I Won't Forget Poland
During the first 2004 Presidential debate, one of the highlights came when Sen. Kerry was trying to show how “unilateral” was our military action against Iraq, and said that only Great Britain and Australia had contributed combat troops during the “hot war” phase. President Bush’s words in response were “You forgot Poland”. This, I fear, is a common attitude among many Americans. Essentially everyone recognizes our special relationship with Great Britain, and many know that the Aussies have our backs when the chips are down, but most aren’t aware of how much our new Central European allies have really stuck out their necks against the wishes of “old Europe” to demonstrate their resolve in the cause of freedom. Leading the way in all respects has been Poland.
As far back as the American Revolution, Poles have been there for the United States. Casimir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciuszko are among the most well-known of the freedom-loving Poles who fought in the Revolution. (Pulaski’s contribution was appropriately memorialized by the naming of SSBN 633 as USS Casimir Pulaski.) The U.S. repaid a portion of the debt by demanding the re-forming of the Polish nation, after over 100 years of annexation by Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, as part of President Wilson’s 14 Points that ended WWI. After Poland disappeared behind the Iron Curtain following WWII, many Americans knew that the Poles, who have a history of loving their own freedom, would return to the West if possible; the incredible bravery of Lech Walesa and the Gdansk shipyard workers in the early 1980s was solid testimony of this.
When Poland finally threw off the Soviet yoke, they were eager to re-integrate with the West. Europeans were generally cautious about bringing Eastern Europe back “into the fold” too quickly (with the obvious exception of Germany’s reintegration); this was somewhat understandable, given the perilous economic circumstances in which the newly-freed nations found themselves. American pressure was essential in getting NATO to accept Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic as full members in 1999.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Poland quickly came to the aid of the United States by providing substantial military support for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. When the Iraqi front in the Global War on Terror was opened, Poland was there for us again. Their GROM special forces captured vital off-shore terminals in the war’s opening hours, and they performed many other missions that aren’t as well documented. (When I was working in the Coalition Coordination Center at US Central Command, my desk was next to the Special Forces Liaison. I obviously can’t pass on some of the stories I heard; I’ll just say that I’m glad the GROM is on our side.) When we moved to get international support for the occupation of Iraq, Poland volunteered to lead the multi-national division that would occupy the Center-South area, including An-Najaf, Karbala, Babylon, and Al-Kut. Not only did they lead, they provided the most troops for this unique unit. Soldiers from 20+ nations made up this division of 9,000+, with the Ukrainians (in Al-Kut) and Spanish (in An-Najaf) commanding two of the three brigades.
This article by Steve Forbes (third item down), via Ninme, made me wonder if we’ve done enough to show our gratitude for the loyalty and support shown us by the Polish nation. I believe that the answer is “no”. I made three trips to Poland to meet with various military leaders during my time at CENTCOM, and made a special effort to find out what the people of Warsaw thought of America. I’ll tell you, it is so nice to travel to a place where the majority of the people seem to honestly like Americans, and not just for our money. Australia is one such place; Warsaw is another. The people I talked to seemed genuinely excited to be talking to an American; they knew quite a bit about the geography and cities of the U.S., and were pleased with the support we’d provided them in the last 15 years. What they didn’t like, though, was that they were discriminated against when it came to getting visas to travel to the U.S. (Chrenkoff has his thoughts on the matter here.) Every day I walked past the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, there was a long line of people applying for visas. Since Poland is not on the preferred list, each applicant must pay a non-refundable fee (I think I remember it being $100, not a small sum to most Poles) to have their visa request considered; from what I heard, most requests are denied. [See update below.] On more than one occasion, I heard how unfair it seemed that the French, who weren’t supporting us, could easily get a visa to the U.S., whereas the Poles couldn’t. (A quick note on the French – yes, they’re being total pricks as far as Iraq is concerned. In Afghanistan, though, they’re very helpful.) Are there Poles that would overstay their visas in an attempt to work in the U.S.? Of course there are. From what I saw of the Polish people, though, I think we could use some more of these hard working, dedicated people.
Although the pull-out of the Spanish contingent, along with several other countries, from the Polish-led division has resulted in a contraction of their area of responsibility, the Poles and our other allies are still there, trying to provide a better life for their new Iraqi allies. I honor their commitment, and hope you will join me in thanking Poland for standing by America when we called.
Update: Welcome, Chrenkoff readers! If you're interested in reading about the professionalism and seamanship of the crew of the USS San Francisco in getting their damaged submarine home after their recent grounding, please look through my January archives.
Update 0956 05 Feb: Here's a story from CNN about Secretary Rice's visit to Warsaw. The visa issue is mentioned; it says that the visa application rejection rate is about 30%, vice the "most requests" I mentioned above.