Originally posted 5 May 2005.
My first proper military assignment began in West Germany in March 1991, a year and a half after the fall of the Berlin wall and only months before the full collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet the unit I joined maintained its Cold War mission at least until I left in the Spring of 1993, and probably significantly longer.
The Allied Command Europe (ACE) Mobile Force (Land Component) was much bigger as a unit title than it was as a unit. This brigade-sized, seven-nation unit was largely a diplomatic tool, whose usefulness mainly depended on the blood spot it would leave behind when it was over-run by Soviet tanks. Let me explain.
The job of the AMF(L), as it was more conveniently known, was to deploy rapidly to the flanks of NATO's heavily guarded central European defences if the enemy hordes tried to do an end run. This meant that the unit had to be ready to fly to Denmark, Norway, Greece or Turkey at the drop of a hat. As such, it was one of the few light units in Germany. (Most were full of tanks and armoured personnel carriers).
Now, being light was good news for being able to deploy quickly, but it wasn't necessarily great when looking down the barrels of 200 thundering T-55 tanks. So in all probability, had the balloon ever really gone up, the AMF(L) would have deployed with its soldiers wearing their seven different national uniforms; these brave soldiers would have locked arms and fought bravely in the name of international solidarity (for about 35 seconds); and they would have been annihilated. Their deaths in unified endeavour would have helped to cement the resolves of their respective domestic publics and thereby their home governments to commit (as each had promised to do by treaty) to the mutual protection of Western Europe. So, as I said before, the squidgy AMF(L) blood spot that remained once the communist hordes had rolled through would be our true contribution to freedom and democracy.
As a pretty selfless guy who was up for a challenge and happy to do his part, I didn't mind all of this very much at all. I didn't, however, go out of my way to spell it out for the 40 men whose lives I was responsible for. I suspect they may have had concerns with a couple of the finer points. Still, the risk had become a purely theoretical one by the time that I arrived at the U.S. headquarters company of the brigade - HQ CO AMF(L), (are you getting this abbreviation stuff)? - to take charge of my infantry platoon.
As it turned out, it was a lot of fun. We didn't waste loads of time maintaining tanks and personnel carriers - because we didn't have any. We got lots of cool training time around Germany. And we got super cool training deployments to Denmark, Turkey, Italy and the UK.
What's more, we worked closely with, and thereby learned to disrespect, distrust and generally look down upon, soldiers from many other countries - almost as much as we looked down upon our countrymen in competing armed services (Navy, Air Force). I joke. We developed real respect for our Nato brethren forces and enjoyed working with them - especially the Brits and Germans.
I swear I had a conversation with a Turkish officer who told me, when I asked why he carried a pistol loaded with LIVE ammunition at all times, that he needed it to protect himself from his troops. He went on to say that he could kill nine of his soldiers per year without having to fill out any paperwork. Once he hit double figures, he needed to complete some forms. Maybe he was just pulling my leg.
Our deployment to Italy was unique for two reasons: first, we could not take any weapons or gas masks, because the Austrians would not allow us to travel through their country by train with these things; second, our company commander didn't go, so I was in charge of things. It was winter / mountain survival training in the Alps north of Venice, and it was great. Without the weapons, it felt like a boy scout jamboree - cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, sleeping in snow caves - fantastic!
I remember another such outing - without weapons but with our commander - to Bavaria for mountaineering training. This training wasn't especially military, as it was run as part of the U.S. military's recreational facilities at Garmisch - the sight of the Winter Olympics many moons ago. Our hiking guide during one phase of the training carried a guitar with him, and we sang for much of the night once we reached our hut on a ridge overlooking Austria. It was like The Sound of Music all over again - but with a country & western twang and no lederhosen.
Don't get me wrong. There was plenty of 'proper' military training as well, even if the unit's raison d'etre had recently dissolved.