So let me start out a little Abe Simpsonesque. The year was 1976, the height of the cold war. I was serving in the 3rd of the 7th Cavalry, which, if you are history buff, you will recognize as Custer’s unit at his ‘Last Stand.’ Our Battalion even had a ‘Little Big Horn’ streamer on its battle guidon (I looked one day while cleaning the general’s office). The Vietnam War had just ended and the Army was in shambles. Historian, Rick Atkinson called the Army in which I served one of ‘incompetence’ and said, “it was in tatters. It was a disgrace to the country and to itself, to its own heritage, really.” Vietnam had decimated the Army and it was full of, “indiscipline and something approaching national loathing by many corridors of our country.” Yes I remember. My two best buddies had been given the choice between prison and the Army. Wild times. No glory returning from his cold war army. Still, one serves where one can, eh?
We were all waiting for the Soviet Army to roll through the Fulda Gap in West Germany. It was not a question of ‘if’ but of ‘when.’ The Soviets were bent on world domination and Europe was an inevitable part of their conquest to cover the globe with Communism. Our job was to hold them up for twenty minutes, while armor, helicopters, and air defenses were motored up into action. We had to survive twenty minutes. We drove little light tanks called the M551 Sheridan. We joked that the Soviets had been armed with P-38’s (a little Army-issue can opener) as an anti-tank weapon.
A couple of times a year we would go up to the Czech border for a few weeks and make sure the Commies were not up to anything unseemly. My lieutenant was all about keeping the enemy guessing. I remember once, in a fierce blizzard, with snow so thick that I could not see the road at all, (such that my tank commander had to stand in his position above the top turret and tell me whether to go right or left), our lieutenant fresh out of OCS (Officer Candidate School) led us out into the elements. He wanted to show the Russians (if there were any around) that we were combat-ready in any weather. If the Czech guards had been able to see us through the snow, I think they would have been quite impressed.
One day, someone decided that we needed to patrol a remote area south of the Gap along the Czech border. There were no roads, so it was to be a foot patrol along a path that ran along the boundary. Our lieutenant led us out. I remember it was cold. The only sound was the crunch of our boots on the snow and the click of our equipment bouncing against our bodies. I was taking up the rear. We walked with our M16’s locked and loaded with full clip and two more in reserve. Our M1 helmets were made of heavy steel. We slogged along grumbling. Even so, there was something peaceful about the snow, the bare trees, and the heated excursion that seemed to clear the head and the blood.
Occasionally we would come across border stones, marking the boundary between West Germany and Czechoslovakia, white squarish stones maybe a foot high. As we passed one, it occurred to me that if I just passed it on the right instead of the left I could add another country to my tally of those visited. I couldn’t resist. At the next border stone I walked around it on the Czech side. It was thrilling. In some vague way I expected alarms, gunfire, or at least someone yelling at me. But the cold silence of the European forest was undisturbed—yet I had snuck across one of the most secure borders in the world (well in theory—I was the one guarding it after all—In the worst Army in the Nation’s History).
It turned out that the Russians were not planning an invasion. They were in shambles too. Their equipment was in disrepair, their tanks rusting and without spare parts. Their army was wracked by alcohol and drug use at every level. It was in more of a mess than ours.
I think about the things we fear today. When I was in the Army, the end of the world was just around the corner. But all these borders fell. Not by military force. The fences were torn down by people who wanted freedom. Who wanted a better life. It was the Soviet world that ended. It ended only about fifteen years latter, when the Berlin Wall fell. Fences do not hold people who want freedom and a better life. Nor should they.
When I was on sabbatical leave in Vienna, I took the train from Vienna, Austria to Prague. As I passed into Czechoslovakia, I thought about how I used to guard this border. No one even asked for my passport.