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Dragoon Ride: Heading into Eastern Europe with the U.S. Army’s 2nd ACR

Three Catholic churches anchor the cultural and geographical life of Vilseck.



By Adrian Bonenberger

Best Defense bureau chief, Thirty Years’ War


By Adrian Bonenberger
Best Defense bureau chief, Thirty Years’ War

Three Catholic churches anchor the cultural and geographical life of Vilseck. A cozy German town in northeastern Bavaria, Vilseck is about 30 miles from what today is the Czech Republic, and what a century ago would have been called “Bohemia,” a territory in Austria-Hungary.

Five centuries ago, Bohemia and Bavaria were the front lines of one of the bloodiest wars Europe has ever seen, the Thirty Years War, precipitated in part when Bohemian Protestants asserted their right to religious freedom against a Catholic monarch in 1618. More recently, Bohemia and Bavaria again found themselves on the national stage in 1938, when Hitler made his first substantial step toward defining the modern nation-state by negotiating for the annexation of what he called German Sudetenland, and, broadly speaking, declaring “Germany” to be an ethnically, linguistically, religiously, and racially pure entity.

If you look close enough, history is circular. In some places — Vilseck is one of them — one can see history’s shape more easily than in others.

Since the end of the Second World War, Vilseck has been home to a U.S. Army base, Rose Barracks. In 2013, Rose Barracks seemed like an obsolete waste of cash. The United States was winding down antiquated physical obligations to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, packing up armor and mechanized infantry, sending its military home after 10 years at war. The EU was strong, and NATO a bygone relic of days when numerous four-star general officers planned counterattacks against inevitable Soviet intrusion. American strategists stopped viewing Russia as a threat in the early 1990s, and as early as 2009, politicians spoke of a “Russia Reset.” With a minor and quickly forgotten hiccup in 2008, by 2012-13 reset was reality.

International threats felt abstract, expressed in euros, rubles, dollars and yuan. Capitalism had won — ideological, physical competition was something that happened in the developing world — uncivilized or overly religious zones that had yet to build enough roads to take in the civilizing effect of post-Soviet, post-modern capitalism.

It all seems like another lifetime. In 2014, Russia annexed Ukrainian Crimea, upending the diplomatic order established in 1994, when Bill Clinton, John Major, and Boris Yeltsin signed the Budapest Memorandum, protecting Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for guarantees that its sovereignty and territorial integrity would be protected by Britain, Russia, and the United States. Meanwhile, Russia was allowed to quietly go about fulfilling the obligations and relationships it had developed with other countries like Syria.

Maybe it’s that we’re racist. The problems of some countries don’t seem to matter as much as those of others, and Ukrainian citizens’ skin and hair looks different than that of Georgians, Sudanese, and Iraqis. Maybe it’s that we’re nationalists — Ukrainian culture and fashion are European culture and fashion. Maybe it’s that we’re lazy, too — it’s just easier to imagine a Russia that’s interested in becoming European, participating in Western economic structures in a recognizably European way, rather than, well, a despotic and authoritarian empire.

Whatever the case, our best analysts were wrong about Russian intentions, despite clear signals in retrospect, dating back to the end of the Soviet Union. And so last year, summer of 2015, the U.S. Army’s two remaining units in Europe — the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment — found themselves spread across Eastern and Central Europe in small, ad hoc units — a platoon or company here, a battalion there — in a desperate attempt to assure alarmed NATO partners that, unlike in 1939, they would not be abandoned to the horrors of totalitarianism or repression.

Everywhere the 173rd and the 2nd ACR went, from Tallinn to Lviv, from Prague to Krakow, they were met with astonishing and unanticipated support from locals — especially older folks who remembered the Americans from World War II, or from the days of Soviet occupation and repression, when the West was a lonely voice played low over a contraband radio — many of whom had never seen an American formation in person. The operations were called Saber Strike, Dragoon Ride, and Fearless Guardian.

History keeps returning to the present in Vilseck, or vice versa. Outside Vilseck is a military training area, Grafenwoehr, where I trained as a young Lieutenant preparing to ship out to Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. From 2007 to 2008 I served in Paktika Province, Afghanistan. That’s the same province as where the 2nd ACR’s Brigade Commander, Colonel John V. Meyer III, led a Battalion in 2012 and 13, and the same province and year the 2nd ACR’s Brigade Executive Officer, Eric A. Parthemore, was in Afghanistan on a deployment of his own. When I sit down with first one and then the other to talk about the upcoming operation, Dragoon Ride II, this year’s partnered NATO movement from Germany, through Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and up to Estonia, it’s like I’m talking to people I know, because in a way, I already do. At least — we share a language, and an understanding about how and what to communicate.

The Thirty Years’ War was bloody and brutal in the way that paradigmatic shifts accompanied by violence always are — wars over identity bring out the worst in people. It was also a war over information. At the time, Catholics enjoyed a convenient and profitable monopoly over information — Protestants wanted to expand information management to suit their needs, and the technological revolution of the printing press suited their goals. The dramatic expansion in the availability (not necessarily quality) of information in the 16th and 17th centuries led to conflict, not unlike social media of today has sparked revolutions across the developing world (as well as within traditional Western democratic institutions like the GOP and Democratic Party). Emerging from the Platonic cave into the light of day (or, at least, a much brighter cave) is not a pleasant experience.

