IN spring the West German farmer plants his potatoes. In fall he harvests tanks. And it is this price he pays for the defense readiness of NATO that has helped bring about Western Europe's longest period of peace in this century. In the United States, in Britain, even in France, defense is an abstract. The boys in uniform march elsewhere to do their job. In West Germany, that elsewhere is right around the corner. Every autumn after the crops have been gathered into barns, treaded vehicles rumble across the overturned sod, convoys clog the Autobahns, shooting breaks the evening silence, and camouflage-clad troops lurk in the woods to surprise Sunday strollers.
In the US, maneuvers can be conducted away from public view, on tracts such as the 217,000 acres of Fort Hood, Texas, a single range that would swallow up all of West Germany's military training areas.
Helipads on the soccer field
In this country, with a population a quarter the size of the United States squeezed into territory the size of Oregon and set on the front line between East and West, no such isolation is possible. Exercises must take place in and around villages and towns. Battalion headquarters is likely to be a requisitioned shed nestled among half-timber houses with cascading flower gardens. The helipad is likely to be the local soccer field.
Soldiers are ordered to be polite, to pick up their garbage, to hug the edges of fields with their tanks, and not to foul water, tear down fences, or chew up unharvested sugar beets with their tank treads. And last year new regulations banned low flights by noisy military jets during the midday rest hour from 12:30 to 1:30.
But damage does occur when, as between Sept. 1 and Nov. 25 of this year, some two dozen maneuvers are staged with 335,000 West German, American, British, Dutch, Belgian, French, and other troops. Each year 130 to 160 million marks ($80 million to $100 million) are dispensed in civilian compensation.
The public usually tolerates the periodic disruption to a degree that would probably be unimaginable in, say, Connecticut, or any other part of the US with a population density comparable to that of West Germany's.
Largest airlift since D-Day
The local pub owner gets a modest increase in business from off-duty staff officers. Schoolboys enjoy the excitement of racing on their bicycles to see the helicopters land. Despite some grumbling and a few sporadic lawsuits about grievances, most citizens tend to welcome the soldiers to their neighborhoods. A number of local residents offer them coffee and breakfast, West German Defense Ministry spokesmen say.
This year the two biggest maneuvers took place in Lower Saxony and Bavaria: NATO's Certain Strike and the French-German Cheeky Sparrow. In Certain Strike, 31,000 GIs were flown across the Atlantic in the largest airlift of American forces to Europe since D-Day in 1944 to join 50,000 other servicemen in securing the north German plain.
In Cheeky Sparrow, 20,000 French Rapid Action Forces were transported to Bavaria by vehicle or aircraft to relieve 55,000 West Germans, link up in a bridging operation across the Danube River - and demonstrate French evolution away from go-it-alone Gaullism toward firmer commitment to help defend West Germany.