Escobar and Exits: US Troops in Germany
During the 80’s, at the height of his power, Pablo Escobar built a family zoo at his Hacienda Nápoles compound, just outside of Medellín, Colombia. In addition to giraffes, rhinos, lions and zebras, Escobar kept four hippos at the compound. Following his death in 1993, Escobar’s empire was swiftly unraveled by the Colombian government. In the ensuing unspooling of the empire, the Colombian authorities took Hacienda Nápoles and relocated most of the exotic animals to new, appropriate homes. Owing to their ornery nature, husky bods, and vicious territorialism, the four hippos were deemed too difficult to move and remained at Hacienda.
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Those four begat more. There are now 80 hippos roaming Colombia’s Puerto Triunfo municipality, where Hacienda Nápoles is located. For those unfamiliar with hippos’ nativity, it is not Colombia, but sub-Saharan Africa. It is without question that the hippos are an invasive species. What’s undecided is if the hippos are of benefit to their Colombian ecosystem or if they’re slowly wreaking havoc on it. Some experts contend that the cocaine hippos’ sprinkler-like dumps fertilize harmful lake-dwelling algae and bacteria, thereby creating malignant algae blooms that can cause sickness to animals and humans. Other research says that the blow-hippos are restoring important parts of the Colombian ecosystem — particularly megafauna — not seen since the Late Pleistocene (12,000 to 116,000 years ago). As long as the hippos remain, so too will the research to determine the nature of their effects.
In 1949, in the aftermath of World War Two, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed. This marked the establishment of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). The thrust of the agreement was to promote European military cohesion and defense, prevent another rise of European militarism, and to deter Soviet aggression. Starting with 12, there are now 30 North American and European countries signed on.
Following the end of World War Two and the execution of the agreement, US troops remained in Europe, mostly in Germany. At one point, before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, there were over 200,000 troops in Germany alone. As part of NATO’s maintenance, as well as the United States’ reluctance to cede strategically located military outposts in foreign countries, America maintains over 60,000 troops in various European countries. The majority of these troops reside in Germany.
The troops may not be as fat and ill-tempered as the hippos, and their ranks in Europe may be declining, but they’re just as hard to displace entirely. With Trump announcing this past June that the US would be withdrawing troops from Germany and relocating them elsewhere in Europe, the nature of the troops’ presence has re-entered the public discourse.
It’s hard to reconcile the idea of national sovereignty with a foreign country having thousands of troops stationed on several-hundred-acre-large bases, yet most of NATO’s leadership still seems pretty cool with it. Regardless, in an age where a direct military invasion becomes less likely by the day, what purpose does having US troops scattered across Europe serve?
Most Germans would say there isn’t one. In a recent poll, 47% of Germans said they support reducing the number of US soldiers in Germany, with 25% in favor of all US soldiers leaving entirely. Furthermore, 55% of Germans think that European NATO members should protect themselves against an attack without US assistance.
In another similarity to Escobar’s plump pals, the longer the troops remain in their non-native habitat, the cloudier the nature of their presence becomes. Many towns are in favor of keeping the troops as they provide a valuable economic stimulus. For instance, the combined economic impact of troops in the neighboring German towns of Vilseck and Grafenwöhr is calculated to be around to €650 million annually. If the bases disappear, the ancillary (and possibly primary) economy goes with them. For Germany, this isn’t just a question of sovereignty and defense, it’s also a question of how to prevent sudden economic ruin for thousands of citizens. Furthermore, as Trump continues to erode the strength of US-German relations, Germany can and should turn towards greater European sovereignty and resiliency.
As long as US bases and troops reside in Germany, there’s an argument to be made for their efficacy as locations to help expedite necessary military operations in nearby continents such as Asia and Africa. Yet if our excursions into Europe (WWII), Asia (WWII and Korean War), Iraq, and Afghanistan have taught anyone anything, it’s that US military excursions in foreign countries result in troops lingering in non-native habitats for decades after they arrive.
For the time being, the hippos aren’t going anywhere and neither are the troops. Both parties’ outward benevolence may in fact be running cover for some adverse effects brought on by their presence. Hippos are rotund with silly little ears, cartoonish features we associate with an inability to do harm. Belying their appearance is their ferocity — they kill more humans in Africa than any other mammal. They also have an impressive fecal blast radius that impacts their ecosystem in myriad ways, which is of special import in their non-native Colombia. Similarly, US troops’ presence in Germany began as a means of Transatlantic solidarity, support, and defense. As World War II and the Soviet threat fade ever dimmer into the past, the purpose of the troops’ presence becomes difficult to explain with the requisite precision to merit them being there in the first place.
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Song of the week: If the hippos leave, many humans and wildlife alike will long for them. So too will be the case for US troops, should they ever leave Germany. A tear-jerking song of longing and lost love. ‘Stay with Me’ by Lorraine Ellison: