When the war game is over and the pugnacious but imaginary Redlanders have been driven back to the East by the winning Bluelanders, the Allied brass gathers here for chitchat and beer.
First, you hear the telltale thunka-thunka of a diminutive German helicopter arriving with a diminutive German general. Then comes the THUNKA-THUNKA of a big American helicopter with a very big American general, one Brig. Gen. Thomas H. Tait, who stands 6 feet 7 inches tall and wields a swagger stick almost the size of a Louisville Slugger.
Tait commands the 4,300 soldiers of the 2nd Armored Division based in West Germany (most of the division remains at Fort Hood, Tex.). With the completion of a four-day exercise pitting benign Blueland against hostile Redland, Tait and his staff rendezvous with their German and Dutch counterparts to relive the battle with hail-fellow-well-met gusto.
The contrast between the Americans and the allies is striking. Junior officers from the U.S. Army arrive in olive-drab jeeps and well-worn trucks, while a German major cruises in from the battlefield in his Audi sedan.
Tait and his entourage, gritty from four days in the bogs and outfitted for war with NBC (nuclear-biological-chemical) equipment, stride past an unmussed German draftee amiably directing traffic. His name is Karl-Georg, although he asks in impeccable English to be called Charlie. He has excused himself from the battle because of hay fever.
Charlie is a barrister-private, a recent law school graduate putting in his obligatory 15 months in the service. He earns 250 marks a month -- about $83 -- and goes home on weekends to nearby Hamburg. The Americans roll their eyes when they hear of his excused absence. "You should see the Dutch," one U.S. officer chuckles.
Dutch soldiers are unionized and the Americans complain they cannot be counted on for maneuvers before regular office hours. "They wear earrings and all that kind of stuff, which is anathema to me personally. But I guess pirates wore earrings, too," Tait allows.
Few Americans, even those serving their third or fourth tours abroad, speak German or Dutch, but the chasms are more cultural than linguistic. The U.S. officers marvel at the British penchant for tea breaks, served with fine china and table linen even in the throes of mock battle. The Americans struggle to stay awake as the Germans hoist beer after beer in celebration after the maneuvers end.
Nevertheless, the allies seem to respect each others' martial prowess, which engenders a friendly rivalry. June is the month for the biennial Canadian Army Trophy competition, the Olympics of tank gunnery, which pits tankers from a half dozen allied armies. One U.S. team from the 2nd Armored Division rumbles south to the range at Bergen, "Communism Stops Here" stenciled on their new M1 tanks and Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." blaring from their boogie boxes.
Proud of their 60-ton M1 behemoths, the Americans good-naturedly disparage each of their allied rivals. French tanks are tiny, with tiny tankers inside. The German Leopard II, while a fine tank, cannot keep up with the M1 Abrams on steep slopes.
A U.S. lieutenant colonel cheerfully recounts how the British last December drove 22 tanks into nearby Stellings Moor -- "a working peat bog!" -- and spent more than a month fishing them out.
Tait, whose radio code name is Viking 6, enthusiastically compliments the allied soldiers but adds, "My personal opinion is the American soldier is better. He requires a different kind of leadership. He doesn't blindly follow orders and I think there's a lot of good in that."
The general inspires loyalty by handing out brass tokens inscribed, "Ya done good," to meritorious soldiers and returning their salutes with an admonition: "Treat 'em rough." He pushes hard for what the Army calls Morale Support Facilities, and what the soldiers know as a decent hamburger stand, laundromat and transmitters to beam American television programs.
American soldiers are still a novelty here in the flat marshes near the North Sea, traditionally the British sector of postwar Germany. The 2nd Armored Division has been based in the nearby farming village of Garlstedt only since late 1979, so GIs are not as familiar a feature of the landscape as they are further south, where hundreds of thousands of American troops have been based for 40 years.
The post, in fact, is a little piece of America, flooded with the $2 bills and Susan B. Anthony dollars that the Treasury Department cannot unload at home. Many soldiers' wives rarely venture beyond the taco stand and commissary of the American enclave, shackled by their inability to speak German and intimidated by the autobahns.
There are signs, however, of creeping Americana in the countryside. The nearby town of Osterholz-Scharmbeck has its first bordello and posts "no parking" signs in both German and English. And many bridges have weight limits posted for both trucks and tanks.
Some Americans see those weight warnings as more challenge than caution. "When they say 40 tons they really mean 80," one West Pointer suggests. "At least that's the way we learned it in school."
The tankers love to tell war stories about getting a tank jammed beneath a medieval arch, or encountering a platoon of MPs guarding a 2,000-year-old Roman bridge to shoo the M1s away. An annual NATO exercise last fall caused $10 million in damage.
After the maneuvers, the Americans routinely dispatch a "damage assessment" team to reimburse local burghers for crushed cobblestone or farmers for shivered fences. Which, according to American lore, is more than the Brits do.
When the Germans try to collect for damage, the British "just say, 'Who do you think won the war?' " one U.S. officer said with admiration. "And if that doesn't work, they'll say, 'What price freedom, old chap?' and walk away."