are almost impossible to imagine today, but just look at the Congo.) To achieve this death toll, the belligerents fired at least as many artillery rounds, and probably many more. The result is still plain on the battlefield, etched by communication trenches (see picture above): the landscape looks like a snapshot of the ocean during a storm, roiled by waves. The churned earth, now smooth, conceals the bodies of the dead and untold number of unexploded artillery rounds. Visitors are strongly advised to keep to the cleared and marked trails.

The village of Fleury-devant-Douamont was completely destroyed during the fighting. The cliche of wiping something “off the map” is too often bandied about in global affairs today. But in the case of Fleury and for many French communities during World War One, it is important to remember that the map is the only physical record left of them.

Back in Brussels, a bomb from World War II was excavated during the construction of the new NATO Headquarters complex across Boulevard Leopold III. (We were instructed to remain indoors while the bomb was detonated.) This was alarming but hardly surprising. The entire area had been commandeered by the Nazis as a military airfield during the war, so unexploded ordnance (UXO) — Allied and German — were bound to be left behind.

In fact, Belgium and Germany have some of the most active UXO disposal teams in the world working on their own soil. I’ve seen reported Belgium responds to more than 3,000 reported UXO cases a year. Germany has had four deaths in recent years trying to clear UXO from World War II. Japan is also very active disposing of UXO from the Pacific campaign. This is an awful legacy of both world wars just among our Allies. UXO from more recent conflicts, or conflicts among belligerents involving our proxies, or among countries that don’t involve us at all, implicate a far greater legacy.

I am deliberately avoiding the subject of landmines, which has attracted its own attention for all the appropriate reasons. I’ve also written previously about the legacy of chemical weapons dumped at sea. It seems to me, in the centenary of World War I — in a vastly changed world, with all the belligerents from that conflicts now partners, Allies and friends — that there is something important to be understood about the century-long legacy of that conflict, which is buried right at our feet. And that is: we shouldn’t have to cope with the same legacy, with our new friends, more than one hundred years hence.


The Marine Corps and the Public Diplomacy of Deeds

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Mark Leuis teaches earthquake victims how to use a hand-cranked radio at the Landing Zone 6 distribution center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 21, 2010. U.S. and international military units and civilian aid agencies are conducting humanitarian and disaster relief operations after an earthquake devastated the nation. Leuis is assigned to the 3rd Marine Special Operations Command. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Prentice Colter

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Mark Leuis teaches earthquake victims how to use a hand-cranked radio  in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 21, 2010.  U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Prentice Colter

 You may have come across a new recruiting video online for the U.S. Marine Corps, “Toward Chaos,” which is part of an ambitious integrated recruitment and promotional campaign you can see at marines.com. The Marine Corps have always had exceptional recruiting and marketing (“a few good men” has been a Marine trademark since 1779), and this campaign is no different.

But watching these two videos (below), based on recent operations, reminded me of a little-cited quote by the former Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy during the Bush Administration, Karen Hughes. She often talked about the “diplomacy of deeds,” which was a subtle way of saying that our actions speak louder than our words – that policy is more important than posturing.

Working in public diplomacy, I can attest to the importance of getting the words right.  Getting words wrong can get you a whole lot of trouble.  As my former colleague at NATO Jamie Shea once said, “A media campaign will not win you a war. But a bad media campaign can and will lose you a war.” Having been the inestimable voice of the Alliance during the Kosovo conflict, he knew what he was talking about.

Nonetheless, these Marine Corps videos, though they are intended as recruitment tools, talk about getting the actions right, too. They visually capture two compelling recent humanitarian missions that had real effects for real people in dire circumstances: the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment to Haiti in January 2010 with Operation United Response following the earthquake that devastated Port au Prince, and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment to Japan in March 2011 with Operation Tomadachi following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated that country.

I’ve written previously about combat camera crews and here you can see the importance of deploying them to document the important and vital work the Marine Corps and Navy (and other branches) do under incredibly difficult circumstances. The resulting videos are workmanlike – no fancy camera shots or complex narrative arcs – but they get the job done. They introduce an awesome crisis, show the Marines gearing up and going into the teeth of an awful mess, and helping people in need.

That’s why I think the videos could – and should – be used as public diplomacy videos, promoted abroad, through the State Department, embassies and other means, adapted perhaps and translated into other languages for foreign audiences.

While working at NATO and talking to occasionally skeptical and pacifist audiences, I often pointed to the military as an example of what do-gooders (like my skeptics) would want to have on hand to do good in the world.  When calamity strikes, when people need help right now, the armed forces have the means to move lots of people, equipment and supplies where they are needed most quickly.  (And frankly, the military doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should for do-gooding of this sort.)

These recruitment videos give an idea of what could have been done with Operation Unified Assistance, the U.S. Navy’s comprehensive response to the 2004 tsunami disaster in Indonesia. The United States led the world in dollar and physical assistance, donating nearly $1 billion and deploying more than 12,500 military personnel and the full resources of a carrier strike group led by the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and an expeditionary strike group led by the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard, together deploying nearly 50 helicopters – the only means, in many cases, to reach remote and cut-off regions of the country after the disaster.  (By contrast, the Indonesian government had only two helicopters on hand to fly missions for all of Sumatra.)

As it was, following the calamity and the unprecedented American humanitarian response, public opinion in predominantly Muslim Indonesia improved dramatically – from 15 percent in 2003 to 38 percent in 2005 — and the United States began to expand its relationship with the Indonesian government as always. That gives you a very good idea of what Undersecretary Hughes was talking about when she coined the expression “the diplomacy of deeds”: good actions improve our international esteem (I would argue similar actions contribute, at least in part, to our consistently high levels of public approval in Africa). We’ve always had strong relations with Haiti and Japan, but these videos give you an idea of just how important our actions can be.

Nonetheless, there is always a need to communicate those actions.  Many may have heard about the Indonesian effort because of its sheer scale. But perhaps lost in the chaos and horror of the Fukashima disaster was the Marines’ deployment. Those actions count, too, and are worth talking about. The public diplomacy of deeds, sometimes, still requires public diplomacy.