Germany pulls out of military expo over retired Army officer's column
HEIDELBERG, Germany — The German military has pulled out of the U.S. Army’s annual Land Combat Expo, protesting an opinion piece written by a controversial retired U.S. officer slated to be a guest speaker at next week’s event.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a noted author and frequent lecturer in military circles, wrote an opinion piece blasting the Germans in the New York Post on Aug. 19. The column came in the wake of criticism from Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign team of President Bush’s plan to reduce U.S. forces in Europe and Asia.
“Not one presents a reasoned strategic argument for maintaining wasteful garrisons abroad. And not one admits that the Germans only care about losing the jobs we provide,” wrote Peters.
“Regarding the Democrats’ claim that we’ll lose influence in Europe, the obvious question is, ‘What influence?’” Peters continued. “We’re not stabbing our French and German ‘allies’ in the back. They stabbed us. And they’ll do it again. Our troop posture in Europe doesn’t give us influence over the Europeans — it gives the Europeans power over us.”
In response, German army leaders informed U.S. officials on Tuesday that they’ve decided to pull out of the expo, said Col. Hans Kling, the chief German liaison officer at the Army European headquarters in Heidelberg. Kling said the decision to withdraw from the expo was made by the commander of Germany’s land forces, Lt. Gen. Axel Bürgener.
The Germans were to provide three tanks, two wheeled vehicles and about 30 soldiers as part of the German army’s display at the expo.
Billed as the Army’s premier professional development symposium for troops in Europe, the Land Combat Expo is slated to run Tuesday through Sept. 30. Much of it will center on the Army’s achievements through the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We are displaying for our allies and enemies alike what a great democracy, using the on-the-ground presence of our units, supported by families and the backing of the American people, can achieve in defense of liberty,” Gen. B.B. Bell, commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, wrote encouraging that troops attend the symposium.
Asked what kind of message the Germans’ boycotting of the expo sends friends and enemies on democratic ideals such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, Kling responded, “It is a free decision to attend or not, this is also part of a democracy.”
Explaining why the decision was made within days of the expo’s opening ceremonies, Kling said the column had only recently come to the attention of German officials.
“We do not want any verbal confrontation between any German soldier and this guest speaker,” said Kling, adding, “We do not want to provide a platform for the speaker to do this in the presence of German soldiers.”
Kling emphasized the decision had nothing to do with tension between the United States and Germany since the invasion of Iraq. The majority of Germans oppose the war there.
Army leaders say they’re holding out hope German officials might reconsider.
Bürgener has written Army leaders in Europe “expressing his concern about participating in the [Land Combat Expo] and we are continuing to discuss the issue with the German command,” said Bell’s spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Jane Crichton in a prepared statement.
“While we strongly support the First Amendment rights of free speech and a free press, our relationship with our German allies is also very important to us,” she added.
Regarding Peters’ comments, Crichton said, “The senior leadership of USAREUR looks forward to engaging him at the LCE regarding his stated views. Mr. Peters’ comments in no way reflect the position of the U.S. Army Europe.”
Peters said any boycott amounts to “defacto censorship.”
Called for comment at home in northern Virginia, Peters said, “It’s perfectly all right for the Germans to call President Bush a Nazi, it’s perfectly all right for the Germans to criticize everything about America, to lionize [“Fahrenheit 911” director] Michael Moore and treat our soldiers as second-class human beings … but they want to try and censor the American media.”
Peters said the German decision was disappointing but not surprising.
“I think the fact that they’re pulling out is the best imaginable indicator of how weak our alliance is, how meaningless Germany’s contribution is,” said Peters. “If they pull out because they can’t stand one 800-word opinion piece in an American newspaper, how could we possibly expect them to stand by us in a violent crisis?”
Peters, who is fluent in German and served in Germany for 10 years during his active-duty career, said he stands by everything he wrote.