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© 2017-2019 by Melissa Banigan. 

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Solo woman traveler over 40, francophile, feminist, single mother. Journalist for The Washington Post, CNN Travel, BBC Travel, Fodor's, NPR, Atlas Obscura, and more. Also the founder of Advice Project Media.

 

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  • Melissa Banigan

Trump's Nationalism Kept Him From Honoring Fallen WWI American Soldiers in France

Updated: Nov 12, 2018


Exactly 100 years ago, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I ended as Germany signed an armistice agreement with the Allies in a railroad car outside Compiégne, France. The war left 9 million soldiers dead and 21 million wounded. Yesterday, Trump declined to go to a commemorative event to remember the lives of the soldiers who fell during the gristly Battle of Belleau Wood, which General Pershing said was the most important battle fought by American soldiers since the U.S. Civil War.


United States Marines at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery - Photo by Melissa Banigan

BELLEAU, France — This weekend, President Trump is in France to take part in ceremonies that honor the sacrifice of American soldiers who died in World War I. Yet yesterday morning, he missed the first stop on his itinerary: a visit to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, site of the Battle of Belleau Wood.


This past Memorial Day, I visited the cemetery, joining over 5,000 of people—including military officials from France, the United States and Germany—to commemorate the centennial of the battle.



The battle, which was fought between the U.S. 2nd and 3rd Divisions and French and British forces against the Germans, was particularly brutal. Sergeant Dan Daly, a Marine, famously told his men as they charged the enemy: “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”


Many of Daly’s men have gone on to live forever—in our memory. There were nearly 10,000 American casualties at the Battle of Belleau, including 1,811 soldiers killed. Many of these men are buried at the cemetery where I stood—the same cemetery Trump neglected to visit yesterday. 


Although the United States and France commemorate the battle annually, this past Memorial Day marked the first year the Germans participated. Rather than focus on patriotism and national identity, high-ranking military officials from France, Germany and the United States spoke about the strength of their special relationship, rather than the military prowess of each of our countries.


Dignitaries at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery - Photo by Melissa Banigan

After the ceremony, I spoke with Michael Knapp, Director of Historical Services for the American Battle Monuments Commission, who said that World War I led to globalism, free trade, the vote for women and the emerging civil rights movement. Essentially, the war led to many of the things Americans take for granted today.


Knapp also reminded me that the war cemented the identities of many American immigrants who fought in the war as staunch U.S. citizens. Close to half a million immigrants from 46 nations—a whopping 18 percent of American troops—fought with our armed forces. They not only served their new country, but many of them are buried at the American cemeteries in France or were lost in battle, their bodies devoured by a second new homeland.

These immigrants—Americans—are some of the soldiers Trump dismissed.


Gravestones at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery - Photo by Melissa Banigan

Of course, Trump cited bad weather and a grounded helicopter as the reasons for skipping out on the ceremony. Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Burns, wasn’t buying it. He tweeted:


They died with their face to the foe and that pathetic inadequate @realDonaldTrump couldn’t even defy the weather to pay his respects to The Fallen #hesnotfittorepresenthisgreatcountry


Given his hateful rhetoric about immigrants and his recent affirmation of his own nationalism, I can’t help but feel how much of a fish out of water Trump would’ve been at a commemorative event to cement friendship.


Still, it's a new low. After all, it’s not like Trump would've had to work very hard to trek to the cemetery. No one, not even a U.S. president, needs a helicopter to get to Belleau Wood, just 55 miles away from Paris. Despite being a windy, drizzly day in northern France, other world leaders simply climbed into vehicles and set out into the mist for various World War I sites across northern France.


President Macron and Chancellor Merkel, for example, cozied up together at the replica of the train car where the Armistice was signed in the forest of Compiègne, and Prime Minister Trudeau made his way to the Canadian Cemetery No. 2, where he clutched a red chrysanthemum and braved the wind as he walked among the white gravestones. Along the way, these leaders—particularly Macron—drove home the idea that we must be vigilant against nationalism. In fact, today, at an event at the Arc de Triomphe, Macron reiterated his stance by taking a hard stab at Trump:


"Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying our interests first, who cares about the others, we erase what a nation holds dearest...I know there are old demons which are coming back to the surface...History sometimes threatens to take its sinister course once again."


Replica of train car where Armistice was signed - Photo by Melissa Banigan

Trump's tone deafness shouldn't surprise us. After all, he's not particularly adept at hearing messages uttered by the rest of the free world. This past April, Macron traveled to the United States and gifted our country an oak sapling from Belleau Wood as a "reminder at the White House of [the] ties that bind us."


This gift was a deeply symbolic gesture. The Battle of Belleau was the first major foray U.S. troops made into World War I. Our nation's involvement helped win the battle, and our blood, soaked into the soil at Belleau, bound us forever to our allies in Europe.


The sapling was understood by many as an affirmation of friendship, yet it was also a not-so-subtle reminder from one of our biggest allies that we are only as strong as our commitment to each other, and that we must stand firm against each other's extremism, nationalism, isolationism, tribalism.


This past May, just minutes before I left my hotel for Ainse-Marne American Cemetery, I ran into Jerry L. Hester, a commissioner of The U.S. World War One Centennial Commission (honorary chairs include many presidents: Carter, both Bushes, Clinton, and Obama).


Hester, a former U.S. Air Force Officer who fought in World War II, has been interested in World War I history since he was a young child. He spent the last five years planning to be at the Memorial Day event. He told me: "I want children to remember what happened here. I want it to be taught in schools. Washington D.C. doesn't remember it very well—they don't even have a World War I memorial."


Jerry L. Hester - photo by Melissa Banigan

After the Memorial Day event, I spoke with Ronal Morales, Rank Master Gunnery Sargent, who said: “It’s really important to be here to remember what the allies did to secure freedom and peace. It’s crucial that all allies be united so that we can defeat global threats.”


Trump keeps showing us—time and time again—that he never got the memo.


Ronal Morales, Rank Master Gunnery Sargent - Photo by Melissa Banigan

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Below is a video of a reading of letters written by Edward B. Cole, a soldier who fell during the Battle of Belleau Wood: