Wednesday, March 5, 2014

My best war story

That's me in civvies and my field jacket during a walk along the Elbe River in 1968. I lived on a pig farm half a mile from
the river, which was the border between East and West Germany. That's a guard tower beyond my right shoulder.
In the years after our book We Went to War came out, Meg Heckman and I gave several lessons on interviewing techniques at story-telling seminars. The book was a collection of oral histories we had done of New Hampshire veterans and others who had lived through World War II.

At the close of our presentation, I sometimes served as the guinea pig for an interview. Class members asked me questions, and Meg gave them tips based on what we had learned during our interviews. Sometimes I used my experience as a Cold Warrior during the late 1960s as the topic for these interviews.

My best Cold War story was about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The questioners in the seminars remembered little or nothing about the invasion, so it was a good topic for the interviewing exercise.

This past week, when Russian troops moved into Ukraine, my best war story was suddenly relevant again. So I wrote a column about it for today's Concord Monitor. Here it is:      

The patch of the Army Security
Agency, my outfit.
On a night in early August 1968, I started my midnight-to-8 a.m. shift on a hillside farm field a short walk from the Iron Curtain. The U.S. Army had converted the field into a surveillance site near the west bank of the Elbe River. On this night there was no shortage of radio signals on which to intercept Soviet military communications across the river in East Germany.

What I heard on my high-frequency radio was not routine traffic – Soviet surface-to-air missile sites tracking planes or army headquarters ordering supplies with encoded messages. What I heard, in voices so loud and clear I knew the speakers were close to our out-station, was Russian tank exercises on what was generally a high-level network.

When the exercises ended, two men I took to be sergeants kept talking. One asked the other why they were training in the middle of the night. The other hesitated, perplexed that his comrade didn’t know. Finally, he said in a slightly disguised way that they were on their way to invade Czechoslovakia.

I listened to the intercept again and again to be sure I had heard what I thought I heard. Then I called in my boss and other linguists and asked them to listen. They heard it, too.

The boss, whose rank was the equivalent of sergeant, called the lieutenant who ran our detachment and suggested we send the intercept to our headquarters as critical intelligence. For reasons I don’t know, this did not happen. Maybe the lieutenant, who was green and did not speak Russian, feared what would happen to him if we were wrong. The intercept was sent as routine and never made a plink in the sea of paper at our headquarters.

I found this pic on the web of the Pevestorf out-station
 where I worked. It was taken before 1968. By the time
I came, the antenna field was larger and concertina enclosed
the entire site. But we still worked in deuce-and-a-halfs
(Army trucks) with radios and other equipment in the back.
Later we heard that high-level intelligence officials had been criticized for failure to produce intercept confirming the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The military rumor mill being what it is, I don’t know if this is so.

For nearly a quarter century now, I’ve thought that this – my best war story – was obsolete. The Iron Curtain is long gone. Mr. Gorbachev tore down that wall. Communism fell. Occasionally with velvet calm, sometimes through strife, the Soviet satellite nations regained autonomy.

But now, along with the many more ominous historical precedents it conjures up, Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian territory in Crimea is a reminder of its four decades as puppet-master in Eastern Europe.

In 1968, when the Soviets swept Alexander Dubcek from power after the Prague Spring, President Lyndon B. Johnson was already a lame duck. In the New Hampshire primary the previous March, Johnson had defeated the peace Democrat Eugene McCarthy by a mere seven points. Nineteen days later, Johnson quit the race.

The country was already involved in an unpopular war in Vietnam. This limited Johnson’s ability to respond to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, although what he could have done even in a time of peace is questionable.

For us young soldiers along the Iron Curtain the invasion meant a heightened state of alert and the departure of many of our voice intercept operators to out-stations closer to the Czechoslovak border. I worked midnight-to-noon every day well into the fall.

I felt no greater sense of danger than usual during this period. It was an exciting, if exhausting, time. 

Another picture from the web: This one was taken from the top of a truck on the Pevestorf site. Below our hill and
beyond the Elbe River is East Germany. In the early 1990s, after the Iron Curtain disappeared,  Monique and I took a
ferry across the river near this spot and visited a guard tower and a couple of recently liberated dorfs.  
Particularly in the early weeks we had intercept galore, some of it in the languages of non-Russian Warsaw Pact troops. I did not speak these languages, but we had been trained to recognize Polish or Ukrainian by learning to count to 10.

One reason I wasn’t afraid was that I didn’t expect a military response from the United States or NATO. Nor did I think the Soviet Union would broaden the conflict.

We all rooted for Dubcek and his compatriots’ yearning for freedom. We all chuckled over reports of Czechoslovak resisters pointing Prague road signs in the mountains the wrong way to misdirect the Soviet tank drivers. But I didn’t see what our country could possibly do to stop the tanks on cobblestone without risking a war no one wanted.

When the Iron Curtain disappeared 21 years later, my personal history as a Cold Warrior seemed to vanish with it. But now, 25 more years later, it feels relevant again.

The border of the Russian sphere of control has receded, and communism is dead. What has endured is big-man rule in Russia – from the tsars to the commie dictators to Vladimir Putin – men who use brute power to seize what they think they need to maintain control.

President Obama is getting an earful of advice, some of it critical and partisan, as he tries to counter the Russian power grab in Ukraine. But it’s no easier now than it was in 1968 to deal with the ruthless regime in Moscow. Maybe it is even harder in this age of a weaker NATO and a global economy.

If history is any guide, Putin and the Russians will have their way. The best we can hope for is to limit the damage and move on.

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