Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Times of London. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral degree between Yale University and University College London. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Ron Freer is 103 years old. He is blind and uses a wheelchair. Ron lost his sight 75 years ago in the service of his country – and the Allied Powers, which include Britain, France and the United States – due to the malnutrition he endured in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II. He spent four years in the camp after the fall of the British military base at Fort Stanley.
On Sunday, Ron led 100 fellow veterans down the streets of London as part of the UK’s commemorations of the armistice, 100 years since the end of the First World War. There was a light drizzle – it doesn’t seem to have deterred him .
Two months ago, he made the journey to lay a wreath at the Dernancourt Communal Cemetery in France, where his father lost his own life in 1918. Ron was 3 years old when his father died in the First World War; he nonetheless joined the army at age 15, eight years before the outbreak of the Second World War. Two generations of a family sacrificed to the service of a nation.
There has been plenty written in the last few days about President Donald Trump’s failure to attend the armistice commemorations at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France on Saturday – and on what it means for his status in America as commander in chief of the armed forces. Less has been written on what it means for America’s relationship with its allies.
US veterans have every right to be offended by Trump’s inability to face a little rain. (Aisne-Marne cemetery had been chosen by the international community to show respect to the Americans; Trump’s absence led to the bizarre image of foreign leaders gathering together in a predominantly American cemetery.)
But consider, too, the message it sends to those of us whose nations have served alongside American troops, often under American command. US presidents, it seems, are happy to send European troops into the face of battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not to travel 50 miles to mourn our shared war dead.
As a Brit, I have spent my life in love with the idea of America. I have lived in America, been educated in America, loved in America. No surprise, then, that I’ve always been deeply committed to the idea of Anglo-American military cooperation: Get a gin and tonic into me and I’ve even been known to try to convince British leftists that the invasion of Iraq, with better planning, could have been a good thing.
I’m just one person, political idiosyncrasies and all. But Trump’s insult to the joint military forces who served in both world wars will appall many of America’s friends abroad. It makes it harder and harder to justify our continued alliances. As the British columnist Matthew d’Ancona wrote on the day of Trump’s inauguration, “for a passionate Atlanticist like me, this is an hour of sheer despair.” With each affront to America’s allies, the rest of us feel the same.
No one can seriously believe the various excuses made by Team Trump for what appears to be sheer laziness this weekend, so I will not grace them with much analysis here. There is no difficulty getting from Paris to Belleau in a light drizzle. Helicopters can fly in rain; presidents can take cars. (The other world leaders all managed.)
As the former Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes tweeted, on presidential trips, “There is always a rain option. Always.” True, the President is a man of 72. Here in Britain, the queen’s consort Prince Philip continued to accompany her to public commemorations until his recent retirement at age 96. Then again, unlike President Trump, he is a war veteran who despite his flaws understands the concept of service.
One thing’s for sure. In pulling this sulk, President Trump has managed to ensure the story of this armistice centenary is all about him – in splendid American isolation. For other world leaders, the weekend was a carefully planned show of diplomatic alliances. British Prime Minister Theresa May paid her respects at WWI graves on Friday, alongside French President Emmanuel Macron and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel (a member of the public crashing into their cavalcade didn’t stop them), before returning to London to lay a wreath alongside the German President at Britain’s Cenotaph memorial.
Get our free weekly newsletter
The Queen, 92, also showed up. For all her wealth and privilege, she is loved here in Britain for having got her hands dirty as a truck mechanic in World War II.
I believe,unfashionable as it is, that European and American military might has a major role to play in spreading democracy around the world. Living in the United States, I put my hand on my heart to “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Veterans Day and shook the hands of American servicemen in gratitude for their service.
But it gets harder and harder to explain to my countrymen why they should fight and die alongside the flag of a nation whose commander in chief sees honoring our shared war dead – or celebrating peace with our former adversaries – as a chore better evaded.
If Ron Freer can make it to a French cemetery at the age of 103, I’m not sure why Donald Trump can’t. Then again, perhaps President Trump doesn’t believe in honoring men like Freer. I understand he prefers war heroes who didn’t get captured.