During a recent trip to Germany, I had the opportunity to drop by a military installation where I'd spent some time in a former life. I was accompanying a contractor who had people working at Grafenwoehr, the big US training base near the Czeck border.
I have to admit to being a bit excited. As an Infantry Company Commander in the early '80s I, and most of the Army in Europe at the time, spent a few weeks every year at the sprawling training base. Graf was gunnery, the proving grounds for a years' training effort. It was the place you could fire all your weapons from pistols to artillery. Real bullets. Big bullets. Exciting, challenging, testing, and dangerous. A heady mix of military prowess, technology, and testosterone. And for those with responsibility, it was one of the big tests. The place where most of your report card was written. It was the culmination of months of preparation. Graf was not just about training and the execution on the ground, it was about planning, maintenance, packing, scheduling, the right people in the right place at the right time, convoys, and the always amazing ballet of rail loading and movement of a heavy unit. Tracks tiptoeing onto rail cars at the careful pace of a ground guide with the car swaying under you, tanks rolling down a car with tracks hanging off both sides, high voltage electrical lines just the height of the average soldier above the top of the tank. During any given week there were in excess of 13,000 soldiers there just for training. The tank trails were full of moving units day and night. There was a waiting list for every range and facility. The rail head was in constant motion as new units arrived. Convoys arrived and departed both day and night. It was rarely quiet. The roar of artillery and the more distant thunder of it arriving on target, the scream of tactical air, small arms, mortars, grenades, demolitions, and the sharp bark of tank guns. The constant gunfire, the arrival and departure of convoy after convoy, and train after train was a sort of cosmic background noise, the rumbling sound of Freedom when a third of the US Army and the flower of NATO stood in constantly improving preparation for the defense of Europe and the Free World. I was there at the height of the Cold War and Graf was the tiny and intense center of the military universe.
Now, 30 years later, the Army in Europe is something of a backwater. They are more concerned about BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) and civilian workforce reduction than defense of the Free World. It still has an important role in the military's approach to the world, but it is a tiny fraction of its former self. The drive across Germany was eye opening. All the cities and towns, large and small, which had held well known Kasernes when I was there are now empty of military facilities of any kind. We did not encounter a single military convoy. Graf was almost unrecognizable. Virtually every building was new. Motor pools, which had been little more than fenced mud and gravel lots with room for a maintenance tent are now modern concrete facilities with overhead cover and maintenance buildings with overhead lift, offices and heat. Modern barracks and headquarters buildings. But for all its newness, it seemed subdued at best. The railhead was empty (something I could not have imagined). There was the sound of gunfire, but it was light and sporadic - almost an afterthought. The only thing I recognized was the Graf Tower, a distinctive landmark that seemed almost a (comforting, I admit) relic in all the newness. I was told the training population (soldiers from elsewhere coming to Graf just to train) now is less than a thousand a week.
Nearly 30 years after I left Graf for the last time as a soldier, I would not have guessed at a Graf with so little going on. And yet, after a little thought, it is the logical result we strived for 30 years ago.
Some may not realize that at the end of WWII, there was a plan to turn the defeated Germany into one vast pasture; a land of farmers and milk maids in lederhosen with no industry greater than plows and wooden toys. And when we were there, we worried (and prepared for) it being again a terrible battle ground between two armored, many headed titans, with tactical nuclear weapons that may have made WWII's devastation seem child's fairy tale in comparison.
Now, 65 years after it lay battered into unrecognizability, Germany is united. A vibrant society and economy, the humming engine of the European Union. It is the vibrant heart of Europe, a player on the world stage, culturally, politically, economically, and militarily. After 65 years of occupation by the victorious Allies of WWII and then by Western Allies (of which Germany was an important part) trying to prevent WWIII, those Armies are reduced to small remnants designed only to stage to other parts of the world.
No news or magazine article in 1946 foresaw this. No one in the 50's was predicting it. I certainly did not imagine the extent of it during those days and nights at Graf in the 80s. It is a testament to the foresight of the leaders of the 40s in several lands, the persistence of others through the years in the face of threat and adversity, and the perseverance and quiet determination of the German people.
65 years is along time. Generations. A Europe of separate countries whose war covered the whole of the earth within living memory is now a political, economic and military European Union.
Remember that as you watch and listen to the commentators, and see the clips of troops leaving Iraq, and Afghanistan to follow. Someday in the future one of those young soldiers you see driving an MRAP out of Iraq may tour Baghdad or Kabul with his grandchildren and wonder at the change.
History is a deliberate judge, and does not provide commentary to the current press.