American Views Abroad

Saturday, December 30, 2006
Storms should be ringing in the New Year here which sounds appropriate for these times. Locally, the economy seems to be picking up along with an increase in taxes and fees for health insurance. You take a rollercoaster ride if you read all the predictions for the coming year. In fact, there is a tendency to keep away from the news these days. Today, for example, the morning news was not listened to. There was no inclination to take part in what one good friend here called a medieval public hanging.

Riverbend from Iraq has written again. '.....This last year especially has been a turning point. Nearly every Iraqi has lost so much. So much. There's no way to describe the loss we've experienced with this war and occupation. There are no words to relay the feelings that come with the knowledge that daily almost 40 corpses are found in different states of decay and mutilation. There is no compensation for the dense, black cloud of fear that hangs over the head of every Iraqi. Fear of things so out of ones hands, it borders on the ridiculous. ....There is real fear that this execution will be the final blow that will shatter Iraq...... Here we come to the end of 2006 and I am sad. Not simply sad for the state of the country, but for the state of our humanity, as Iraqis.'

Juan Cole's Saddam: The Death of a Dictator highlights Riverbend's thoughts. He writes: 'The trial and execution of Saddam were about revenge, not justice. Instead of promoting national reconciliation, this act of revenge helped Saddam portray himself one last time as a symbol of Sunni Arab resistance and become one more incitement to sectarian warfare. ....This weekend marks Eid al-Adha, the Holy Day of Sacrifice. Shiites celebrate it Sunday. Sunnis celebrate it Saturday and Iraqi law forbids executing the condemned on a major holiday. Hanging Saddam on Saturday was perceived by Sunni Arabs as an act of a Shiite government that had accepted the Shiite ritual calendar.'

In the Boston Globe Anthony Shadid reports on Lives of Desperation in Iraq.
'With or without war, Iraq is in shambles. A generation is lost in isolation, religious sentiment is overshadowing its once libertine secularism, and identity has become subsumed in the fractious tapestry of faith and ethnicity that the regime has woven to help it divide, conquer and repress.'

The 2006 Military Times Poll reports only 35% of the military polled this year said they approve of the way President Bush is handling the war, while 42% said they disapprove. Only 41% said the US should have gone to war in Iraq down from 65% in 2003.

Wishing for a peaceful New Year. It may be in the stars.

Monday, December 25, 2006
Mike Lupica writes in the New York Daily News on this Christmas Day:

We all want to pretend we are still safe in a world less safe than it has ever been, and not just because of the way those planes blew up two of our buildings five years ago, because of so much that has happened since, because of a war that has cheapened our stature around the world and affected our eceonomy in ways that will be felt a hundred years from now, a war that only the White House still thinks is making things better in the world. Making things right somehow. Because if the war is right then this President is right. About something. You want things to be better than this. You want to dream the way parents have always dreamt, the big one about leaving their children a better world. Only we have not done that. On our watch things have become worse.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006
On Fridays Der Tagesspiegel, a Berlin newspaper, devotes an entire page remembering the lives of two or three recently deceased persons from all walks of life. This Nachruf (Obituary) page includes a good size photo of one of Berlin's cemeteries but mainly it's a window on Berlin's many layered history depending on the age of the person as well as insight into the normal quirks and the ups-and- downs of a life lived. It's not a eulogy since it isn't meant for the next of kin, but for the wider public.

Last week Gisela Miessner, nee Mannheim, born 1925 in Schivelbein, now in Poland, got an extraordinary write up at She was born to a Jewish father and a Christian mother in a grand house, but her life got too caught up in German history. She was forced to sit in the 'Jewish' row in her young school years; her father was terribly beaten up by the Gestapo right at the local marketplace; her family fled to Berlin hoping to remain anonymous in the big city and were supported by packages from Christian relatives. She managed to face down the Gestapo twice, including taking part in the only public protest against deportations that occurred in Berlin. It was in 1943 on Rosenstrasse where the wives and daughters of Jewish men demanded and won their release by the Gestapo in just a week. This action was later documented in a film by Margarethe von Trotta. After the war she had to endure her husband being imprisoned by the East Germans for several years.

The world is a village, or so the saying goes. An old family friend born in 1923 in a grand house as well often mentioned Schivelbein when recalling her youth. Her parents were not Jewish but her life too took unusual twists and turns, including spending the war years in Berlin. Could they possibly have known each other? They did indeed. They actually played together whenever Gisela's father came around to do business. However, she recalled a number of incidents. For example, she never could understand why the swing suddenly broke when the Mannheims were at her house. She rather thinks, though can't prove, somebody fooled around with it. She admitted that most of the population there hated those who were Jewish because they couldn't understand that they bargained and traded when doing business. Can this be a reason for hating a folk? Or was it just an excuse for hating others for uglier reasons? She recalled the story of the duck. The Mannheims wanted a duck for dinner but were sold one so old, the father claimed it was still cooking a year later. Talk about little indignities just taken for granted. Was there a 'Jewish' row at her school? Well, there were all sorts of rows for those who were excellent or from other areas, so, of course, there probably was a 'Jewish' one, though not in her class.

