Free Europe and the American Soldier

U.S. troops have long been withdrawing from Europe. From a peak of around 2 million servicemembers during WWII to a Cold War high of 400,000, U.S. troop levels in Europe today have dropped to around 74,000. This year, that number may drop even further as President Trump announced a further reduction of 9,500 troops from Germany.

Such a decision is bound to receive a mixed reception, though for different reasons depending on which side of the Atlantic one lives on. For Americans, this reduction will revive debate about whether our global posture is worth maintaining despite its costs. For those on the Continent, however, opinion appears to depend on one’s proximity to Russia. While around 50% of Germans favor the withdrawal — 25% support a complete withdrawal — those farther east in the Baltic States and Poland seem eager to bring American troops in.

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Tank standoff at Checkpoint Charlie, 1961

Given the current security situation in Europe, such a difference of opinion makes sense. The logic behind keeping American troops in Germany today is largely strategic and thus impersonal to the average German living in Aachen, while any Pole reading the news on the Russian annexation of Crimea may plausibly wonder, “am I next?”

The funny thing with European history, however, is if you go back just a few decades, the reverse would be true. The Pole would already be stuck within the U.S.S.R. while the Aachener would only have to look east to see what a difference the U.S. Army makes.

This isn’t to say the Germans are wrong for their support of the withdrawal. Every German today knows this history and, presumably, understands the instrumental role the U.S. played in nurturing Germany — and Europe — back to health. However, it is interesting how quickly things change given the short amount of time since the fall of the Berlin Wall 31 years ago. For young Germans today, the political divide between freedom and repression is experienced in textbooks and field trips. For a German Army Major I met during my service in the U.S. Army, however, it was much more personal.

Back in 2016 as a soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division, I was offered the opportunity to train with German paratroopers. They were conducting a jump and had some seats open for Americans to join them. Not only would it be a fun cultural experience, but I would earn German paratrooper wings as well. As a young private looking for any extra pin for my bare dress blues, I quickly accepted the offer.

As far as jumps go, the day was largely routine besides the German instructions and the roomier C-160 airplane. The only difference from a regular jump was that, after landing, we all formed up for an award ceremony instead of continuing on with training. Before receiving the wings, however, a German Major gave a short speech about the significance of the day and what this cooperation meant to him.

He told us that back home, it is difficult for Germans to take pride in their country, understandably, due to their past. But he also added that Germans, especially younger ones, find it too easy to take complete ownership of the tolerant and peaceful society they have today. As a young child, he recalled, his country was split between east and west. Although he lived in the West, he had family on both sides. The only reason why the democratic and free West ultimately prevailed and unified the country, he reminded us, was because of the presence of the American soldier.

“When the Soviet Union attempted to isolate West Berlin,” he said, “it was the American soldier who kept the city fed through airlifts. When Soviet tanks lined up at Checkpoint Charlie ready to cross, it was the American soldier who stood up to them so they couldn’t move. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it was a result of people crossing from east to west and not the other way around, thanks to the American soldier.”

I would earn many more awards throughout my later years in the Army. Those wings, however, were always my favorite. Not because of the difficulty of its achievement or even its appearance, but for what it represents in terms of our legacy as an army and a country. While troop movements around Europe are important to debate, we must never forget the role of ordinary American soldiers in helping Europe become the free and prosperous continent it is today.

Kevin Petersen is a student at Columbia University's School of General Studies.

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