Half a lifetime ago -- or very nearly -- I was a faceless enlisted nobody in the United States Air Force. I was stationed in Germany at the peak of the convoluted shadow-play known as the Cold War, well before the Berlin Wall crumbled and the Soviet-run eastern bloc collapsed like the sorry house of cards it was. We worked extensively with a character-filled gaggle of German civilians, there at our little flugplatz nestled in the pleasant countryside north of Kaiserslautern, in the federal state of Rheinland-Pfalz. An interesting period, to say the least, bookended as it was by the end of World War II and (what we always thought of as) the highly unlikely re-unification of Germany, encompassing huge chunks of US and European social, political, and military history. To have played even so small an anonymous part in such an unsettling, fermented cauldron of triumphant confusion and profound transformations was, if anything, a deep privilege I'll always appreciate.
A reasonably large portion of our German friends had been born before the war, early enough, in fact, to have rather vivid recollections of the Nazi era -- a couple of them were old enough to have actually fought in the war, as teenaged conscripts. These old-timers were, in effect, biological conduits to a radically different world, living representations of a cultural/political order far beyond anything our own relatively narrow and limited experience could imagine. As such, they were boundlessly fascinating to know.
I haven't really thought about these people for years, even though it would be impossible to completely forget them: Hans Felker, missing a thumb on his left hand and who looked almost exactly like Archduke Franz Ferdinand; Heiner Ultes, the gas-passing champion of the Rhineland, if not the entire Bundesrepublik; or Kurt Kniereman, he of the Bozo the Clown hairdo and the mad, cackling lunatic laugh -- to name just a few. An unforgettable cast of wonderfully weird crazoids and reprobates, particularly from the viewpoint of a nitwit fresh from the bland suburban sterility of the Sacramento Valley, such as myself.
Herein lies some sort of point, surely. I suppose it might be this: it was exceedingly difficult, if not utterly impossible, to really imagine the Germans we worked with, or any with whom we were acquainted for that matter, as having had anything remotely to do with the thankfully extinct Nazi regime, whether as active enthusiasts or not. The great bulk of them seemed to embody the stereotypical attributes of the "good German," and we dumb chuckleheads had no basis from which to discover what was real and what wasn't. Beyond the specific peculiarities of their "German-ness," they struck us warm, good-natured people, apparently untouched and unburdened by the frightfully debilitating baggage of their nation's recent history.
Fast-forward to the present. There's an existential dilemma facing Americans these days not unlike that which (I would imagine) beset the Germans in the years leading up to the Third Reich. Both 21st-century Americans and post-Weimar Germans are, and were, witnesses to the systematic destruction of the political order in their respective countries, in both instances by relatively small groups of bloody-handed thugs, animated by avarice and the aberrant intoxications of power. Both regimes, the Nazi and the Bushist, were (and are) composed of fanatical devotees to the rule of force, the cynical manipulation of the populations under their hob-nailed heels, and the proposition that any half-truth or deception or outright falsehood or act of murderous violence is justified -- whether before, during, or after the fact -- so long as the selfish interests of the powerful are served thereby. The dilemma derives, on the part of the Germans, from genuinely enthusiastic, largely across-the-board participation in the criminality fostered by the government; for Americans, it's the mind-bending depth and breadth of indifference to, and passivity towards, the same basic types of lawless excesses committed by our own "leaders" in the present epoch. The result is pretty much the same: comprehensive public complicity, guilt by association.
You just know that, in a generation or two (or less, even), there'll be an entire industry devoted to promulgating the idea of the "good American"; that when the disastrously defiling neo-con hangover finally runs its course, leaving the American body politic desperately gasping like a landed flounder with a hook in its eyeball, there'll be legions of academics and pundits and animatronic blowholes of all persuasions voluminously explaining that it was all a ghastly mistake. We'll be informed, non-stop, that the advent of the neo-con era was, well, just an accident, that it really wasn't a reflection of the deep-seated flaws in our collective consumerist psyche and the socio-political constructions that give it outward form ... There was nobody here but us anti-Busheviks! ... Always did think those neo-con fucktards were crazy ...
For those of us who are truly and legitimately opposed to the repulsive banality of neo-con politics and policies, and have been from even before the beginning, how will we fit within the rickety framework of apologetics that, even now, is in the early phases of construction? Will we have a clear and distinctive voice, easily distinguishable from the opportunists, blood swillers, and generic goosesteppers who will only turn against the regime when ultimate disaster looms? Or will we be marginalized, co-opted, and/or drowned out completely by the veritable army of diseased rats who're already fleeing the rapidly sinking tub that they, themselves, were so instrumental in launching? Will the respectable, official, public image of the anti-Bush "good American" be cobbled together and manipulated by these same verminous scum, desperate to obfuscate their own not inconsiderable crimes while establishing their "democratic" and "anti-neo-con" credentials, the better to strategically position themselves to take advantage of whatever opportunities might appear in the as-yet amorphous backwash of a post-Bush United States?
In the end, actually, the only question that counts is: What do any of these rhetorical questions matter, so long as our sickeningly compromised, seriously bent, and heavily damaged democratic republic survives this dangerous far-right misadventure in something resembling one piece? My old German friends would likely agree -- sure, the larger portion of Nazi criminals escaped justice, at Nuremberg or elsewhere, and most successfully rehabilitated themselves enough to eventually become pillars of the post-war versions of the German state, both east and west; all Germans, high and low, young and old, have been broadly slathered with the taint of their own past, fairly or not, but it hasn't weighed on them all that much. In fact, they'd probably make a fairly convincing argument that anything would be a vast improvement over a fascist dictatorship and catastrophic defeat in war, even an imposed political order that quickly fell under the control of the same "nodes" of power that benefited handsomely from the Nazi regime. The trade off? No Feurher, no swastikas, no bombs falling on their cities, codified civil liberties, a form of representative government, and a reasonable amount of economic prosperity for the past sixty years or so. Not bad, if I may say so.
Yes, well. I'm astounded beyond belief that we, Americans one and all, are in roughly the same equivocal moral position the population of Nazi Germany found itself in, circa 1938-39. Never would I imagine that we’d have anything in common with a fascist police state that, if you recall, was only brought down after the bloodiest, most violent war in human history -- something that has permanently stuck itself on the very front edge of my consciousness. Shit, will there even be any "good Americans" when this strange neo-con dream is finally over ... ? Does it even matter?