You can't help but dwell on things when you're traveling through a foreign country alone.
I spent a couple of weeks wandering through "Old" Europe, France and Germany, on my way back to Iraq. I had a decent time, but a couple of my experiences there really stand out in my memory. Both, more or less, relate to my afternoon at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
I spent a few hours there, atop a tall hill just 6 kilometers north of Weimar, Germany. This is where an estimated 50,000 people were murdered by the Nazis during the camp's nine-year existence.
I witnessed something that still irritates me for some reason: a group of German women casually talking about God-knows-what inside the camp's crematorium. What bugs me about those women - and a discussion I had a couple of days later - is that, to me, concentration camps are hallowed ground.
They are in essence the extreme opposite of battlefields, where once a nation or group tried to dominate another. A nation or group did dominate another at a concentration camp. Don't ask me if either side of the spectrum is right, though.
That's how I approached my brief visit. Even now, 60 years after the camp's liberation, the place has a feeling of misery and death. Despite the bright sun and hot August afternoon, a shiver traveled up my spine as I walked through the front gate.
Not much of the original camp is left: a couple of guard towers, a section of fence, the camp headquarters and the crematorium. A large, three-story warehouse where the camp prisoners kept their personal items once they were interned sits on one corner. Outside it are a few ancillary buildings - SS barracks and a motor pool.
The blockhouses where the prisoners - Jews, Russians, Britons, Albanians, Poles and Gypsies, among others - were kept have long since been torn down; all that marks them now are black rock laid out in long patterns.
What's left is a broad, open field with spectacular views of the valley below the camp.
I walked toward the crematorium, its chimney marking a place of unspeakable horrors. People were murdered there, others were dissected like animals, the dead were burned, their ashes unceremoniously dumped on the camp grounds.
A couple of days later I was going out to dinner with a friend. We've known each other for a couple of years, were lovers at one point and have a decent understanding.
We're driving around her small German town, and I mention that the unspeakable horror and man's conduct there had really got to me. And she said something that really hit home.
"It's a part of history, Bill," she said. I looked out the window of her car and saw life going on in the little German town she lives in.
"It is, but it's still disturbing," I said.
"A lot of things are disturbing," she replied. "I think the war in Iraq is disturbing."
She was right there; the war is disturbing. But it's not the same as systematically rounding and methodically murdering nearly 12 million people.
Her reply disturbed me for some reason. It was like dismissing Pol Pot's Killing Fields or Stalin's pogroms that wiped out an estimated 30 million Soviet citizens. What's even more disturbing is why there hasn't been a larger accounting of Stalin's campaigns.
Genocide, or whatever you want to call it, can't be dismissed (and whatever you may want to think, we aren't systematically targeting entire sections of the Iraqi people, just very minute segments of it - the guys keeping the government on its knees, starting a full-blown civil war and trying to kill the United States military).
I'm not sure if she meant to imply it, but for some reason I said: "But we're not systematically rounding up entire ethnic groups and murdering them. Saddam did that; we aren't."
There's word now that Saddam Hussein's trials will be starting soon. Mass graves are being dug up in the deserts of Iraq. Men, women and children are being disinterred from graves. Some have been found clutching each other in last attempts at protection or love. I can't imagine what went through their minds as the machine guns opened up.
Those crimes Saddam committed still affect us even if they happened 6,000 miles away. Don't ignore them.
Cpl. Bill Putnam was an editorial assistant for the Kirkland Courier, an associate newspaper, and has contributed articles to the Magnolia News. He is a member of the National Guard currently serving in Iraq as an Army reporter.[[In-content Ad]]