Yesterday was a holiday in much of the world. For Americans, it was Memorial Day. And much of Europe, though less religious than America, nonetheless takes Pentecost as a holiday.
Here at Markets and Money, by contrast, we take no holidays…hardly any rest…nary a break. Every day there is something to be reckoned with – and always something to remember. Still, even we are in a holiday mood today…sitting in the 7:45 train from Montmorillon to Poitiers. Trouble is, the train has hit a log on the track…it looks as though a telephone pole came down in last night’s storm. Now, there are wires wrapped around the wheels. Too bad there’s no Internet signal. We’ll have to think.
People – in groups – live according to myths that they invent for themselves. Modern historians refer to these myths as national ‘narratives.’ And today is the day set aside for Americans to remember their patriotic ‘narrative.’ Founded by pilgrims, settled by pioneers, and defended with the blood of patriots, America has become what it is thanks to the sacrifices made by our ancestors – those who fought the heathen tribes to make the New World safe for people from the Old World…those who fought each other in the Civil War to decide who got to boss around whom…those who fought the Huns (twice) to make the Old World safe for democracy…and those who fought and died in all the other wars whose names, dates, and causes we can’t recall and scarcely ever talk about anymore.
“All these people sacrificed so that America could be free and independent” is the standard line. But after the British ran through the briars and fled through the brambles down in New Orleans in 1814, never was our freedom or independence really in doubt, except perhaps in the War Between the States, and then it was the side fighting for independence that lost.
The French national narrative is a good deal longer. The Gallic tribes arrived in the area thousands of years ago. They booted the Celts into the corner in Brittany…and then, by the grace of God, thanks to Caesar’s defeat of Vercingetorix at Alesia, were civilised by the Romans. Of course, more Germanic tribes kept beating across the Rhine whenever the Romans turned their backs…and soon Vikings settled in Normandy and the valley of the Gironde…but civilisation, once it had taken root in Gaul, spread and flourished even among these new barbarians. Eventually, they were all turned into frogs.
Still, the smell of Rome stuck in the Gauls’ nostrils long after Rome itself was put to the torch. Driving out the English…keeping out the krauts…gradually, unrelentingly, these amalgamated Frenchmen put together their nation. It now fills the “Hexagon,” bounded by the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Rhine, the Atlantic, the Channel, and the Mediterranean – one of the most fertile, temperate, and beautiful regions in the world.
But let us return to the 50 states. If American soldiers did not really fight and die to preserve our freedom and independence, why did they fight and die? What is it that we are remembering today?
Ah…good question. We wish we had as good an answer. Instead, all we can say is that that is what people seem to do. They fight and die from time to time. And people put up monuments to them…and remember them in their national narratives. Sic transit gloria mundi.
As a group of people grows and prospers, its idea of itself changes. The original Americans seem to have been content to simply win their own independence from Britain – with French help. It was out of the question for a green little nation to challenge the great powers of Europe. That would have to wait more than a century…until the newcomer got big enough to throw its weight around. Then, it got a new idea of what it was supposed to be. No longer content to be merely a refuge for the world’s poor, wretched and ambitious…the masses yearning to be rich and free…it now proclaimed itself a world power, ready and able to reshape the planet in its own image. America would impose its will not merely from sea to shining sea, but overseas too…extending the benefits of D.C. government to the banks of the Tigris.
And so, today, we set aside a moment to remember the legion of poor souls who became fodder for these battles…including those who now sacrifice their lives in Mesopotamia on behalf of a government that should have known better.
Markets and Money