Major Parthemore and Colonel Meyer both formed their understanding of warfare during the conversation that arose between training and their experiences with counterinsurgency. Another way of saying counterinsurgency is “relationship building,” wherein trust is the most important commodities one can earn. On a basic level, that’s what the U.S. mission is with NATO today, and especially in Central and Eastern Europe — cultivating trust at all levels: tactical, operational, and strategic. The strategic level trust is most important — Czechs, Estonians, and Poles need to understand that if they are to invoke NATO’s dreaded but powerful 5th article, the United States will not abandon them like Britain abandoned Poland in 1939. But it all begins at the tactical level. One Polish infantry platoon and one U.S. Stryker platoon working together to establish a blocking position. A German engineer company from the Bundeswehr’s 12th Panzer Brigade establishing a bridgehead over a river to secure passage of lines for a U.S. convoy. Germans and Poles cooperating during movements in the former East Germany, into what was once Prussia.

This is what NATO means now — ethnically and linguistically homogenous (less so for Germany and other Western European, more so for Eastern Europeans) nation-states cooperating along a federal model. Countries that once owned each other’s land and peoples, aiming for a higher civilization, a different, European standard by which parochial wars can be avoided. The terrible purges of the 20th century changed Europe dramatically, but led by the Poles and Germans beginning in the early 1990s, old animosities were buried in favor of contemporary, mutual prosperity.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been and are wars of information, and about how (and what type of) information has value. Those American citizens who have been lucky or unlucky to see firsthand what an existential ideological struggle looks like on the ground — in or outside the military — have been changed irrevocably for the exposure. One of the lessons Colonel Meyer learned during his time commanding in Paktika Province was the importance of cultivating integrity in subordinates. This was his baseline for being able to entrust them with the latitude to make decisions when they were alone in the mountains, surrounded by hostile Taliban, hours away from reinforcements, and his orders were just so much chatter coming out of the other end of a TACSAT radio. The leadership lessons Colonel Meyer learned in combat, and instilled in subordinate squadron (cavalry for “battalion”) and troop (cavalry for “company”) commanders, will be tested over distance, by accident, and against intractably hostile peoples sponsored by America’s oldest enemy: Russia.

There’s a deeper conflict in this area. The Duchy of Lithuania was the last to convert to Christianity from paganism in 1389, and many Lithuanians continued to observe paganism into the mid-15th century. It wasn’t until 1464 that a bishop was assigned to Samogitia in Lithuania — 60 years before Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, setting Western Christianity down the path toward schism and centuries of renewed conflicts between Catholic and Protestant. The route that the 2nd ACR will take through Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia is the path Christianity took up through those countries.

European history, then, and maybe human history, is a catalogue of well-intentioned attempts to compel people to behave “correctly” rather than selfishly — to unify them according to a national or religious or ethnic or linguistic definition. This impulse reached its ostensible apogee in World War II, when ethnicity, religion, and language (as defined by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany) was the difference between life in one place or another, or, in extreme cases, between life and death. Totalitarianism succeeded in making Europe into a collection of exclusively homogenous nation-states where people spoke a particular language and could pass for the ethnicity to which they aspired.

And almost as soon as that goal was “achieved,” necessity began tearing it apart. Whereas each country was “pure” in a way that it hadn’t been before (read: less varied in terms of culture, dialect, ethnicity, and religious composition), each country was forced to align itself with the Soviet Union or the capitalist West, which meant subordinating its military and to a certain extent its economic interests to that of other countries. NATO came into being in 1949, and the EU first appeared in 1958 (though its most impressive accomplishment to date, that of the single currency for 19 member states, was not accomplished until 2002). The great wars of the 20th century made many European countries far less diverse — indeed, defined a country based on its lack of diversity — but Europe itself moved toward federation and cooperation, out of necessity. Each constituent nation had become more homogenous, but the overall willingness of nations to cooperate with other nations through diplomacy and trade became much greater.

Dragoon Ride II is a NATO exercise that seeks to solidify the economic and military integration of Europe, which the United States sees as a good thing for peace, and thereby for U.S. interests. Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Due, squadron commander of the 2nd Squadron, 2ACR, a former professor of history at West Point, agrees with this assessment. And he does so from a position of authority, pointing out that Vilseck is near to Tannenberg, a town that saw the strategic defeat of Russia by a smaller but better-trained German Army. Like his superior officer, he understands the context of 2ACR’s deployment, and speaks eloquently about its likelihood of success.

Waiting for the second serial of Dragoon Ride II to depart Rose Barracks, I decide to stay at a small inn near a castle in downtown Vilseck. On my final day at the inn — Hotel Angerer — I learn its background. Run by a 15th generation hotelier, the inn was founded 1666 — 18 years after the Thirty Years’ War ended. Today, the hotel is comfortable, the food is good, and it is inexpensive. Their guestbook has a small lacunae between 2012 and 2015 — but it seems likely that as the United States takes its role in NATO more seriously, and its role as guarantee of peace, the book will see more names grace its pages. Meanwhile — tomorrow I head to Poland, after crossing a small river by way of German tank-bridge. Dragoon Ride II has begun.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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