American Views Abroad

Saturday, August 26, 2006
To say the world is in a mess is an understatement. At times wherever you turn, the news overwhelms. A 10 year old gets kidnapped, held as a slave in a good neighborhood in a
civilized, cultured city and nobody, but nobody notices anything for eight long years.
She weighs 42 kilos at age 18 and not one neighbor thought about talking to another one about who that girl might be and why was she there? How much of this story will be revealed over time and how much kept under wraps to protect all those who could not or would not notice or failed to do their jobs properly?

Keeping things under wrap is, of course, a speciality of politicians in general whatever their stripes. Take the fact that those last minute phone conversations of 9/11 are being kept from the public. Garrison Keillor on Hear the Voices of 9/11 writes:

In the end, what we crave is reality. The woman crying on the 83rd floor was real. Our countrymen died real deaths on a warm September morning, and then, to avenge them, even more have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. In our hearts, we know we're on the wrong road, the road to unreality, but the man says to stay the course. And now, as November nears, congressmen who have supported the war, no questions asked, find it convenient to admit to having 'questions' about it. 'We are facing a difficult situation' they say. They are 'troubled'. The woman who cried on the 83rd floor was more than troubled. She saw death. It is indecent for New York to stifle the voices of the people in the tower. The congressmen who deal so casually with life and death ought to sit down and listen to those phone calls.

Keeping this close to home in New York where Senator Clinton is up for re-election, few are probably aware that she has an opponent in the primary on September 12th. Senator Clinton doesn't find it necessary to debate her opponent. Why? He isn't a multi-millionaire with tons of money to throw around nor has he giant corporations behind him. Just a rather 'normal' citizen running for office which could put him on the endangered species list these days. Read Jeff Cohen’s Hillary Still Hiding on the War; Time Warner Provides Cover at

Yesterday, Women's Equality Day, commemorated the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution which gave American women full voting rights in 1920. Read the history of how women gained the right to vote, a short history of how overseas citizens gained to right to vote in Federal elections and some statistics on how many women have been elected and are running for office. There is also a link on how to register to vote via the Overseas Voting Foundation.

Thursday, August 24, 2006
The chattering class in the Sunday newspapers were out in force milking the Guenther Grass admission about his few months of military service. One article was delicious to read. Page Three of Der Tagesspiegel Beichte beim Lieblingsfeind (Confession to a Favorite Foe) by Juergen Schreiber called for being read aloud in parts. It was a tongue-in-cheek report on who is in and out in this small inclusive world at The more interesting and accurate accounts of what was behind Grass being drafted into an elite Nazi troop unit were found in the letters to the editor of that paper. Three letters stood out. The first was by a former interrogator of POWs for the 82 US Division, a German Jewish immigrant. He wrote how he encountered many young Germans who were drafted into the Waffen SS end of 1944 like Grass. His orders were to separate the sheep from the goats - those who were drafted as opposed to those who joined voluntarily for political reasons. He was particularly concerned that those, like Grass, be transferred to a normal prisoner of war camp. They were, after all, 'teenagers'. Another letter writer explained how he was almost drafted into the Waffen SS because in his Navy unit ten had to be chosen for it. Fortunately, he was not one of them. One of the most interesting letters was from a then-23-year-old who described how a General was 'combing' for troops for the front, including the SS. He decided to desert in Denmark instead of joining them. Here is a story journalists should follow. Not enough has ever been reported about those in battle who realize they should never be doing what they are ordered to.

On Tuesday evening ZDF broadcasted a documentary on the Waffen SS. A summary of it can be read in German at,1872,2022078,00.html. It confirmed what the letter writers tried to convey. At first it was a political, volunteer only force which was infamously known for its brutality and atrocities. Later, Himmler was forced to recruit in other countries. Who knew that one of its last troops defending Berlin in 1945 was a Frenchman? It also reported on how it was held up as a role model for the Hitler youth groups, though relatively little of its dark side was reported to the public at large. It was first hand accounts from soldiers home on leave that passed the word around about its true nature.

Untold novels have been written about war. Most don't stand on a pedestal like The Tin Drum. However, some grab readers on a personal level and force them into another reality. Tessa de Loo's The Twins is one such book. Loo, a Dutch writer, portrays twin sisters born in Cologne in the 1920s, and separated in young years because of their parents' death. One ends up with the extended family in Holland, the other on a farm in Germany. They fail to connect to each other over the years for political reasons. Neither can understand the reaction of the other when, for example, one twin admits her late husband was a member of the Waffen SS. Of course, he didn't join it voluntarily, he was drafted into it. For the other the news is so horrible it leaves her stunned. This book, which was later made into a film worth seeing, shows those murky grey areas that entangle lives and relationships. Few things are just black or white, especially in war time.

