Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Dragoon Ride (4): Banging toward the Russian border with der Bundeswehr

On June 5th, Task Force Saber, made up of American troopers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment and German Panzergrenadiers from the 12th Panzer Brigade, drove 60 miles north, to an airfield in the relatively cosmopolitan Polish city of Bydgoszcz (pronounced Bid-go-sh).



By Adrian Bonenberger
Best Defense bureau chief, Bundeswehr affairs

On June 5th, Task Force Saber, made up of American troopers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment and German Panzergrenadiers from the 12th Panzer Brigade, drove 60 miles north, to an airfield in the relatively cosmopolitan Polish city of Bydgoszcz (pronounced Bid-go-sh). Rumors proliferate on the march, reflections of soldiers’ hopes: There will be showers at the next stop. Rooms in barracks, like in East Germany, but with better connectivity. Hot meals. Everything we want, we will have, at this base in Bydgoszcz.


By Adrian Bonenberger
Best Defense bureau chief, Bundeswehr affairs

On June 5th, Task Force Saber, made up of American troopers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment and German Panzergrenadiers from the 12th Panzer Brigade, drove 60 miles north, to an airfield in the relatively cosmopolitan Polish city of Bydgoszcz (pronounced Bid-go-sh). Rumors proliferate on the march, reflections of soldiers’ hopes: There will be showers at the next stop. Rooms in barracks, like in East Germany, but with better connectivity. Hot meals. Everything we want, we will have, at this base in Bydgoszcz.

For this leg of Dragoon Ride II, I’m riding with the Bundeswehr. We drive up in a convoy of fourteen vehicles. I’m in one of the two tactical vans — there’s also a tactical Mercedes-style SUV. Tactical is the term you use when a normal civilian vehicle has radios in it, and is painted according to a camouflage pattern or aesthetic. While the U.S. convoys fly British, Polish, and U.S. flags in Poland, the German convoy keeps its flags stowed. Nevertheless, iron crosses painted in black and white denote the convoy’s origins — and are sufficient to elicit reactions from Polish civilians. Riding up from Germany with the U.S. convoy, four out of every five Polish vehicles we encountered contained enthusiastically waving women, men, and children. With the Germans, only two out of every five Polish civilians offer a positive reaction — the rest are neutral.

The Poles are not terribly excited about the German presence. It’s possible that alone, the German convoy would not have been tolerated, even as part of NATO. Because of their size (barely a company), composition (reconnaissance — no tanks), and the context in which they were seen (between U.S. convoys, accompanied by Polish MPs), there’s a framework for the old eisenkreuz.

The Germans, too, are aware of the significance of their presence. It can take a little while to draw them out to discuss a difficult topic. In my vehicle, we start out talking about history. At first, I’m told that Germans aren’t interested in the bad part of their history — they’re interested in their future with NATO. We explore this theme for a little while — the utter irrelevance of German militarism and expansionism to my generation of Germans and those younger, the grandchildren of World War II veterans — before the vehicle settles into a contemplative quiet. After several minutes of driving in quiet contemplation of the farmland around us, I remark upon the oddly various architecture of the buildings on the sides of the road. The vehicle’s TC responds immediately: “The buildings older than 1920 are all German.”

Oohhhh! This area was part of Prussia between 1795 and 1870, then part of Imperial Germany until 1920. We’re traveling to Bydgoszcz, formerly called “Bromberg” during Otto von Bismarck’s lifetime, when it was primarily but not exclusively an ethnic and linguistically German city. Prior to the 19th century the area was part of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria in the late 18th century. Evidence of this is everywhere, in churches, industrial buildings, farms, and fortifications. History isn’t gone, here: For Poles going about their daily lives and the Germans driving through, the past overlaps with the present. After three hours on the road, we arrive at Bydgoszcz, turning into an old Soviet airfield. I haven’t showered in days, am ill-shaven, sweaty, and sunburned. The thought of wash and a clean bed comfort me.

The accommodations fail to live up to expectations. Daunted at the prospect of sleeping in the fields once reaped by Otto von Bismarck’s peasants, I resolve to take a hotel and reserve a nearby room via While waiting for instructions on how to get there, or who will take me, I interview a German soldier, as well as the commander of the German reconnaissance company. As with other such interactions, I’m fortunate — the lieutenant-colonel (oberst-leutnant) in charge and I were deployed together in Kunduz Province, and we’re able to connect over our shared experiences in combat. His English is excellent, and after a brief discussion of our time in Kunduz, and mutual friends in the Bundeswehr, talk drifts to the matter at hand. I find him to be an impressive leader and good human. Here are some of his insights:

ON THE DRAGOON RIDE EXERCISE: “The most important thing is to remember that it’s only an exercise. It’s not secret, it’s not a mission. ‘Exercise’ means that you have to train, and identify and make improvements. You know that you’ll make mistakes.”

WHAT IS HE WORRIED MIGHT HAPPEN ALONG THE ROUTE: “I fear no danger, and trust in the quality of the German soldier.”

WHAT HE LEARNED TRAINING WITH MARINES: “There are three primary leadership principles. (1) Be as you are. (2) Lead by example. (3) Know your stuff.”

ON BEING PART OF AN AMERICAN CONVOY: “We wear our uniforms in the same style as Americans. Although on this type of exercise a two-beer ration is normal, I have prohibited drinking so as not to create friction with the Americans. In this way, we can cultivate comradeship and mutual respect.”

ON NATO: “This is a good opportunity for the young soldiers to see… another army in NATO exercises. Also, it’s important for us to show our NATO partners in the Baltic States that we’re ready to defend them if necessary.”

