This was a common refrain from friends after learning I would spend two weeks in North Africa as a delegate of the American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit “with the unique mission of providing select young leaders an opportunity to travel internationally and engage firsthand in public diplomacy.”
Perhaps I was barely more informed, though; my awareness of Tunisia was only as deep as its cinematic significance — “Star Wars” fanatics know four films of the saga were shot in Tunisia — and, loosely, its recent coverage in the news.
The Tunisian Revolution in December 2010 was a spark seen throughout the Middle East-North Africa region, ultimately lighting the fire that history now refers to as the Arab Spring. Some five years later, Tunisia is struggling in its unsought role as the veritable alpha-and-omega of this revolutionary period — the nascent democracy that launched the Arab Spring is the only involved nation to sustain its new structure, its peers backsliding into similar or worse scenarios than before.
It was with this historical context in mind that I found myself so deeply moved at the North Africa Cemetery and Memorial in the ancient city of Carthage, just outside the capital city of Tunis. Operated by the American Battle Monuments Commission, the site inters 2,841 Americans who died fighting in the North African Campaign of World War II, including 240 unknown soldiers, 18 women, four sets of brothers, one Olympic gold-medalist and one Medal of Honor recipient.
The sprawling 27-acre site is beautifully maintained by our own government (via the ABMC) in cooperation with the Tunisian government, which granted the land to the United States free of charge and in perpetuity beginning in 1948. Rivaled only by the single American flag towering above the cemetery, perhaps the most striking visual I found was a 364-foot long marble wall honoring an additional 3,724 soldiers classified as MIA — missing in action.
At its core, the memorial exists to commemorate those who gave their lives in an effort that not only cut off Germany from the oil supplies vital to its war effort, but indisputably enabled the Italian Campaign. That subsequent Allied operation kept significant German forces from both France and the Eastern Front, knocked Italy out of the war and supported the D-Day invasion that would ultimately force the surrender of Nazi Germany and the end of hostilities in the European Theater.
The Tunisian Revolution was not the North African Campaign, and the Arab Spring was not WWII — but parallels clearly exist.
Today, the United States and our allies face a rapidly growing and seemingly unclassifiable network of enemies, including ISIS and other radical terrorist groups. These extremists want nothing more than to undercut the democratic freedoms of the citizens of Tunisia, the United States and any other nation that might follow a similar path.
Fortunately, this small but pivotal nation resting against the Mediterranean Sea, in its current state, exists as a beacon of hope for other burgeoning democracies and citizenries which live under the thumb of tyranny through terror. Unfortunately, however, the state of the Tunisian economy is far from perfect, and the country is still reeling from multiple terror attacks in early 2015.
For these reasons and so many others, it is in the vested interest of the Middle East-North Africa region, the West and, indeed, the world that a democratic Tunisia not only survives but thrives. Like the thousands who paid with blood and treasure in the smaller, often overlooked North African Campaign of WWII, the men and women who fought against tyranny and oppression in Tunisia — and beyond — laid the path for the larger challenges ahead.
Those who cherish their freedoms and desire them for the rest of the world would be wise to observe, understand and support Tunisia and all nations seeking democratic reforms in the Middle East-North Africa region. Terror has no greater enemy than a coalesced body of free individuals, and the men and women of Tunisia are at the tip of a desperately needed spear.
BEN STRATMANNis a chief of staff in the Texas Senate, an appointed member of the City of Austin Ethics Review Commission, and President of the Austin Sunshine Camps and Young Men’s Business League of Austin, where he lives with his wife, Mary. For more information on the ACYPL, please visit www.acypl.org.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."