Friday, August 18, 2006
The furor in the German media about Gunter Grass not admitting publicly that he was drafted into a Nazi elite troop at 17 is disconcerting to an outside looking in. His half hour interview on TV last evening showed a pensive Grass who could give no explanation for why he neglected to reveal this fact till now. However, he was perfectly honest when taken prisoner of war by the US in 1945. In the interview yesterday he related how he was lost from his unit in Russia and how an older, more experienced German soldier on seeing what kind of uniform he was wearing, gave him good advice about getting rid of that one. In the end, as Grass himself admitted, it saved his life. You couldn't help but come away with the impression he hadn't really understood what he got himself into.

In today's Suddeutsche Zeitung there is an interesting box on page 11 where the Grass incident is discussed in two other much longer articles. There under Schweigen und Reden (On Keeping Silent and Talking), Ivan Nagel, who was born in Budapest in 1931, reveals that just when Grass was being drafted in the summer of 1944, he, Jewish, was living under a false name in Hungry in eminent danger each day at being found out. Yet it took Nagel 55 years --- first in 1999 --- could he publicly talk about what he went through. He writes how, as a 14 year old in 1945, he simply had to push aside the horror he witnessed in order to stay on the living side of life. Life is not a reference book you can page through whenever you feel like it. It's not a completed manuscript.

One of my cousins was a fireman in NYC on 9/11. One thing he tells you right off --- don't ask me anything about it. I cannot and I will not talk about it. Period.

Perhaps before throwing stones at Grass, one should question if journalists and those in academic research, among others, had done enough of their own research and asked the right questions. At any rate, To Peel an Onion seems to be a book worth reading.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006
SPC Agustin Aguayo, the conscientious objector still based in Germany, has received orders to return to Iraq on August 28th. Thanks to generous donations to his legal defense fund, Aguayo's case was heard before U.S District Judge Sullivan in Washington, D.C. It was learned yesterday that in a redistribution of work load, the case has been passed to a different Judge: Royce C. Lamberth. In any case a ruling will be handed down, however, it cannot be speeded up. His lawyers plan to ask for a temporary restraining order (TPO) to prevent Aguayo from being shipped out, but there is no guarantee the judge will grant this.

Aguayo served a year in Iraq as an Army medic. Most of the delay in his case was caused by the US Army not following its own system for handling CO cases. Concerned citizens can write letters to members of Congress asking for Aguayo to be left at his base in Germany until Judge Lamberth rules. Input from California (Aguayo's home state) voters is especially welcomed. Since Congress is in recess till Sept. 5th, all faxes and letters should be sent to home state offices. Address can be found at

More background on his case can be found at

Monday, August 14, 2006
One World in a Small Town

Germany was hosting the World Cup and as though on command the weather turned sunny and hot in late June. There was no good reason to pack up and leave. Instead we decided to convert a sad lawn into various flower and herb patches in between watching the games, flags sprouting up everywhere, and people, young and old, having a grand time. One exquisite place to get a dose of inspiration on gardens and colors in northern Germany is the Emil Nolde museum in Seebuell, near the Danish border and the North Sea,, and Husum is the main town close to it where we decided to spend a few days.

Small towns in Germany sometimes hold delightful surprises. Husum doesn't have the medieval flair of Luneberg or the half-timbered houses of Wolfenbuettel, for example. To be honest, the plane-nosed windmill 'farms' have ruined the scenic view around the harbor, as well as along many parts of the North Sea coast. It's sad, but true. A way of providing energy without fuel is ugly to look at. Husum, however, made up for it by having a book shop you couldn't resist walking into. Eine Welt (One World) said it all from the outside. Inside it was warm, well-lit, big, yet cozy, and had very gracious, well-read owners. German book shops offer excellent service. I was looking for a pocket edition of Siegfried Lenz's Deutschstunde (The German Lesson) which is worth re-reading when visiting the Nolde museum. They were sold out, but a copy would be there the next day. We talked about books and the owner decided I would probably enjoy reading Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres. When I said I would rather not read a translated version of an English book, there was no problem getting it in English within two days. There I also purchased Ketil Bjornstad's latest novel about a young pianist. Bjornstad is a Norwegian writer whose Villa Europa was interesting reading. Twentieth century European history glimpsed through one Norwegian family and its villa in Oslo. Unfortunately, his novels have not been translated into English yet.

Sunday, August 13, 2006
Watching Lebanon by Seymour M. Hersh in the 21 August 2006 issue of The New Yorker at

Friday, August 11, 2006
There are two reviews of what promises to be a most interesting book to read these days, The Looming Tower -- Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright in The New York Times. In the Sunday Book Review of August 6, Dexter Filkins writes:

'The Looming Tower' is full of such surprising detail. Al-Qaeda's leaders had all but shelved the 9/11 plot when they realized they lacked foot soldiers who could pass convincingly as westernized Muslims in the United States. At just the right moment Atta appeared along with.....all Western-educated transplants, offering themselves up for slaughter. The game was on.

More to the point, he writes: 'Wright shows, correctly, that at the root of Islamic militancy --- its anger, its antimodernity, its justifications for murder --- lies a feeling of intense humiliation. ......They were angry but powerless in their own countries.'

