War strains his love of Americans

A Frenchman, grateful to the United States for saving his country in 1944, is pained to see U.S. soldiers dying `for nothing' in Iraq.

May 30, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. LAURENT-SUR-MER, France - The elderly man's memories are painful, but he laughs when recalling some of them, about how he stole back his animals from under the noses of German soldiers, about how a doctor claimed his mother died from tuberculosis - and not cancer, as she really did - so the fear of infection would keep German storm troopers off his farm.

The laughter stops, though, and his eyes go moist when he talks about the memory of American soldiers killed on D-Day trying to save him. And when he talks about the American soldiers being killed in Iraq.

D-Day, in so many ways, lives on here, in villages like this, on this farm, where this man, Andre Legallois, was born.

Leaders from at least a dozen countries, including President Bush, are scheduled to be here June 6 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Allied landing. The ceremony at the World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is to commemorate the sacrifices of that generation of soldiers, but there is no way for the people here to recall that war without considering how their friendship with the United States has been strained because of the war in Iraq.

American soldiers are honored in this part of France with an intensity found on no other foreign soil in the world. The gratitude is real, but the devotion is not blind, because even more important than the victories of D-Day, for many residents, are the broader lessons of war.

Feelings here about the United States are complicated by the sacrifices it was willing to make to liberate millions of people from German occupation, and also by the strong belief that Americans began a war in the Middle East that could have been avoided.

"It is not because I don't love Americans, because I do - I adore them," Legallois says, and from his tone and manner, "love" does not seem a figure of speech. "But this business in Iraq? There are men being killed for nothing. These are Americans - our friends.

"We cannot support decisions that have our friends killed."

The intertwining of past and present on Legallois' farm is typical of what has shaped views about the war throughout France, said Guillaume Parmentier, the director of the French Center on the United States, based in Paris.

France paid a heavy price for its colonial experience in Arab countries in North Africa, and France is now home to more Muslims than any other country in Europe, which makes the government here all the more sensitive to Middle East policy. Americans are right to expect gratitude for World War II, Parmentier said, but they are wrong to think the lack of French support for the war means people here have forgotten.

"I think the prevailing view is that Americans should have listened to us, and that is evident by how badly things are going in Iraq," he said. "But there is no gloating here. You talk to the French, and you know they do not want failure in Iraq. That would be disastrous for the world, and France would be among the first countries to suffer from it."

When Legallois recalls the Allied landings, when the Americans, Britons and Canadians landed on the beaches down a winding lane lined with orchards, he closes his eyes and replays the scenes as if they happened yesterday.

It is as if somewhere in his mind German soldiers are still living in his barn, after the ruse about his mother was exposed. There are still German storm troopers living in two of the bedrooms above this kitchen.

The waves splashing on the beaches remain capped with foam still red with American blood. American soldiers are still being shot in and around the family farm. And his hands are still sticky red from tending to the wounded, from dragging the dead to a more dignified resting spot.

Loyal opposition

As he recalls June 6, 1944, he is the very picture of life these days in rural northwestern France, complete with cat snoozing on a rocking chair, apples from his farm warming in a pie on his stove, son and grandchildren at his side, rain falling softly on his fields even as the sun breaks through in golden streams on gray skies.

And it is because of his comfort and freedom, but mostly because of that blood and those deaths, that this 76-year-old man feels as he does about Iraq.

From his point of view, he owes the Americans enough to oppose them. "I would not be sitting here today if not for them," he said, and he repeats it.

The children of this region, rich in farms and family, listen to people like Legallois recall their capture and their freedom, learn of the war on the actual battlefields, learn in the military graveyards of the Americans, the British, the Canadians, the Germans. And the French.

"When the Germans came, we were slaves," Legallois recalls. "We saw their power, and we were afraid. We had no confidence. Then, on the day, when I looked out the window upstairs, I couldn't see the water. I could see only boats, and we knew the Americans were coming. What a feeling!"

`Grand enfant'

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