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April 18th, 2001

  A Love Letter


I get a lot of email. It comes in all varieties: praise, blame, adoration, abuse, "Right on, dude!" and 2,000-word treatises on Hegelian epistemology. I deal with it all as best I can and move on. Once in a long while, though, there is one that lodges itself in my mind and won't go away until I've talked — or, in this case, written — about it.

This particular email arrived in response to a piece I wrote the day after that U.S. reconnaissance plane was brought down over the South China Sea on April 1st. My piece was titled Don't Mess with the U.S.. I said that to preserve any secrets that might be left on the plane, the U.S. ought to destroy it, and that this would be much better done with a ground assault than by air attack.

My military and ex-military email on that one was nearly unanimous in favor of such a mission. The civilians split about fifty-fifty. (This is not very surprising, when you think about it. Military people, who are trained to combat, and whose careers can be wonderfully advanced by a spell of combat experience, are less reluctant to see themselves put in harm's way than their parents, spouses, sweethearts, children and friends are to see them so put.)

The writer of the particular email that got my attention is a serving officer in the U.S. Navy. I cannot, therefore, publish his name. I have also dropped or disguised some facts that might give clues as to his identity. I have further corrected a couple of spelling errors. (Which should not be taken — I certainly don't take it — as reflecting badly on the sender. To paraphrase the great Johnny Carson: A person who spell-checks his email is a person who back-washes his Water-Pik.) Here is the body of the email, thus adjusted.

I'll give you another reason the military won't mind doing a job like you described. I've been in the Navy since 19—. One of the reasons that I joined, got my commission, and stayed in is that the U.S. is a force for good in the world. This may look like a naïve statement to some, but, sometimes, the U.S. is the only nation in the world that gets it. Sometimes we're the only nation that isn't falling all over itself to imitate Chamberlain or trying to socialize itself to death. Not only do we want to do our job because we've trained for it and it looks good on a fitness report. We want to do our job because it's the right thing to do.

The frank, unselfconscious sincerity of those words stopped me in my tracks. Further, it made me think of something I had read long before, and hardly thought about since. I tried to move on to the next item of business, but couldn't fix my mind on it. At last I went up to the attic where I stash old books (I have the utmost difficulty getting rid of books). I dug out the book I was looking for, found the passage I recalled, and read it to myself, for the first time in 15 years. Then I teared up and had to stay in the attic a while till things cleared.

Yes, folks: This cynical, crusty, stiff-upper-lip Brit, snarling reactionary Derb, pitiless scourge of the Left, of feminists, of poofs, of the Irish Republican Army, of 21-year-old ex-Presidential daughters and of the Chinese Communist Party, fearless bren-toting weekend warrior and skydiver, this cold-blooded curmudgeon, sitting in his dim attic among all the dust and crap — broken toys, cardboard boxes full of winter clothes, piles of books speckled with dead flies, abandoned exercise equipment (what's the world record for continuous use of a piece of domestic exercise equipment? three weeks?) — actually blubbed.

The book I had gone in search of was Margarete Buber's Under Two Dictators. Buber was the wife of Heinz Neumann, a leading figure in the German Communist Party during the early 1930s. Buber herself was a Communist, too, of course. (And formerly the wife of Rafael, son of the theologian Martin Buber.) When Hitler came to power the couple had to run for their lives, and naturally they ran to Moscow. There they lived until Stalin's great purge started up in 1937. Foreign communists were a special target of the purge, and in due course Neumann was pulled in. He was never heard of again. A short while later, Buber herself was arrested by the N.K.V.D. She spent the next two years in Soviet labor camps.

When Stalin and Hitler signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact in September 1939, one of the subsidiary clauses allowed for an exchange of each other's nationals. Russians who had fled to Germany to escape Stalin, and Germans who had fled to the U.S.S.R. to escape Hitler, were rounded up by the two dictators and repatriated. So having survived two years in Soviet camps, Buber now found herself in Ravensbrück. Miraculously, she survived that, too, and was still alive when the camp guards fled to avoid the advancing Red Army in 1945. (Of the hundred-odd German communists handed over to the Gestapo by Stalin in those exchanges, Buber is the only one known to have survived the war. The Russian "counter-revolutionaries" repatriated to the U.S.S.R. by Hitler fared even worse: they were all shot without ceremony.)

Having already tasted Stalin's hospitality, Buber decided to head west herself. With a friend from the camp, she began the long walk to the Allied lines. The two women had only their camp rags to wear, and only such food as they could forage or beg on the way. Eventually, after several days' walking, they came to the American lines at Bad Kleinem. Buber approached one of the G.I.s, a noncom, and told him that she and her friend had been five years in Ravensbrück. She added that she herself had previously been in a concentration camp in Siberia, and that if the Russians caught her, she would be sent back there. "OK, sister," said the G.I., "go through." Joyfully, the women hurried through.

Then the G.I. called after them: "Hey, girls. Wait a minute." Their hearts sinking, the two women followed him to a house with a sentry at the door. Obviously he was going to check with his superiors. Would they be sent back? Or something even worse? To grasp these women's frame of mind at this point, you have to understand that for many years their everyday experience had taught them to expect nothing but the worst from men in uniform: an interrogation and beating if lucky, gang rape or a firing squad if not.

We waited in a fever of impatience … After a while he came out again with a tall, smiling officer, who looked at us, but said nothing. Our soldier went round behind the house. A few minutes later there was a sound of horse's hooves and he drove out with a farm cart and pair.

"Get in," he said. "You've walked enough by the look of you. You're going to ride now."

Scolpisci nella tua testa a lettere adamantine … Carve into your mind in great stone letters: This nation is the hope, and the conscience, of the world.