“Tunisia — where is that again?”
This was a common refrain from friends after learning that I would spend two weeks in North Africa as a delegate of the American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL), a 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 that four films of the saga were shot in Tunisia — and, loosely, from 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 (ABMC), 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 marble wall honoring an additional 3,724 soldiers classified as missing in action.
At its core, the memorial exists to commemorate those who gave their lives in an effort that indisputably enabled the Italian Campaign, the Allied operation which would ultimately force the surrender of Nazi Germany and initiate the end of World War II. 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 Islamic State and other radical terrorist groups, who want nothing more than to undercut the democratic freedoms of the citizens of Tunisia and any other nation that might follow a similar path. It is in the interest of the region, the United States, and indeed the world that a democratic Tunisia not only survive, but thrive.
Like the thousands who paid with blood and treasure in the smaller, often-overlooked North African Campaign, 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.
Stratmann is 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.