Listening to Richard Perle on the radio recently was a little hard for a European like me. Perle, a former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, stated that European nations "do not have the most courageous of instincts," with the implication that America has to intervene in international affairs because Europeans are afraid to. Perle's comments take place against a chorus of similar sentiments to be heard on America's airwaves in recent months.
An average listener would be forgiven for believing that Europeans are a cowardly bunch of ungrateful wimps, whose anti-American bombast is a merely a cover for their complicity with evil regimes.
It may be true. But as a European myself - I'm from Britain - it doesn't feel true. And I wonder if our cultural disconnect comes from two very different experiences of war.
Let's be clear: Europeans don't run away from war. Even the most fleeting look at our history will tell you that we love war, we want war, we will find almost any excuse for a war. In 1914 young men from all across Europe jauntily marched off to start yet another one, with flags waving and patriotic songs playing. Young men from my country marched in the knowledge that they represented the greatest nation on Earth, an economic powerhouse, a country blessed by God. Any of this sounding familiar?
Barely one of those men could have clearly explained what the war was about, it was enough that they were fighting for freedom, and against oppression.
Fast forward five years. 1919. A whole generation of young men - over 8.5 million - wiped out in the most disgusting war the world had ever seen. Economies collapsed, vast regions were blighted. No longer was anyone playing patriotic songs. Now poets like Wilfred Owen were bitterly decrying "the old lie" that it is an honorable thing to die for your country. Who was the enemy, anyway? Was it those pathetic, blood-stained bodies strewn across the opposing trenches, or the fat, cigar-smoking politicians that ordered us into this nightmare?
This feeling has never been totally expunged from the European psyche. However clear-cut the rationale sounds at the start of a war, the reality always results in atrocities, injustices and moral ambiguity. Within a few short years we were forced into a World War II, and this time there was none of the flag-waving; instead there was a stunned gasp of: "Are we really going through all this again?"
And this time it was worse. Our cities were flattened, a genocide was committed, a whole civilization was brought to its knees.
But World War II was mercifully different for America. Despite its debilitating losses - and its astonishing selflessness in prioritizing the European theater ahead of its own mission in the Pacific - America emerged from the devastation in a pre-eminent position, its infrastructure intact. Culturally, politically and economically, America stood like a gleaming Colossus above an impoverished world. If America had believed that by use of force, Good could prevail over Evil, then it had been proved right. War had saved Freedom and defeated Tyranny.
And this is now burned into the American psyche in much the same way that cynicism is for the European. America is the brave young soldier, with shining eyes and a firm jaw, marching towards a battle that will make the world a better place. Europe is the bitter old veteran sitting on the sidewalk, his medals collecting dust somewhere, shaking his head knowingly as the young soldier marches by.
Both views are valid and both are forged in the furnace of experience. America has the power and inclination to promote justice in the world, and Richard Perle may indeed be right: Perhaps Europeans don't have the most courageous of instincts. Not anymore. They still live in the shadow of two unthinkable wars, and have learnt that patriotism and courageous instincts have too often resulted in corruption, destruction and death.
The writer, an English teacher, previously worked as a radio and television journalist in Britain.
Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune