I grew up in a middle class suburb of Schweinfurt. An area that at first sight couldn’t be any more German. The names on the doorbells were solely German. Emblems of German auto-makers dominated the middle-class cars that parked in the traffic reduced streets. The lawn in front of the small row houses got properly mowed every second Saturday morning between 9 and 11 o’clock and once a year there was a huge neighborhood party with lots of Franconian beer and grilled sausages. But once you’ve looked a little closer you could see that some things were out of line. Neither was it the Turkish kebab shop nor the Asian food place that didn’t fit into the uniform German appearance of the neighborhood.
It was three apartment blocks with permanently closed shutters, whose balconies were stuffed with oversized Weber grills, colorful plastic toys and satellite dishes, which is why their intended usage was impossible. Some of the U.S. soldiers, who had the privilege to stay outside of the garrison, lived in these apartment blocks.
Generally it proved that the American way of life didn’t really fit into the German standard. The appliances, provided by the U.S. government, for each solider such as refrigerators, stoves and dish washers already required a huge amount of German engineering to fit them into the kitchen of a standard 3 bedroom apartment. But when it came to combining the art of American auto- making and German prefabricated concrete garages it was clear that this was as incompatible as Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund or the New York Jets and the New England Patriots.
The adults didn’t care much about the presence of the American families, nobody added something to international understanding nor did anyone have an aversion to the neighbors from abroad. The relation would be at best described with absolute indifference and an occasional head shaking about the exorbitant mileage of the yank tanks. In reverse it was probably the same. But nevertheless my dad would have loved to have one of these Weber grills.
Less indifferent to my parents was the presence of American pop culture in my nursery. Still Bugs Bunny belonged there as well as it’s German equivalent Benjamin Blümchen.
And so I grew up between German educational wooden toys and every thinkable Disney Kitsch. Hence my center of the world was somewhere between Britney Spears, “Die Sendung mit der Maus”1 and McDonalds. In contrast to that my Mom’s hers was probably somewhere in between Heinz Erhardt, a Czech Prince Charming and Willy Brandt.
Therefore it was clear to me that one actually drinks beer out of red plastic cups. That the Day of Judgment takes place in some city with green street signs, huge skyscrapers and yellow cabs. That the only one who could be saving us is some regular guy who by some chance is pretty talented when it comes to heavy weaponry and that after an accomplished mission the star-spangled banner is blowing in the wind. For me the center of the world was not, like for most German kids, some 6000 kilometers west from here but just 2 blocks away from my front door. Admittedly I have to say that up to a certain point things were a little improvised and artificial, but the typical yellow school bus already compensated that a lot. This yellow school bus carried all those kids of the American soldiers to the promised land behind the closed gates and barriers of the U.S. Garrison. The place where their cars actually fit into their garages, where one drinks water out of a fountain in the hallway and where fast food shimmers in all colors of the rainbow.
For us kids, in contrast to our parents, the world began behind the fence. On our way to school in the morning we already practiced what we thought is English. I, for my part, was sure about emigrating to the country of boundless opportunities sooner or later. And during the afternoon we again and again hung out at the little America in our neighborhood. But when it came to the exchange between our nations we kept as much to ourselves as our parents did. We played “Räuber und Gendarm“ and they played cops and robbers.
The peaceful coexistence found a rough ending in the events of 9/11. The middle-class environment was no longer a welcome relief from the daily military life on post but an incalculable threat to the soldiers and their families. Within a couple of hours our family-friendly neighborhood had turned in an occupation zone. From now on the apartment blocks reminded one of a fortress than a place to feel at home and foster your children. Heavy armed Humvees parked in front of the blocks, everywhere were these yellow colored barrels to load and cock guns and young heavily armed G.I.s patrolled in teams of two around our neighborhood.
No one found U.S. soldiers patrolling on German soil inappropriate or strange. We had to entail solidarity for our American friends. When it surfaced that the assassins were from Hamburg I almost felt guilty of what had happened. Nevertheless my image of the free and brave nation should get more and more cracks over the years.
Although my neighbors conducted war some thousand kilometers further east against the Taliban and some rather outdated dictator, the only source of knowledge I had about these wars was from the media. For me and probably most Germans “Operation Enduring Freedom“ and “Operation Iraqi Freedom“ were a huge media spectacle: war in real time, as an evening filling entertainment program.
Outside our front door nothing really allowed conclusions about the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Everything that should change in the following years were the height of the fences, the thickness of the walls and the number of brand-new American muscle cars on the streets of my hometown. It was rumored that the G.I.s were granted so much money as hazard pays and from their deployments that they didn’t really know where to put it and as real patriots directly spent it on American luxury cars.
I didn’t understand the world anymore, how could it be that on the one side the whole population of a country is driven into ruin and on the other hand those who are responsible for that misery get rewarded with brand new cars in the style of West Coast Customs.
I already knew that war is especially cruel and miserable for the civil population as I again and again thumbed through the WWII photo book of my parents. I was at the same time shocked and fascinated how killing was legitimate and even glorified in war: how in peace one is sentenced to life and in war one gets awarded with decorations, how apparently civilized people turn into wild animals.
The images from the streets of Baghdad and Abu Ghraib showed me once more that this so-called surgical and precise war is despite all the state-of-the-art military equipment not any different from all the other wars before. But as easy as it was to reveal that fact as hard was it to clear the responsibilities and benefits. And so it quickly became clear to me that driving big cars doesn’t necessarily turn you into a winner.
