What Defines Us?

I was reflecting recently on the long lasting consequences of our choices and the unwanted reputations that can be acquired as an effect of our actions. Make all the right choices, stand up for what’s right, don’t back down from who you are and what you stand for – but one mistake, one unwise choice, can wipe all that away.
Being both a self-professed nerd and geek, I am, of course, going to employ these particular traits to explain what I mean, instead of more serious, respectable methods like the concept of morals and consequence (who wants to be serious anyway? So stuffy and dull). I would rather approach the issue with a mixture of military history and Star Wars. The first because I’ve always been a history fanatic, most especially military history, and the second because…well, because Star Wars, man, STAR WARS!
First, let’s talk about France. I like France – I’ve been there, and it was awesome. But let’s think about the generalizations associated with the French in today’s world. Some of the most prominent generalities include French dominance in art and culture, enthusiastic, promiscuous love making, and the derisive assumption that the French are all pansies. While some assumptions are no doubt true and others are patently false, I want to focus on the last assumption.
Since World War II, when the Nazi war machine steamrolled through northern and eastern France behind the seemingly unstoppable armored thrusts of Heinz Guderian’s tank spearheads, France has been seen as a military joke – cowards and wimps who will fold like a deck of cards under the slightest threat of pressure. This has been reinforced by the arrogant American mindset that we arrived on the beaches of Normandy to “save the day,” pull the French out of the fire. (Never mind the fact that Britain and Canada played as much of a role in the D-Day invasion as the Americans.) While British and American forces did liberate France from Nazi occupation, the American glorified viewpoint loses sight of the fact that we simply did what was right. It wasn’t particularly gracious or noble; it was an intervention against oppression that was long overdue. But, alas, I digress horribly.
The point is that since the stunningly quick capitulation of the French to Nazi forces, France’s reputation has been tarnished. Instead of fighting back bitterly, France made the fateful decision to surrender, forever cementing the idea of the cowardly Frenchman into the minds of the world. Let’s examine that assumption.
First, it takes little more than a glance through history to debunk the myth of French cowardice. From France’s beginnings under the rule of Charlemagne, French military power has been a force to be feared. French medieval knights were considered to be the best in the civilized world, and supplied many of the most respected and feared warriors to the Crusades. France fought war after war between 1300 and 1700 against Britain, Austria, The Holy Roman Empire, the Italian States, and Spain, often emerging the victor after fighting to a bloody standstill. By 1500, France was easily the greatest power in the known world, and remained as such until the expansion of the British Empire in the 18th Century. Last but not least, we cannot forget the soldiers of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. NO ONE who fought against Napoleon’s Grand Army thought French soldiers cowardly. The Imperial Guardsmen were widely considered the most courageous soldiers in the world. In fact, from about 1800 to 1815 the whole of Europe lived in constant fear of the juggernaut of French military might.
Clearly, there is no “coward gene” in the people of France. If we look closer at the cause of French capitulation in early World War II, we see an even more tragic picture of the limits of the human spirit. In the First World War, French forces fought from the war’s opening stages to its final day, losing a little over one-fifth of its young male population in the process. That is some steel-spined fighting if I’ve ever heard of any. No other country or people sacrificed more in World War I than the French, and it can be argued that no one will ever lay down such a sacrifice again – for anything.
So when Nazi Germany rolled into Paris in 1940, yes, the war weary, greatly reduced population of France waved the flag of surrender (mostly – throughout the war many French freedom fighters continued to struggle against Nazi occupation). Can you blame them? And yet, because of that one decision – one of thousands throughout millennia of French warfare – the French have become the example of cowardice worldwide. In the same position, it is unlikely anyone else would have done differently, but they made that choice. It has haunted them ever since.
Next, let’s look at a shorter example of the Swiss in the same period. In World War II, Switzerland managed to remain neutral, despite the obvious expansionist policies of Nazi Germany. They have been largely criticized for this, and are now derogatorily viewed as the lords of all neutrality. But, ironically, Swiss soldiers and mercenaries fought in almost every war prior to the World Wars. In fact, Swiss involvement was basically considered a staple of European wars from 1100 through 1700. Swiss mercenary companies, adept because of their proficiency in pike squares, were highly sought after, respected, and feared for their prowess. However, Switzerland chose to remain neutral in World War II, and that decision has followed them.
Now, to STAR WARS!
In 1977, the movie-going world was blown away by the release of George Lucas’s Star Wars: A New Hope. Starring in the film alongside Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher was British acting legend Alec Guinness. While Guinness accepted the role of Obi-wan Kenobi and played the part for the duration of the original trilogy, he became increasingly disturbed with the turn both his career and fame took as he became associated worldwide with the sci-fi phenomenon. Throughout the remainder of his life, and well past his death, Guinness has been identified primarily, and one could argue exclusively, with his Star Wars alter ego. Guinness lamented this, angry that he was chiefly remembered for a role he considered to be far below many of his other works. Before his death, Guinness stated that he wished he had never accepted the role, because he would never be remembered for anything else. (Of course, I’m elated that he took the role. Star Wars would not have been the same without him. As I say this, I’m sure Sir Alec Guinness is rolling over in his grave.)
So, pick carefully, my friends. When the next Nazi Germany comes along, will you remain true to who you have always been? When the stakes are highest, will you participate or sit it out, afraid of failure? When a seemingly harmless choice presents itself, will you carefully consider the possible results? Our lives are made up of our choices. Sometimes those choices aren’t who we really want to be, but we make them anyway. Are you making a choice because it’s right, or because it’s easy? Or perhaps because you’re scared?
Make the choices that follow who you want to be – who you are. Remember who that person is, and never compromise.

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