- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Bush administration is highlighting the thousands of overseas graves of American war dead as part of a public relations campaign to convince foreigners of the United States’ good intentions in its battles with Islamist terrorists.

The 24 cemeteries, of which Normandy is the most famous, have drawn millions of visitors and stood for decades as places to commemorate the fallen.

John W. Nicholson, a retired Army brigadier general who oversees the American Battle Monuments Commission, has won approval to aggressively recruit more foreign and American visitors. He said he wants them to hear stories of how American men and women died for democracy.

“We want this experience, this enriching experience, to be available to millions more people because in America patriotism is instilled,” Gen. Nicholson said. “For non-Americans, gratitude for them is evoked when they see those thousands of graves of war dead who twice in the 20th century helped their nations.”

Added the former infantryman who served two combat tours in Vietnam, “Thousands of graves are a reminder the U.S. came when asked, restored democracy and then left without seizing territory, colonies, slaves, reparations or money.”

Gen. Nicholson, whom President Bush named to the commission’s secretary post in January, recently met with the panel’s 11 members and won its endorsement. The commission is made up of military veterans, including former Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, the most prominent Democrat to support Mr. Bush in the 2004 election.

“One of our goals is to have our commemorative sites recognized worldwide as inspirational and educational visitor destinations,” Gen. Nicholson told the commission.

International polls show U.S. prestige has suffered because of the Iraq war.

French-U.S. relations especially were strained when President Jacques Chirac refused to support the campaign to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and lobbied other world leaders to vote against a U.N. resolution authorizing force.

The job of attracting more visitors has been given to Charles Krohn, a retired Army officer and former Pentagon official who handles the commission’s public relations. He said one goal is to get travel agents to offer cemetery tours routinely.

“This could result in thousands of more visitors if the tour buses stop at cemeteries instead of just driving by,” Mr. Krohn said.

The cemeteries, holding more than 130,000 war dead, evoke images of great battles of liberation: Flanders Field, Normandy, Ardennes, Anzio.

Normandy’s 9,387 white headstones reach from a grassy field to Omaha Beach, where the Allies landed in 1944 to begin the liberation of Europe. Of the more than 1 million people who visit the manicured grounds each year, 20 percent are Europeans.

Eight other U.S. cemeteries are in France.

Aisne-Marne is the final resting place of 2,290 Americans who died in World War I. Brittany, west of Normandy, has 4,410 graves of Americans who fought to liberate France. Near the Mediterranean Sea is a small cemetery in the Rhone Valley with 861 markers for Americans who died freeing southern France.

“The French who live in the vicinity of our cemeteries are very pro-American,” Mr. Krohn said.

In Italy, a 77-acre cemetery holds 7,861 Americans. In Belgium’s Ardennes Forest are 5,329 graves of war dead, many of them killed in the Battle of the Bulge.

American cemeteries also are located in the Netherlands, Britain, the Philippines, Tunisia, Panama and Mexico. The commission receives $32 million annually to maintain the 24 sites and host more than 3 million visitors.

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