It is too complex to summarize such a book review. Filkins and Michiko Kakutani's reviews can be read at

One of Germany's main TV channel, ZDF, aired a documentary yesterday on the state of the United States five years after 9/11. How has the US changed in the five years following the attacks? Americans, it explained, are still in shock at being vulnerable in their own country, something which they have not experienced in over 150 years. Civilian victims were last seen in the US in its Civil War. The journalist and his team criss-crossed the US --- Texas, Staten Island, California, Brooklyn, Michigan and Indiana, for example, and sought out citizens irregardless of their political leanings. A psychiatrist in Michigan claimed in an interview that Americans are not only suffering from the terror attacks but from the political fallout at home from 9/11. The bottom line revealed that many Americans feel helpless and sceptical about the political fallout and in particular they are extraordinarily pensive about the direction the country is going in. A summary in Germany can be read at,1872,3964935,00.html.

Thursday, August 10, 2006
There seems to be stiff anti-status-quo winds brewing up an electoral storm back home. About time. Talk is about the 'record-shattering' 43% for a primary election in Connecticut with thousands of new voters wanting their voices heard. Statistics show that before last Tuesday only three senators had lost primary bids in the past 25 years. Since 2000 about 98% of all incumbents seeking re-election to Congress had won. This time it might not be so easy. A poll of voters in 68 of the most competitive congressional districts found that Iraq is the number one issue and that opposition to the war brings a significant number of independent and female voters to the Democratic side according to the Washington direction of

There was the long haul of why bother to vote in the 80s and 90s. It was almost a badge of honor claiming one had never voted. I can remember reading this in the poet James Meredith's obituary, for example. What was the saying: Well, they are all alike. Well, no.
In fact, it was very disturbing to attend a meeting of Americans in Europe opposed to pre-emptive war admitting in a discussion that many of them had never voted before. Anger at policies, yes. Taking part in the process of voting and holding elective representatives accountable, not necessarily. It's tedious trying to register and certainly from abroad and even more so trying to keep up with all the issues. This time around it might not turn on bread and butter issues or so-called moral issues. Of course, if going to war--- which should be an absolute last resort as a means--- is not a moral issue, what is? Thousands upon thousands dead, severely injured, uprooted, living in chaos, and resentment against us at an all time high. The winds of change for what government is supposed to be --- of, for and by the people --- seem to be more than just blowing gently. Let them keep gathering.

Monday, August 07, 2006
Stop the Bloodshed: Ceasefire Now. The petition calls on Bush, Blair and Olmert to support UN Secretary-General Annan's call for an immediate ceasefire and an international force to stabilize the situation and it can be signed at

Friday, August 04, 2006
The carnage continues unabated. It was sickening glancing at the front page of the IHT this morning. The headlines screamed Rockets Rain Down in Israel, Bombs in Beirut and U.S. Generals See Growing Threat of Iraq Civil War and Billions in Trade Gap, Pennies for Workers. To save sanity, the last article was chosen first. There readers learned that a Chinese factory worker is paid by the piece, 'less than a penny for every pair (of boots) she stitches, small or large.' Less than a penny. Boots that sell for $49.99. The biggest earnings in the mass manufacturing business are made by those who market and sell them in the US and Europe.

Under normal circumstances an article like this last one would be upsetting. These days it's a respite from even worse news. What is particularly unsettling is no matter how hard you work to keep up with the facts, it is getting more and more difficult to seep through the spin, falsehoods, holy and not so holy emotions, the layers upon layers of different versions of history, or as one German columnist put it this week, the inability of both sides to forgive and forget anything. To grab a hold on something that might help make some sense of what is going wrong, my mind kept wandering back to two issues of Harpers' magazine shortly before the present Iraq war started. In March 2003 it printed parts of Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World which was riveting to read. Schell doesn't start out with a fixed belief against war, but instead he argues against its power and importance. A book or thesis like his cannot be put into any simple nutshell. A convincing review of his book is at
Parts of the Harpers edition can be read at

An update from today's Washington Post indicated that the Democratic primary next Tuesday in Connecticut might indeed see a newcomer, Lamont, defeat a long time Senator and Gore's Vice Presidential candidate, Lieberman, by 13 points. Lamont is running solely because of Leiberman's upfront support of the war in Iraq, a war which is deeply unpopular in that state. This would be an important step in the right direction. It's what voting is all about. What's being done in Iraq is being done in our name.

Zeev Maoz in The War for Israel's Survival at discusses 'Israel's struggle for a war for the heart and soul of the Jewish state. .....It is a war about values, about moral standards, about courage to speak the truth even when it hurts and even when it is unpopular....' Good words particularly about speaking up when it hurts and is unpopular.

Citizens vote, but these days, we get lip attention only when there are elections. The real powers are the lobbyists and in The Nation this week Ari Berman takes on AIPAC's Dangerous Grip on Washington. The alphabet soup stands for American Israel Public Affairs Committee and it is very interesting reading at

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