Some Thoughts on Memorial Day

Lars Poulsen - 2000-05-29

Over the last week or so, I have been corresponding with a new friend who I met on the net. He's about ten years older than I, and has lived most of his life in the South-Eastern part of the United States, so you would expect him to be a lot more conservative than me, who came from socialist Denmark to sunny California. But we have found that we share a lot of attitutes to our work and the way we want to relate to the community in which we live. This Memorial Day week-end, we talked about World War II, and the purpose of national defense.

I tend to find different lessons in history than the conventional ones. It raised a few eyebrows when my daughter repeated in school that the United States went to war in Vietnam to prevent a small country from holding democratic elections that we knew would upset the deal that we had worked out in the back rooms.

In a sense, I think World War II is the last war to have a heroic mythology attached to it. By Korea we had so much power we did not dare to use it, and then we lost our way. But even WW-II did not start so clean: The lofty ideals were mostly invented after the war was underway.

Denmark knew the war was coming, but hoped to stay neutral as she had done in WW-I, and in 1939 signed a non-agression pact with Germany. The people and the politicians had not realized that the country was essentially defenseless until Munich, and by then it would have been a provocation to start raising a defense. The non-agression pact was not enough for Germany to feel she could safely cross the straits, so Denmark was swiftly overrun by an occupation army on April 9, 1940. Few shots were fired, and only one Danish soldier fell. The conventional mythology is that the attack was a complete surprise. The truth is, they knew it was a losing battle, and let the occupation force move in unopposed.

My father was a footsoldier in the Danish army at the time, drafted for his 18-month peacetime tour of training and defense duty, billeted in Roskilde, west of Copenhagen. His company commander heard of the invasion at 3:30 AM (half an hour before the conventional history says it happened) and quickly roused his men and marched them 25 miles (40km) to Elsinore, where he commandeered the ferry to take them to Sweden, just before the Germans closed the port. He had expected that the army would form up in exile, and possibly join the Norvegian army, but after 3 months in an internment camp on a Swedish air base, they were quietly shipped home.

After the war, when NATO was formed, Denmark enthusiastically joined up. The straits of Denmark were too strategic for any superpower to leave them in the hands of a small neutral country. It was clear that the country would be occupied in any future war, but at least we could choose WHOM to be occupied by. Since then, the task of the Danish defense forces has been to hold the ground for 24 hours, until the airborne US Marines can land at Karup Air Base, where provisions and weapons for 40,000 are pre-positioned.

One anti-tax politician suggested that it would be much less expensive to disband the Danish army completely, and replace it with a dozen billboards with the telephone number of an answering machine with a recorded message in Russian: "We surrender, we surrender." At least it has not come to that (yet).

These days, I see two major threats to the US:

These views are not incompatible with me basically being a socialist, and a staunch supporter of Al Gore. (He's not perfect, but he's a damn sight better than "the senator for Archer Daniels Midlands".)

Denmark believes strongly in the citizen army. The Danish constitution provides that every able-bodied man shall contribute to the national defense by serving in the army for a time. Until twenty years ago, the vast majority of males regardless of class went through that bonding experience, and I believe it was in large part responsible for the social cohesion that allowed trust and responsibility to pervade the political process. From outside, it was quite obvious how the fact that the US military was mostly a force of "hired hands" allowed society at large to treat the war in South East Asia as an abstraction for a very long time, until the engagement escalated to draw in a broad base of the population, eventually forcing those in control to consider whether the price was worth the hoped-for results. But even in Denmark, this system was eventually done in by the escaltion of technology. Modern fighting machines take more than 3 months of basic training to master, and need a 4-year enlistment to achieve useful proficiency. With time, this turned the backbone of the army into something akin to the US army, supplemented with a thin veneer of 10-20 percent of each cohort, which could largely be filled by those volunteering because they needed a service record in order to further their career goals in public safety occupations.

Personally, I spent 15 months in the army medical corps. My experience there included after basic training (50% infantry, 50% nurse's assistant) a two week blood bank course, for which I was selected by graduating in the top 6 of my class, 20 weeks in a MASH unit in a supply regiment (yes, we actually had a complete field hospital surplused by the US Army after Korea) and 20 weeks as a dentist's clinic assistant in a small camp 5 miles from where I was living with my first wife at the time. After spending 3 years in a professional environment as a computer programmer, I learned many practical social skills by being thrown into a dormitory with two carpenters, a farmboy and an auto mechanic, all 3-5 years my juniors.

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