Germans: 'Good Riddance' to US base
For some angry U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the best punishment for Germany's refusal to back a war against Iraq would be to scale back the number of American troops stationed here. The Pentagon, they were told last week, is weighing the idea.
Ask the residents of Neu-Isenberg what they think, and they say it could not happen soon enough.
Germans say U.S. can't close base soon enough
Mark Landler/NYT The New York Times
Monday, February 17, 2003
NEU-ISENBURG, Germany For some angry U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the best punishment for Germany's refusal to back a war against Iraq would be to scale back the number of American troops stationed here. The Pentagon, they were told last week, is weighing the idea.
Ask the residents of this German village what they think, and they say it could not happen soon enough.
Neu-Isenburg, a well-kept town of 36,000, is carved out of the majestic forest south of Frankfurt. It lies next to the Rhein-Main Air Base, which was once a landing site for dirigibles, including the ill-starred Hindenburg, and is now a major transportation hub for the U.S. Air Force.
Since November 2001, the night sky over Neu-Isenburg has reverberated with the roar of C-5 Galaxy cargo planes and other aircraft, ferrying troops and supplies to Afghanistan. With a new war in the Gulf looming, Rhein-Main is gearing up for another wave of flights.
"To be honest, I would be very happy if they left," said Kerstin Harms, a sleep-deprived mother of two young girls. "When these Galaxy planes pass by, the windows vibrate, the whole house shakes."
Horst Muller, a retired pharmaceutical worker who has campaigned against the flights, said some of the pilots were "cowboys" who rev their engines with little regard for the sleeping world below. "When a Galaxy takes off at 3 a.m.,"he said, "all of Neu-Isenburg falls out of bed."
Like most people here, Muller and Harms insist they do not resent the U.S. military presence in Germany. For Muller, who is 69, the soldiers stir memories of his first chocolate bar, given to him when he was 11 by an arriving American G.I., or his first cigarette, cadged from a soldier and smoked furtively in the woods near his home.
But the incessant noise is testing their patience. And the discontent is not confined to this town. People who live near the much-larger Ramstein air base in southwestern Germany also complain about the racket.
An army training ground in the Bavarian town of Auerbach has drawn the ire of residents who say the sound of exploding artillery shells keeps them awake.
"It's not just Afghanistan," said the mayor of Neu-Isenburg, Dirk-Oliver Quilling. "It's every crisis - Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo. This isn't a problem with Americans. It's a problem with military flights."
Once viewed as a potent symbol of Cold War vigilance - eagles standing against the Soviet bear - the American soldiers in Germany are now seen by some people here as something approaching a nuisance.
At the Pentagon, some view them as a relic. The new commander for American forces in Europe, General James Jones, has floated the idea of scaling back the 71,000 troops based here in favor of lighter, more mobile units that could jump from country to country on short notice.
The plans, which are at an early stage, are part of a longstanding effort to rethink the deployment of U. S. troops in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Despite the barbed comments in Congress, military officials say the plans did not grow out of the rift between Berlin and Washington.
The strained relations, however, are coloring the debate on both sides. Anti-war protesters plan to demonstrate in front of the Rhein-Main base next week, while Muller and other people here said they regretted the anti-American position taken by their chancellor, Gerhard Schroder.
The commander of the base, Colonel Christine Prewitt, said some local officials had even apologized to her. "I tell them I appreciate the support, but I can't really do anything with it," she said.
Prewitt is, however, trying to address the complaints about noise. She noted that the air force had begun using more C-17 planes at Rhein-Main, which are quieter than the C-5s. She disciplined a pilot who veered off his landing path a year ago and flew low over the town. And she meets regularly with local officials to brief them on the missions being planned.
Among her frustrations is the stubborn belief among the townspeople that the planes are carrying bombs or other weapons. She said the base is not equipped to load or unload munitions.
Prewitt also noted that cargo planes bound for Afghanistan had to take off in the middle of the night, in order to land there in daylight. The need to supply troops in Iraq may require further night flights.
"We can't ever promise a community that we won't fly over them," Prewitt said. "The planes have to go somewhere."
Despite these hiccups, Prewitt said relations between Rhein-Main and its neighbors were decent. She recalls being stationed as a young pilot at the Clark Air Force base in the Philippines from 1985 to 1988. That base was eventually closed after anti-American protests.
"In the Philippines, you got the distinct feeling it was 'Yankee Go Home' time," Prewitt said. "You don't get that feeling here. The circumstances are different, the people are different."
She noted that Rhein-Main had been downsized in 1995, reducing its population from about 8,000 to less than 2,000. With fewer airmen, there are fewer links between the base and the surrounding towns.
Neu-Isenburg used to have an auto dealership and a pub that catered to American soldiers. Both are gone. Unlike some German towns, Neu-Isenburg does not depend on the base for economic sustenance.
Indeed, the air force plans to close Rhein-Main at the end of 2005, transferring its last operations to Ramstein. But the move is contingent on adding a runway and upgrading technology there. Given the Pentagon's other obligations these days, residents doubt it will meet that deadline.
Rhein-Main shares runways and taxiways with Frankfurt's mammoth international airport, which is just north of the base. Airport officials already have plans to convert the base into a new terminal building. Mayor Quilling said his town might end up trading the roar of the C-5s for more car traffic.
"There is a German expression," he said as he watched a Lufthansa 747 ascend noiselessly into the azure sky outside his office window. "We look at it with one eye crying and one eye laughing."
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