BERLIN -- My apartment
here, located in a leafy neighborhood on the outskirts of town,
overlooks Wannsee, an idyllic lake that has been frozen over for
much of the winter. From my balcony, on a typical day, you can
see the ice dotted with people strolling, bicycling, walking dogs,
or cruising in ice sailing vessels.
If you raise your
eyes a bit, you can also see a villa on the opposite shore known
locally as the Wannsee House. On a January day in 1942, a group
of Nazi officials met there to make plans for what they called
"The Final Solution to the Jewish Question." The solution
In Germany, where
I've spent the last month as a fellow of the American Academy
in Berlin, history has a way of sneaking up and shouting in your
ear. It also has a way of shaping government policy in international
relations, which often exasperates those on the other side of
Today's Germans have
an allergy to military power -- and a preference for negotiation
-- that often strikes Americans as naive or even cowardly. Germans,
in turn, complain that the U.S. government is like the proverbial
man with a hammer who sees every international dispute as a nail.
Those differences split the two governments over how to deal with
Saddam Hussein, and they have complicated joint efforts to stop
Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons.
What both sides forget
is that each is a product of its history -- and that our very
different histories are bound to yield very different views on
the utility of armaments.
Even though Germany
has been at peace for 60 years, reminders abound of the horrific
consequences of war. Sometimes it's the unspeakable crimes of
those who used war as a means to their vile ends. Sometimes it's
the catastrophic destruction, human and material, that military
conflict can produce.
Berlin brings to
mind what William Faulkner wrote of his native region. In the
South, he said, "The past isn't over. It isn't even past."
The city is not only steeped in history but scarred and haunted
One of the architectural
jewels of the city, the neo-classical Berlin Concert Hall, gives
the impression of having stood unchanged for the last 185 years.
In fact, it was wrecked by Allied bombing during World War II.
What you see today is a reconstruction completed in 1984 -- by
the Soviet-imposed regime that tyrannized East Berlin and East
Germany for nearly half a century after the fall of the Third
Reich. In the concert house, as in much of Berlin, glory and tragedy
Germans have learned
many lessons from losing two world wars, the most recent of which
left the nation devastated, divided and disgraced. The biggest
lesson is that war is an option to be avoided at almost any cost.
When nations abandon talks and treaties for bullets and bombs,
Germans believe, they risk catastrophe.
In the United States,
by contrast, the two world wars left few visible reminders. Battles
weren't fought on American soil, and bombs were not dropped on
American cities. Instead of being left weak and impoverished,
we emerged richer and stronger than any country on Earth. Our
military might not only defeated the Axis powers but implanted
democracy where despots once ruled.
Most of our experiences
with the use of force have been successful -- and when they have
been unsuccessful, the cost on the home front has been comparatively
modest. When we couldn't win, as in Korea or Vietnam, we exercised
the option of securing peace and going back to a secure home.
So Americans tend
to see the good that can come from the use of force, while Germans
are inclined to focus on the bad. What Germans forget, in their
aversion to military solutions, is that it was Allied military
power that liberated them from the Nazi regime and protected them
from the Soviet one. What Americans forget is that our last great
victory -- the Cold War -- was a success only because the two
sides kept the peace, avoiding a path that might have ended in
Germans would be
wise to keep in mind that diplomacy unsupported by military power
can end in self-deluded appeasement. Americans, mired in Iraq,
may now realize that even when the other options look bad, war
is often worse.
The two sides may
eventually come to agree on two propositions: Like health insurance,
military power is a very good thing to have. What's even better
is never needing to use it.
2006 Creators Syndicate