Memorial Day in Tunisia: Bittersweet patriotism

2,481 gravestones mark American soldiers enterred in the U.S. War Cemetery at Carthage. See also the slideshow of the 2012 Memorial Day commemoration below.

Americans around the world celebrate Memorial Day today, a holiday to honor the dead, especially those who have fallen in battle. Nowhere are the commemorations more heartfelt, and personal, than in U.S. war cemeteries. Tunisia is home to one of 24 American war cemeteries around the world, and the only one in North Africa, where 2,841 American soldiersare enterred, their lives lost during the North African campaign against the Nazis in 1942-1943. Today the cemetery hosted a memorial service to honor these soldiers.

The setting was beautiful; a crisp clear summer morning in Carthage, a brass band from the U.S. Navy Europe band; and the always well-maintained grounds hosted the 100 or so visitors, mostly embassy personnel and their families. U.S. Ambassador Gordon Gray paid respect to not only those soldiers who fought against the Nazis, but also to those who died in Tunisia’s uprising in 2011. He noted the coincidence that Tunisia’s uprising began in the same places that are so familiar to U.S. students of World War II, Kasserine, Sbeitla, Gafsa, and Sidi Bouzid. Their cause was, as the Ambassador noted, universal – freedom. The commander of the U.S. Navy’s 6th fleet noted that, much like in Tunisia, so many of the fallen U.S. soldiers came from towns in the hinterlands, such as Iowa and Wisconsin.

Foreign war cemeteries serve a dual purpose, the commemoration of the fallen, and the remembrance of battles that liberated foreign lands. In France, Belgium and England, home to 16 U.S. cemeteries, these dual roles coincide gracefully. The historical memory of the U.S. role in these countries during WWI and WWII, as well as afterwards in the reconstruction of Europe after WWII remains a positive sign of transatlantic relations.

In Tunisia, however, the memory of U.S. intervention, though honorable, is bittersweet. Foreign soldiers invaded and vanquished colonial power, France, only to be later defeated by different foreign soldiers who promptly reinstalled the colonial powers. While the U.S. publicly advocated for self-determination of colonial territories as part of the Atlantic Charter of 1941, by the end of the war, the U.S. had backtracked, leaving independence leaders in Tunisia frustrated. Tunisia’s first President, Habib Bourguiba, in a speech given to commemorate the inauguration of the cemetery noted:

Like other peoples, the Tunisian people lived through the poignant tragedy of war and through the dark hours under the occupation of the Axis troops. The victory of the Allied troops did not bring to Tunisia immediate realization of her national aspirations.  It was indeed a great frustration for a people who fought on the side of freedom and made many a sacrifice during the last two wars for the cause of peace with human justice among men, for human dignity, and recognition of the peoples’ right of self-determination. [Read the complete letter here]

In interviews conducted among Tunisian visitors to the cemetery, one gets the impression that the cemetery is a historical oddity – beautiful, but strange. The memorial, unlike those in Europe, does not commemorate a shared history, a shared sacrifice. Nevertheless, these cemeteries, with their grace and tranquility, do represent something universal. To walk among the gravestones of soldiers who died so young and in foreign lands one cannot help but be moved.

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