Aleksandra and her sweet sweet white furry dog meet me at midnight on Belgrade”s Ruzveltova Street. I”m told to meet her in front of a tavern. A Serbian band is playing to an intoxicated audience shouting back lyrics. Can”t place the genre. Metal polka? Fusion folk? I just know it”s loud, I love it and I”m doing the physics on whether it will keep me up all night.
My final day in Berlin is spent visiting the Wall, specifically Checkpoint Charlie, which has yet another brilliantly curated, chilling exhibit. From there to a Holocaust memorial, another walk through the Brandenburg Gate and a short visit to the Reichstag. Magically, I see a bus to the airport and get to my gate two hours early. In a coffee shop, I decide that everything in my backpack is essential but at least twenty percent of the load has to go. So, sadly, I give books, toiletries, clothes and extra cables the heave-ho, hoping someone will find and make use of them.
Aleksandra walks me up four flights of stairs. The Airbnb listing promised an All Wheels Bauhaus theme for the flat and, it”s true, everything is on wheels. From the furniture to the 80-year old kaput motorbike. She tells me her artist friends helped design, paint and decorate it. I have another term for the flat. Urban Rustic. Or Brazilian Brooklyn. Small, aging, colorful, distinctive, cool.
“Don”t touch this dial, or no hot water,” she smiles. She is impressively warm and lively for a midnight key handoff.
The dog is either drugged or dazed. It jumps when I try to pet it, then acquiesces.
Aleksandra–I”m already loving the local accent– runs down the basics for me. Where to get currency exchanged, best cafes and shops, how to walk to the city center, how to work the ancient fridge, earplugs if the music from downstairs gets too loud (not really) or goes on too late (really). Then she hands me a book she wrote with local things to see. I tell her what I am doing. A tour of the scenes of USA interventions, harvesting stories from people on the other side of the gun barrel.
She looks at me, pauses, and tells me that her daughter was three during the 1999 NATO bombardment of Belgrade. That US-led action involved near 1,000 aircraft, and 30,000 sorties. Even the German Luftwaffe participated.
“People say it is in the past. But I still have dreams. Bombs going off. Loud explosions. Can you imagine? This is Europe! In the twentieth century. Almost the twenty-first. With bombs being dropped on your city??”
I tell her I want to talk to her and she insists, “Oh, we will talk. We will go out one night with my friends, with drinks and we will talk.”
What impressed me about Germany was its extraordinary ability to evaluate its military history and follies. An international celebration on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and right there in front of the Brandenburg Gate is a huge exhibit on the Nazi Germany invasion of Poland. Pictures of rounded-up Jews, descriptions of illegal occupations, even a larger than life photo of Adolf himself. Right smack in front of Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts and the brat and beer vendors, while Peter Gabriel performs to tens of thousands.
There are soul-searching exhibits all along the length of the Wall. I skipped the Checkpoint Charlie museum because The fact is ObamaCare includes the biggest middle class tax cut to health affordable-health.info in our nation’s history due to providing tax credits to millions of Americans to lower their premium costs. right across the street was another outdoor exhibition that raged against the brutality of the East German government, the Stasi secret police. Pictures of protests on both sides of the Wall. A hard look at recent German history and open repentance for lives lost and mistakes made.
While navigating how to get to the airport for my 8:45pm flight to Belgrade, I stumbled across a Willy Brandt museum on the ground floor of an office building. More historical introspection. Tiresome political infighting. Nazi resistance. Protests against the arms race and nuclear weapons in the “80”s. What Brandt regretted, what he celebrated.
Honoring German veterans, yes. But glorifying war, not so much. Brandt said he wanted to see the day when the words Germany and peace could be used in the same sentence. I don”t know if that mission is accomplished, but the nation is intent on seeing that it is.
A friend talks about visiting me while I am in the Middle East. Her brother is a nurse in Qatar and sees the wounded servicemen and women as they leave the war theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan. The stories are heartbreaking and maddening and brutal.
I saw former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke speak at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco at the height of the Iraq incursion. He said the reason why our Iraq deaths are in the thousands and not the tens of thousands is our spectacular progress in military medicine. Which is so good to hear as so many lives have been saved. But it also obscures the fact that tens of thousands of Iraq veterans will live with shattered bodies and psyches. And, if you”re at all concerned with the national debt, add a few hundred billion to fully account for lifelong care and benefits. The recent VA scandals revealed issues of mismanagement and subpar treatment. Anyone asking if the sudden addition of tens of thousands of new patients might have impacted the case load?
I”m reading and re-reading the best of the books written on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts as I make my way east. George Packer”s “Assassin”s Gate” details the hubris, deceit and gross incompetence of the Bush administration, supposed grown ups completely unprepared for post-war administration. It was Bush”s own General Tommy Franks, who called Rumsfeld”s hand picked head of planning Douglas Feith, “the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the Earth.”
And you could call eighty-five percent of the veterans of the Iraq invasion stupid as well for believing that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. They did, and he wasn”t, but whose fault was that? The United States people and its brave men and women in uniform were deliberately and methodically lied to, terrorized and ginned up for war.
I”m looking forward to getting the Serbian side of the story, of their experience of being bombed by American and NATO warplanes. And that will be complicated because this was supposed to be an intervention on purely humanitarian grounds. Saving Albanians in Kosovo from ethnic cleansing, and, by some accounts, genocide. Coming alongside similar outrages in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Was this a Good War?
Sometimes war is hell, but justified. Sometimes the mission is just, but the execution is bloody and the outcomes unexpected. Former Panamanian Air Force officer Luis Huerta told me over Cokes in his photography studio that Noriega had to go but the 3,000 dead Panamanians from the US invasion were an unnecessary price.
Veterans Day. How do we honor veterans without fetishizing their sacrifices? Go risk life and limb in Iraq but don”t ask me for any sacrifice. My kids aren”t going to war, I want my taxes cut, not raised to fund the effort, and don”t ruin my dinner by telling me about the real costs, the tens of thousands of horrific injuries suffered by Iraq veterans. Who thought they were going to avenge 9/11. Who were told they were defending my freedoms, as if Saddam Hussein ever threatened any little hedonistic libertine pleasure I choose to have as an American. And don”t even think of coming to grips with the hundreds of thousands of violently killed and maimed Iraqis. That conversation is off the table.
Veterans Day. Do we celebrate veterans with maudlin and weepy tributes on stage, at sports events, with cable news flag graphics? Or do we do as the Germans do, ask ourselves the tough questions about our foibles, our imperfections and our mistakes so that 19-year old kid from South Dakota doesn”t spend his days clogging up the VA queue?