By Avi Davis
The Ardennes Forest in Belgium is one of those impenetrable corners of Europe where one would least expect a battle to take place. Intense folding, faulting, uplifts and periodic denudations have ruptured the landscape, making it almost impossible for modern vehicles to negotiate Yet it was in this 10,000 square mile region covering the south west corner of Belgium that Nazi Germany's fate was finally sealed. The Battle of the Bulge, fought largely by American troops against the panzer units of General Gerd von Rundsedt, was not only the largest tank battle in history but also Nazi Germany's last gasp. It finally liberated both France and Belgium. Today the bodies of thousands of American troops who died in that battle fill graveyards in southern Belgium and Northern France.
The same landscape was of course the scene of intense combat in the First World War where hundreds of thousands of men died in trench warfare, in order to defend France and Belgium against German aggression. One of Britain's most famous World War One recruiting posters shows a silhouetted German hussar overpowering a Belgian woman. Its title: "Remember Belgium."
That a small country like Belgium could have played such a pivotal role in world history over the past century, should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with European geography. Belgium stands as a wedge between France and Germany, the two nations responsible for 80% of European wars over the past 300 years. Conquest and control of the low countries, of which Belgium was the most southern, became vital in modern times to any victory between the two belligerents.
So much blood has been spilled defending Belgian soil by outsiders that it is reasonable to expect that the Belgians would be quiescent when those same outsiders find a need to defend their soil against actual or potential aggression. But Belgian resistance to U.S and British attempts to coerce Iraqi disarmament has not been quiescent. On the contrary, Belgian objections to a military assault against Iraq, a country that poses a grave danger to U.S interests, has been startlingly vocal. Led by its rabidly anti-U.S foreign minister Louis Michel, Belgium has played a significant role in defying U.S backed resolutions at the United Nations; Belgium refused to sanction a meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders when it was scheduled for Brussels this month; and two weeks ago, the Belgian government threatened to veto a U.S. request that NATO provide military materiel for Turkey. Michel, perhaps reflecting the views of a majority of his countrymen, has openly labeled the U.S projected assault as, "the vanguard of unrestrained colonialism."
Belgium has only added to its reputation for collective amnesia when, earlier this month, its Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling by proclaiming Ariel Sharon eligible to face prosecution for his role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila Massacres in Lebanon. Little consideration seems to have been given to the fact that no Israeli soldier was ever alleged to have played a direct role in the atrocities - a blood letting carried out exclusively by the Christian Phalange. Nor did the Court take into account that the surviving leaders of the massacre have not been indicted anywhere in the world and still live in freedom in northern Lebanon.
Belgium certainly knows whereof it speaks when it fulminates about colonialism and atrocities. The Congo Free State (1885- 1908) was the great Belgian contribution to Europe's rape of Africa and became the model for all other countries seeking to dispossess native populations of their resources. Under the predatory machinations of their king, Leopold the Second, Belgian overlords systematically enslaved, murdered, raped and mutilated millions of Congolese natives while press-ganging them into work on vast rubber plantations. Belgium's enormous pre -war wealth was built on the backs of these millions of men, women and children. Thousands who refused to participate -including children as young as five, had their hands or feet severed in retaliation. During Leopold's perverse reign, Congo's population was slashed by ten million. It should be no surprise, then, that Joseph Conrad based his ground breaking masterpiece, Heart of Darkness, on scenes he had witnessed in the Belgian Congo.
Leopold was later lionized in Belgian history books as a great humanitarian and until relatively recently the complete history of Belgium's colonial rampages in Africa had not been exposed. Even today, Belgians are loath to address Leopold's legacy. No memorial or museum recounts the horror of those years. No government legislation has been proposed to compensate Congo for nearly a quarter of a century of extortion and murder.
So much for Belgian self-righteousness. Isn't it time for those countries committed to setting obstacles for the war on terror and its goal of preventing future atrocities, to engage in a little introspection? Surely one does not have to be only either American or Israeli to appreciate the very real threats humanity faces from rapacious, unimpeded rulers. For the Belgians, at least, those dangers should be prodding a bitter memory, buried deep in that population's collective subconscious.
Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies and the senior editorial columnist for the online magazine Jewsweek.com.