This old family friend was very moved that Gisela sent her warm regards through another school friend a few years ago and she tried to find out how to get in touch with her. She is also trying to reach out and find those old school friends still alive who might have known her to pass on her story. Good to see a newspaper concentrating on more than just glaring headlines and the usual fare.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006
The last part of the trilogy Die Kinder der Flucht (Fleeing Children) on ZDF, the second public TV station here, was devoted to the city of Breslau, today known as Wroclaw, and its agonizing months from January till May 1945. The fact that the war was lost, totally lost with no chance of reversal, was apparent to all but the most fanatical followers of Hitler. Yet these political fanatics became so hardened in their ideology, or perhaps beneath the ideology it was a lethal combination of anger and denial at losing, that they proved relentless in their pursuit of Final Victory. It caused the meaningless slaughter of thousands of civilians in an attempt to build an airport in the middle of the city in March 1945 so that non-existent extra troops and military hardware could land and drive back an overwhelming Soviet army and it drove untold numbers of young boys to their deaths in a last sick hurrah.

The difference between taking a step back in time and following the lives of those caught up in such horror as compared to watching the nightly news and hearing of yet another bombing with scores dead is that the persons are real and not just a number before going on to the next topic. It highlights how those who grab power and ruthlessly use it can put us in mortal danger. More to the point it shows the utter randomness of war and how, ultimately, it destroys all of us, piece by piece. It brought home how the notion of who is an enemy can get whipped out of control and take on a life of its own. It depends on what you have in your papers identifying you and on the person looking over those papers. Even those you consider your liberators might not necessarily see you as a friend or victim. There were so many parallels to what's going on today, yet the most striking thing is how so little has changed. We are enlightened, supposedly a democracy, yet a deeply unpopular war that is spiralling out of control continues on the whim of one person.,1872,4079460,00.html

Saturday, December 09, 2006
The US Consulate's Christmas Tree Lighting took place early yesterday evening in a pensive, somber mood. The Consulate here has a long history going back to 1790 and the buildings it owns are exquisite ones on a lakeside in the middle of the city with an interesting history as well Americans residing here long term recalled last evening how much has changed over the years. Placing a huge tree on the enormous balcony started in 1951 as a sign of peace and light in duster times following the Second World War. Some years saw huge crowds standing till the edge of the lake to watch the lighting. Enormous security and barriers now keep the Consulate at arms length from the general public and yesterday about 650 people were there. A rough personal estimate would put the crowds immediately following 9/11 at the very least three times that number. In 2001 it took well over 45 minutes to make one's way into the building, yesterday it was about 15 minutes. The ceremony that year was an intense and emotional one

Children, more to the point, those children suffering from life threatening illness were the center of attention at the Lighting this year and rightly so. Each year a prominent citizen is invited to switch on the lights and this year there were three representatives from the children's hospice, Sternenbruecke. The director of this hospice was one of them and she recalled how the Consul General spent an afternoon with the children there and welcomed the opportunity to return his visit on this evening and to have an information table set up at the reception afterwards.

Children are so often the forgotten victims of illness, war and politics. Parents confronted with an extremely ill child with little to no chance of recovery are often so devastated by the reality and overwhelmed when left alone caring for the child. Yesterday, however, other children came to mind as well. There are the thousands of Iraqi children who have been killed or seriously injured as well as all the children of the 16,000 single parents now serving in the US military in Iraq. Too, too many children are being forgotten and traumatized in this season nominally dedicated to peace and good will.

Thursday, December 07, 2006
The bipartisan report on the war in Iraq has two story lines. One leads to an admission of a 'grave and deteriorating' situation. 'The current approach is not working, and the ability of the United States to influence events is diminishing.' Hardly news when one tunes into the nightly news here. The other is whether the President is going to accept its findings. The impression is one of threading gently but forcefully, don't 'set off the president' but try to 'box him in' according to the IHT. Meanwhile, chaos and unabated suffering continue in Iraq. Attention in the US media will most probably turn to the second story line while the rest of the world watches, shaking its head.

Two commentaries this week get to the real heart of the matter. When Iraq Went Wrong in the IHT Tim Pritchard writes:

'But what was most striking at Nasiriya in those very early days of the war was the refusal of freedom-deprived Iraqis to come forward and support coalition forces. At best, civilians stood by and watched the American war machine thunder into town. At worst, they ran to arms stashes, grabbed AK-47s and took to the streets. Four days into the invasion, and already, instead of coming together, Iraqis were falling back into their faiths and tribes and killing coalition forces and each other. ......If the details of what happened at Nasiriya had been gathered, recognized and analyzed more soberly early on, instead of trampled on in a rush of triumphalism, coalition forces might have learned useful lessons for the reconstruction of Iraq: the limits of military power, the importance of a proper understanding of the complexity of a place and its people, the perils of underestimating an enemy.'

The limits of military power, the importance of a proper understanding of the complexity of a place and its people. Can't be repeated enough these days.

Michael Schwartz in The Myth of More writes:

'......American presence, however much it has failed, is nonetheless ameliorating intractable internal problems among the Iraqis. This is the fundamental fallacy of the Myth of More. In fact, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq have visited a series of plagues on both the Iraqi and the American people ---- and on the world as a whole; and these plagues will have no hope of amelioration until the US military genuinely withdraws from that country or is expelled.'

Monday, December 04, 2006
Bolton has resigned as US ambassador to the UN. Back in September Stephen Schlesinger gave excellent reasons why he had to go in at

We are nowhere near out of the woods yet as Frank Rich wrote in his commentary Has Bush Started Talking to the Walls?

'In his classic study 'The Great War and Modern Memory,' Paul Fussell wrote of how World War I shattered and remade literature, for only a new language of irony could convey the trauma and waste. Under the auspices of Bush, the Iraq war is having a comparable, if different, linguistic impact: The more he loses his hold on reality, the more language is severed from its meaning altogether. .........Civil war? Sectarian violence? A phase? This much is certain: The dead in Iraq don't give a damn what we call it.'

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