ON GERMANY’S PLACE IN EUROPE: “Many German citizens don’t think that there’s a threat to our East. They see Ukraine and Crimea, but don’t believe that it applies to them. Of course, Germany’s history is more complicated than that of other NATO partners. We must navigate our role as allies with our own history.”

Back to me:

There are times when I wonder if I died in Afghanistan, whether everything that’s happened since was a dream. This idea occurs to me less and less frequently as time goes on, but it has never disappeared, and likely never will. Encountering comrades from Afghanistan in civilian life or in the military sometimes feels like Odysseus’ trip into the afterlife during his journey home, wherein he encounters those warriors with whom he fought in Troy. All of us attempt to move on from that experience, to use it as a way of redefining ourselves or justifying our actions there — few desire to be trapped within it — but those frantic weeks and months of our youth will never completely desert us. I’m grateful for the encounter with another ghost from my past, and wish him luck in his future professional endeavors.

After the interview, sunburned, exhausted, and slightly mad at the prospect of another day without shower or respite — and no ride into Bydgoszcz forthcoming, I take it upon myself to ruck into the city center, which a map tells me is just over a mile away. The German PAO, a friendly Captain with a passion (of course) for history, gives me a lift to the airfield’s front gate. From there I walk what ends up being two-and-a-half miles into town, along a picturesque riverside quay filled with music and civilian laughter. I resolve to explore this area later. Somewhat miraculously, I manage to locate my hotel through a combination of broken Polish, rudimentary navigational skills, and good fortune. I check in looking like a wild vagabond, and am soon standing in a clean room. Making right for the shower, I jump under the water and a miasma of dirt and days worth of sweat sluice off. I feel like a New York City sidewalk during a summer storm. Afterwards, I fall into a deep slumber.

I wake refreshed, and after a solid breakfast heavily featuring coffee, cheese, bread, butter, and meat, I stroll downtown. It’s impossible to ignore the unusual, European architecture. During World War II, the city was the site of a Polish massacre of German citizens that Goebbels magnified by hundreds and then thousands, and then used to justify reprisals against ethnic Poles — horrible stuff, and not even the worst of it. I’m reminded again of what the Bundeswehr officer said during the drive up: The buildings older than 100 years old are German. The Germans of today are not nationalists, nor do observations like these betray any ambition or reactionary desire to take this land back — nevertheless, increasingly, extraordinarily, individual Germans insist that things are never as clean as they look at first glance. So far as I can tell, they’re the only nation to do so without making this assertion into an accusation, but rather, as a confession.

After my stay in Bydgoszcz, I return to the fort and encounter three Poles (a civilian, an MP, and an interpreter) who have a similar interest in history to that of their German neighbors. It’s interesting to see how each country is still tied to their sense of what happened, and what that has to do with them in the present. The following two days are filled with early wakeups and long drives. Exercise (not Operation) Anakonda is a massive, 25,000-soldier strong joint training event of which Dragoon Ride is only a part, involving a Brigade-level jump into Poland by British, Polish, and U.S. 82nd and 173rd and paratroopers, as well as a joint American/British/German bridge crossing of the Vistula river. I watch the jump, an impressive display of airborne capabilities, then return to the Bydgoszcz airfield for three hours of sleep.

At the river crossing site, waiting for the event to begin, I speak with several more German soldiers and officers. They reiterate the same themes: German awareness of history, a reluctance to discuss said history, enthusiastic support for NATO and the EU, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the (inappropriate) German names for Polish towns. I feel confident proposing that while this information isn’t dangerous in the sense that no German asserted claim to Polish lands in the present time, it is relevant, as a strong, healthy NATO and EU are the best checks against a fractured and belligerent Europe.

Waking up at 0300, we reached the Vistula far in advance of the 0700 bridge building or 0800 river crossing. The day before during the rehearsal, I’d encountered a surly and unnecessarily belligerent Bundeswehr MP we nickname “Frau Frowny,” who contemptuously orders colonels, civilians, press, and non-press hither and thither with impressive impunity. At the actual event, where NATO forces complete a massive bridge by attaching 30 amphibious craft to each other (sufficient to carry multiple U.S. Strykers and German vehicles at the same time) I resolve to elude the MP, and exploited a weakness in the Frau Frowny’s defenses to reach the VIP tent unnoticed, from which I am able to observe the engineers go about their business in relative comfort. Once they finish linking the bridge together with great metal planks, the Germans test it with a Bundeswehr panzer. The tank squeaks across slowly, then roars off and up the opposite shore, at which point each craft raises the national flag of the group that had captained it: four British flags and 26 German flags. Audience members inhale and murmur — given the location, this display might be seen as provocative. As the American vehicles begin their crossing, it feels entirely correct.

In my next dispatch, from the Suwalki gap, I will attempt to describe why raising the German flag was so important in the context of present and past conflicts.

The next stop is the city of Torun, once Thorn — formerly a key border town between Imperial Russia and Prussia (later Imperial Germany). Indeed, one can still find extensive Prussian fortifications throughout Torun, many of which have been repurposed into stores, sheds, clubs, hotels, and stables. History is not decreasing on the ride eastward — it’s becoming more conspicuous. This, I believe, is the key to understanding how U.S. politicians and foreign policy strategists miscalculate Eastern European intentions and needs. It is the key to understanding why Russia views NATO as a threat, and why almost every Eastern European country and citizen views NATO as the best hope for peace in Europe.

Photo credit: Adrian Bonenberger


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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