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Frankfurt During Desert Storm

February 1991

Some people have asked what itís like here now.

January 16th we returned from two weeks in the Canary Islands. The preceding plane was Turkish, whose passenger's passports were being scrutinized very carefully. Combined with our plane landing at Düsseldorf twenty minutes late, we just missed the train that would arrive at Frankfurt at a reasonable hour. The next one deposited us at the extremes of the cavernous Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, frigid and empty at 2:30 AM and a long walk from the taxi ranks.

We entered a plush Mercedes – it even had Oriental carpets – and moved silently through the streets, deserted but brightly lighted with a sodium yellow glare, towards home. It was a surreal experience: the taxi radio alternated light classical music with hushed bulletins regarding last-minute French efforts and the beginning of the Krieg. Although we didnít understand all the words, it was obvious what had happened and although it was expected on an intellectual level, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.

Friends at the MITRE Heidelberg (military) site had previously told us that they had been warned about terrorist activity if hostilities occurred. Frankfurt is a likely target – with over 27,000 Army personnel (before Operation Desert Shield) and the major air base at Rhein Main, adjacent to the Frankfurt airport. As the only Military Airlift Command base in Europe, itís a major shipping point for the Gulf, its recent cargo including Patriot missiles.

Betty Lou just began a new term and the security at the Army base where she teaches is really tight. Youíve probably seen pictures of the way they search each car: underneath with mirrors, in the trunk and the engine compartment, inside under the seats and in the glove compartment. We use bicycles, so we avoid those lines – however, I now know what it means to "look long and hard," as they carefully scrutinize the required two pieces of identification. In the beginning they even searched her purse and pockets.

You see random patrols of armed men and women soldiers inside and even on nearby streets. As you might expect, there have been many rumors. One of Betty Louís students said an MP had told her that based on phone threats they had found eleven bombs. And she heard from the head of the educational center that a German radio station had reported a threat that there be would an attack on some Frankfurt military installation the next day. So far there hasnít been any terrorist violence in Frankfurt.

The support personnel are local hires married to soldiers. The husband of one is in the Gulf. Sheís in the Reserves and often works another shift after the MITRE workday loading aircraft at Rhein Main. The site administratorís husband, in charge of a Frankfurt hospital unit, is working seven-day twelve-hour shifts preparing for the possibility of an onslaught of Gulf wounded. Her young daughter was initially afraid when passing the armed soldiers guarding their housing area, although now that she knows they are for her protection they no longer frighten her.

One night a dozen cars in a military housing unit parking area were spray painted with graffiti in a well-organized operation. Barbed wire now surrounds housing areas that are not already within a military installation and the site administrator drives a friendís German-registered car to work.

From what weíve seen, on TV and in the streets, the Germans are also taking security very seriously. Police are shown raiding apartments of Middle Eastern suspects and their bomb robot is getting a workout. We do live a block from the "Amerika Haus," a USIA library oriented towards providing Germans a view of America, which weíve heard has been bombed several times in the past. I frequently notice a police van parked on an adjacent corner, although that corner also overlooks Reuterweg, a major street towards downtown.

One night as we walked down Reuterweg on our way to a restaurant, we saw 14 police cars and vans and one very specialized vehicle – it may have been a weapons carrier – parked along the street near the Alte Oper waiting – for something. We didnít hear anything about it the next day, so donít know if it was a precautionary measure of some type or if it preceded another raid.

Some site people are avoiding business travel to the U.S. My project had a meeting scheduled for Frankfurt with the Swedish contractor in February. They notified us their company had said they could not fly as long as the war was on. When the BFS suggested a meeting in Hamburg, where both parties could travel by train, they said trains were also vulnerable – a bomb in a station could blow up the train as it passes through! Do you get the feeling they donít want to hear about the system deficiencies the meeting was intended to discuss? So Iíll be going to Stockholm again after all.

We donít feel endangered: weíre integrated into the German community about as much as we could be. We rarely hear English spoken in our neighborhood; our German car has German registration – in fact we transferred the previous ownerís plates when we bought it – even our bicycles are German. Even under normal conditions we donít speak English loudly on the streets, and we use our admittedly non-native German in the shops and restaurants as much as possible.

There have been frequent "peace" (or actually, anti-American) marches downtown. I guess if MITRE was in D.C. rather than McLean we would be as used to actually experiencing them, rather than just seeing them on TV, as happens here. So far they have been generally amateurish – a rag-tag group, mostly very young, carrying crudely-lettered banners and not even displaying them very well. Some people have hung banners from their apartment windows or balconies and we see occasional graffiti sprayed on walls. (Lately there have been some pro-American demonstrations too).

The Rhein Main U.S. air base, however, has been the target of increasingly sophisticated picketing, resulting in its Sunday closure to all but those who live or work there. (It has the biggest commissary and audio-video store in the area, and particularly because German businesses are closed on Sunday, it attracts a lot of business from those stationed elsewhere.)

You know the Germans think seriously about something when they call off Fasching. Itís the equivalent of Mardi Gras or Carnivale, but the buildup starts in November (the 11th day of the 11th month at 11:11:11:...). Fraternal organizations meet all year to plan their parade floats and costumes, and incidentally to party as a warmup for the big Fasching balls. Entertainment at these balls intersperses political satire with variety acts. Many, including a big one at the Alte Oper, are televised in their entirety!

The parades draw tens of thousands in many cities. Nearby Mainz has a particularly spectacular one; last year we watched it on television for hours in the afternoon (thatís another day the Germans unofficially desert the office by noon). It was a cold, rainy, day or we would have been there in person; we thought we could always go this year, but now Fasching has been canceled throughout most of Germany. And itís not primarily because of fear of terrorism; itís because they feel the mindless revelry of the celebrations is not appropriate given the solemn events in the Gulf. Various public entertainment programs have also been postponed and even certain types of comedy programs have been removed from TV.

The results of past militarism have created an ingrained pacifism in most Germans. Polls show 80% donít want war; they also show, however, that now that itís started, 80% support the actions of the coalition. Politicians who publicly promote German material support are careful to list a host of logical reasons; nothing as simple, for example, as to expel Saddam from Kuwait. Perhaps the comparisons with Hitler are too obvious, although several of the Germans on the project have not been afraid to cite that as the proof that he must be stopped while itís still possible. Although Germans point to the Constitution as not allowing them to provide troops, it almost seems as if theyíre afraid that if they start at all, things will once more go out of control.

Of course, the fact that Jews are once again being threatened by a fanatic dictator whom German companies have assisted in constructing poison gas factories has also stirred up complex feelings.

© Copyright 2000 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved

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