Old enemies, new friends

PARIS — My pal, Manfred, visiting from Munich on May 8, asked about the fuss nearby on the Champs-Elysees. Ah that, I said. They’re commemorating victory over you guys.

Millions dead and a continent left in smoldering ruin are not all that funny. But Manfred, an old hand at covering global ups and downs, chuckled at the irony. 

Within our lifetimes, Germans had shot Frenchmen only yards from where we spoke. Churchill saw Teutonic hordes invade Europe three times and observed: Germans are either at your throat or at your feet.

That does not, however, say much about Manfred, a gentle soul of quiet dignity who would attempt life support on any flea he might happen to discomfit.

At 5, he fled as Allies bombed the family grand piano and most of Nuremburg. His conscript father hated war; to this day fireworks paralyze him with fear. He was missing until 1947 when he returned, a skeleton, from Russia.

Manfred’s wife, Birgitte, also thought she had lost her father. He hid in a stable to escape the draft and then, when caught, barely survived a work camp in Poland.

“Others did that to our country,” Manfred said, meaning Hitler’s Nazis as well as Allies who leveled much of Germany to defeat them, “and the children had to pay.”

The lessons here are obvious enough: Collective nouns mean nothing on their own. Worldviews based on generalities set against comic-book context can only bring us to grief.

This is why today’s trend toward drive-by coverage, distorted by meaningless tweets and senseless twaddle, ought to have us trembling in our socks.

Manfred and I each know people still fighting World War II — and others in Europe and Asia who have yet to digest ignominious defeats that predate medieval times.

We’ve also returned to battlefields we knew as journalists where invasion is forgiven. “To Vietnamese, Americans are just foreigners, like Germans,” Manfred told me, and that’s what I found.

Wars fade into memory along with the tyrants and fools who start them. Yet even if some victims learn quickly to forgive, few ever forget.

The past always matters. History offers clues when new trouble is imminent. Still, lessons drawn only from history are an imperfect guide.

The present matters more. A close watch allows sparks to be snuffed out before they flame. Tyrants and fools can be stopped while there is still time.

A popular new American president will soon visit Normandy, where Ronald Reagan evoked these themes in stirring terms a generation ago.

Up there, among those rows of white crosses and stars of David, the vicissitudes of human folly are dead clear. Given the state of today’s world, we’d better take notice.

True enough, war is the failure of diplomacy. Most other bad news is equally preventable if it is foreseen, and understood, before it makes headlines.

As we saw in World War II, and repeatedly since, statesmen and generals bear watching. This takes seasoned correspondents with no flag to wave or brand to promote.

Our besieged news organizations, now so badly in need of saving, have always been uneven, shot through with flaws. That is why we need multiple competitive sources, now more than ever.

As America worked itself into pre-invasion furor early in 2003, I watched media stars hustle into Normandy for an obvious cheap shot: Cowardly France was ungrateful.

But the old nemesis had since joined France in the European Union. Both nations have learned about war the hard way and know it can only be a last, desperate resort.

In the six years since, public apathy and corporate greed have slashed America’s foreign correspondent corps to a pathetic fraction of what we desperately need.

If we cannot protect and reinforce what is left of nuanced reporting by skilled practitioners, we are bound to get things horribly wrong.

World War II, like every human calamity before and since, made this painfully plain: We cannot even remotely understand a world that confounds generality without solid knowledge of how diverse societies see it and what causes their points to tip.