Saturday, April 22, 2006

All Bonds Are Tentative

At an Army airfield not far from where I live, the local Enlisted Soldier's Club hosts a karaoke competition on Friday Nights. Admittedly, in a country as renowned for its nightlife as Germany, many soldiers prefer to seek out richer diversions, but still others prove to be no match for the combination of alcohol and access to a microphone.

If nothing else, it's cheap entertainment, and so when my wife told me last night that she wanted to go, I shrugged and went along. For once, I played the Designated Driver, as too often on past occasions has my spouse had to be the one to shepherd me stumbling home, full of 100-proof bravado. We arrived after a twenty-minute drive to our destination, and after signing Ann up for the contest, we ordered a few drinks and had a seat in the smoking section.

Allow me to state, first off, that this club sucks. Shitty hip-hop blasts from speakers so poorly mastered that the music seems to emanate from behind some invisible styrofoam wall. Multicolored neon lighting laces the walls, flickering so badly it should be a posted epilepsy hazard. The conversation is loud and difficult to follow, and the "smoking section" is actually sealed in by a square glass enclosure, leaving one to feel somewhat like a zoo exhibit, the last of some rare and endangered species on display for those not addicted to nicotine.

"To your left, a herd of North American Chain-Smokers. These once-ubiquitous creatures are now extinct in the wild." I never really thought of Big Tobacco as a conservation industry, but there you have it.

Lackluster atmospherics notwithstanding, we decided to make the most of it. We ended up running into a co-worker of mine--Burke--also accompanied by his wife, and together we sat and drank and chatted about work and took turns getting up to butcher popular songs. I courteously abstained, both from the alcohol and the assaulting of strangers' ear canals. I did quickly notice, however, that the club was packed not just with off-duty Americans, but also with uniformed German soldiers, weaving merrily and kibitzing arm-in-arm with the Americans in a stilted cacophony of mixed English and Deutsch. I found myself gazing at the Germans' uniforms, noting the dappled greens and shades of rust, the fatigues themselves cut in a vaguely antique design reminiscent of American uniforms circa Vietnam.

After some time, while my wife was busy singing up front in a duet with Burke, one of the Germans took up a position at our table several barstools away. I glanced over at him, quietly smoking my latest cigarette, and after several minutes, he looked up from fumbling with his pockets. Holding a long, thin cigarillo, he leaned over and shouted to me, in heavily accented English.

"You have fire?"

I looked up. "Feuer? Ja." I produced a red Bic and used it to light him up. He pulled away, drawing in a thick lungful of sweet smoke, and exhaled, nodding in thanks and salutations. I leaned over to him in shouted.

"What's your name?"

He looked vaguely confused for a moment. "My name?"

I nodded, gesturing with my free hand. "Ja," I said again, "was ist Ihre namme?" He was wearing a velcro name tape, digital grey and probably borrowed from a drunken American. "Lenny," I heard him say.

That didn't sound right. I shook my head and leaned in closer. "I'm sorry?"

"Renny." Closer.


"Nein," he said more slowly, "Re-ne."

Rene. I nodded at last in understanding. French, but I didn't think much of it. I extended my hand to him. "Milo," I told him. "It's nice to meet you." He grasped it in a firm handshake. I scooted my barstool over, and we struck up a conversation.

Rene's English wasn't the best I've heard, but since most Germans speak better English than the average American, I didn't really fault him for it. Between his English and my German, we were able to have a successful conversation. We talked about our roots--I was from Michigan, and he was from Koln, or Cologne, a city with a strong mix of both German and French heritage, which of course explained his name. Like me, Rene was a former Reservist, now serving his country on active-duty. He was in town for combat exercises, and as we talked he pointed out and introduced me to several of his fellow soldiers, including his platoon sergeant and lieutenant. I bought him another beer, and introduced him to my wife. She joined us back at the table, and together we had a long conversation. After an hour or two, we exchanged phone numbers, and agreed to meet up the next day, perhaps to give him a tour of the city if he got a break from training. We shook on it, and at last my wife and I bid our new friend farewell, getting up with some effort and making our way out the door.

Later, driving home, I was struck by the strangeness of my exchange with Rene. We got along well, linguistic barriers aside, and all things considered I'd be happy to split a pitcher with Rene again. He was a good guy, and probably a good soldier. I'd have been glad to serve with him.

Sixty years ago, however, I might have said differently. Back then, our grandparents were intent on killing as many of each other as possible. Back then, my fellow soldiers would have called Rene a "Jerry" or a "Kraut," and had we met, we'd have been too busy shooting at each other to even think about splitting that pitcher. Worse yet, our attempts to kill each other would have been utterly impersonal, faceless, masked by officer-friendly jargon such as "objectives" or "resistance."

To be certain, without that last great War, Rene and I would never have met in the first place. Now, we trade drinks and stories of our home countries and experiences in the military. We do this as Allies. But if tomorrow, my nation and his were to have some sort of falling-out, we'd just go right back to killing each other, causes once again placed above human contact. In the military, I realized, the only soldier you can trust is one with the same flag on his shoulder.

Friendship is meaningless in the face of politics.


Blogger cinnabari said...

Friendship is meaningless in the face of politics.

That's depressing, not the least of which because I suspect it's true, at least to some degree. Which leads me (on one cup of coffee, mind, so you must be patient) to think about politics and families... My mother's a first generation American; Grandma emmigrated from a little town just outside of Munich (Kupferberg, near Kulmbach, where the brats are the best in the country, I swear it) when she was all of 16, just after WWI. About half the family spent WWII here in the States; of the ones left at home, two of the brothers died in Russia. My mother's father was already over here, too... but his family in Germany ended up on the wrong side of the Wall after the war. (My mother's AF career was affected by that... security clearances and all. My father's, too, insofar as we never ever got stationed in Germany. Politics.)

There was a point, somewhere in that. Hm. I think I lost it. Oh wait. I think there's a legitimate anxiety about how much friendship (or kinship, or other personal connections) affect soldiers' (and people's) responses to each other across political lines. And while I think it's unfortunate, in some senses, that interpersonal relationships come in second (third, seventieth) to politics, I think that's also inevitable.

re: your comment in LJ... "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's". Indeed. The problem with the current conservative lot is that they wish to become Caesar themselves.

8:25 PM  

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