As I was a pubertal and anti-authoritarian German high school kid I had to be by all means against the current wars. During the weekends I nevertheless came more and more in touch with the U.S. soldiers stationed in Schweinfurt. After nearly 16 years, with rather moderate English skills and after one and a half six packs it finally happened. A thousand questions came to my mind. If it’s true that the high school cafeteria is strictly divided into peer groups, if Budweiser really tastes like piss or why there still is no equality between white and African American people. But above all I wanted to know what it’s like to be a soldier, to go to war on command, to shoot at someone. What it’s like to get hit by a bullet; to see your friend dying. And I wanted to understand why for God’s sake the Americans, who refuse any state interference at home, dance to the tune of blind obedience when it comes to military action.
Although one could easily identify a U.S. soldier by his flat top, shorts and extra large white shirt within half a mile distance I didn’t get answers soon. Apparently no one wanted to speak about what was obvious. Although our appearance differed extremely I realized that we shared most of our interests such as girls, beer and punk rock. With the small yet impressive difference that all these guys who were just a couple of years older than me had already seen a battle field. I, for my part, already freaked out when I just thought about the upcoming PTA meeting. My relation to the soldiers was shaped by deep ambivalence. On the one side I was totally fascinated by their manly, cool and tough appearance but on the other side I was totally averse to all what the army stands for.
But the U.S. soldiers were not only known for their relaxed and easygoing way but also for their aggressiveness. The permanent presence of the Military Police in bars and clubs pointed out that this was not just an exaggerated prejudice but that there was some truth in it. When it really came down to it, it was clear that this was just about the survival of the fittest. U.S. soldiers had nothing to fear of German laws as every crime, no matter if it was committed inside or outside of the U.S. Army Garrison, is going on trial at a U.S. military court. Even the German police has a very restricted scope of action. To be fair on the other side one has to say that the actions performed by the Military Police could hardly be put in accord to the constitution neither the German nor the American. If they were at the right spot at the right time the situation was not cleared until at least one of the soldiers lost his consciousness. That’s probably where the expression: “If you wanna see a yankee run, just call the MPs“ comes from. In spite of the ruthless approach of the Military Police, I knew that it’s better to get out of the way of a drunk and aggressive G.I.. But of course it you couldn’t lump them all together. Especially those soldiers who recently came back from the war zones were very generous and seemed to neither care about the thickness of their wallets nor the next day hangover and so it was pretty easy to just have some small talk and get your drinks paid. But there were also those nights that made clear that war is not some spare time activity.
Once I was sitting at the bar of our left alternative culture center with a whole fire time. They recently came back from Iraq and celebrated life and themselves. The atmosphere was boisterous and relaxed. We were talking in a superficial way about irrelevant things and drunk one Copkiller, a high percentage in-house specialty, after another.
With the increasing level of alcohol our topics got more and more serious and I finally asked all the questions I’ve never dared asking before. What is it like to be a soldier, to go to war on command, to shoot at someone. What is it like to get shot at and even what it’s like to see a friend dying. All the soldiers patiently and willingly told me what I wanted to know. Just one was only sitting on his chair. Sitting on his chair, staring into the blank space and it seemed like his thoughts were everywhere except this very place. When I asked the last question I saw out of the corner of my eye how tears were rolling down his cheeks. None of his friends understood what was going on and me even less, of course. At first they teased him a little, he shouldn’t be such a sissy, no one got killed and the time wasn’t that bad after all. But then they somehow realized that he wasn’t crying about the last couple of months but that there was something completely different that was heavy on his heart. At this very moment the whole atmosphere instantly changed. I was sitting there like some kind of alien wondering if I should stand up or just keep on sitting there. I kept on sitting. Meanwhile he clearly gave up hiding what had been obvious anyway and his tears where running down his cheeks, gathering at the bottom of his chin and then ceaselessly hammering on the black tiled bar. Everyone was staring at him shocked but somehow expectant and it was clear that now he either has to come up with a pretty good story or simply the truth.
He took a deep breath and tried to concentrate. He hadn’t told it anyone. After all he himself had known it just since yesterday and that he was so sorry that everyone now had to see him like this, but all the talking about Iraq and war had just overwhelmed him. He didn’t seem to be someone who beats around the bush as his best friend nervously shouted at him that for god’s sake he should tell what the fuck was going on. He then stopped crying for a moment and said calmly: “They shot my little brother.“ Now his best friend burst into tears. I was just sitting next to them holding back my tears and being ashamed of myself. Being ashamed of asking such stupid questions. Being ashamed of thinking one can put the horrors of war into words while drinking Cop-Killers and making smalltalk. Being ashamed of sitting there as a total stranger while someone was telling his best friend that his brother got killed. And being ashamed to satisfy my curiosity on the expense of others as this was probably by far the best answer I could have gotten to my starry-eyed questions. As I had slowly accepted my situation, the atmosphere collapsed once more.
Suddenly he stroke out wildly and screamed in bottomless hatred “I’m gonna kill all these motherfuckers!“. Who he was talking about slowly became clear as it more and more turned out that his brother was also stationed in Iraq and got killed by an IED. It took almost 15 minutes and all of his friends until he calmed down. Despite of or rather because of being totally dizzy and unable to cope with the situation I felt the senselessness and misery war causes like I’ve never felt it before. Now it was me standing there staring in the blank space and crying my heart out. But I didn’t care. I didn’t care that the whole bar was probably looking at me like an outlaw. I didn’t care that I actually had no reason to cry and I didn’t care that this whole crying wouldn’t change a thing at all. Suddenly a hand tipped me on my shoulder. It was one of the soldiers he said: “Man don’t take it too seriously, that’s just the way it is“ He said goodbye, gave me another friendly slap on my shoulder, lined himself up in the formation outside, gave the command “Forward March!“ and the whole team marched off into the night singing.