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The View from Abroad: A Personal Reflection

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Except for a Naval Reserve cruise to Hawaii when I was nineteen, I had not, until my fifty-fifth year, stepped off the North American continent.

The decade that followed made up for all that. During that time, I was invited and participated in nine scholarly conferences abroad (four in Russia, two in Italy, and one each in Germany, Japan, and at Oxford University in England). In all, I visited fourteen countries for durations varying from two days to six weeks. Whatever I might have contributed to these events, I can testify that I returned home with a much-enriched understanding and appreciation of the cultures that I visited, and with the advantage of perspective gained through detachment and distance, an enhanced understanding and appreciation of the heritage, traditions and values of my own country.

Here are three impressions that are both vivid in my memory, and relevant to our current political circumstances.

War and Peace: War, to the Europeans, and especially the Germans and the Russians, means something quite different than what it means to most Americans.

Since the close of the Civil War in 1865, "war" for the United States has always been "over there." For the Europeans, as well as the Japanese, it was "right here!" In World War II, not a single Nazi shell fell on American soil, and except for one fatal "balloon bomb," the Japanese caused no damage to the Continental United States. In all fronts of that war, we lost a quarter million dead in combat.

In Europe, in that same war, entire cities were reduced to rubble. At least ten million Germans and more than twenty million Soviet citizens were killed. Of the Soviet males born in the early twenties, ninety percent perished. For every American GI who fell in combat, over fifty Russian soldiers were killed. Scarcely a single family in Germany or Russia was spared the loss of several close relatives.

For all too many Americans, war is an adventure, especially so to those, who, like George Bush and his cabinet, have never experienced combat. "F-- Saddam, we're taking him out," Bush was heard to say, and when he decided to launch his war, he struck his fist against his palm and said "feels good!" That decision was to cause the death of more than one-hundred thousand, and still counting.

To the Europeans, who have experienced it, war is an unmitigated disaster and an unspeakable horror. And a half a century later, its evidence is everywhere. For example, across the street from my friend's apartment in St. Petersburg is "Park Pobedy" ("Victory Park") -- a pleasant plot of trees, ponds and lawn through which I walked to and from the Metro station. Under that turf lies the bones and ashes of tens of thousands of Leningrad citizens, victims of the 900 days of siege in which up to a million residents starved. About a kilometer past the park on Moskovsky Prospect (Boulevard) is a monument to the siege of Leningrad, and a museum that commemorates that horror. There I saw on display a small cube of sawdust and wallpaper paste -- the "bread" that served as a daily food ration -- and lighting the perimeter of that huge room, there were 900 lanterns placed in shell casings, one shell for every day of the siege.

True, just a mere twenty-one years after the first World War, the Europeans were back at it again. Even so, I am convinced that as long as the general public has a significant say in the matter, the Europeans will remain at peace with one another. Given the recent behavior of United States governments, both Democratic and Republican, and the scale of our so-called "Defense" budgets, I am not similarly confident of our own peaceful behavior.

Public Infrastructure: "Infrastructure" refers to roads, bridges, telephone service, electricity, water and sewage disposal - in short, the facilities and accommodations in place that service and sustain a nation's economy. With the exception of Russia, I found the European infrastructure to be excellent, as was the Japanese. In Russia, the infrastructure varies from "adequate" to sub-standard, although I can report remarkable improvements between my first visit in 1989 and my last in 1999.

An informed account of European and Japanese infrastructure would require an unacceptable investment in research time and in space in this essay. So I will confine my remarks to my personal experiences with just one infrastructure: rail transportation.

The contrast of European and Japanese railroads with our own is breathtaking - and acutely embarrassing to the American tourist. Clean, quiet, comfortable, reliable, efficient, all describe these accommodations, though they must be experienced to be fully appreciated. At the Osaka airport, I walked a short distance from the baggage pickup to the awaiting train, which looked like it had just been delivered from the factory. In just forty-five minutes I was in Kyoto. (The trains run every five to fifteen minutes).

Most astonishing was the "Chunnel" train from Paris to London: 213 miles in two and a half hours, at speeds up to 140 mph. (The British rail-beds require reduced speeds). From downtown Paris to downtown London, the Chunnel train is faster, cheaper and more comfortable than a flight, and at a small fraction of the energy cost per passenger. By comparison, auto travel between the cities, involving a time-consuming ferry across the English Channel, is unthinkable.

Why don't we have such facilities in the United States? Why not a "bullet train" between Boston and Washington? Why was a proposed fast-rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles recently de-authorized? With even the aging equipment and decaying rail-bed, the downtown to downtown travel times between Washington and New York, by air and by rail, are comparable. Imagine the savings in time and fuel if a European- or Japanese-quality rail link were established between these cities. As for the advantages in time, fuel and convenience over auto travel, you have no idea!

How did it come to this? It happened by design, and not by accident. Soon after the end of World War II, a consortium of auto, gasoline and tire manufacturers bought up and then shut down major intracity commuter railroads, and the passenger railroads went into steep decline as investments dried up. Then Congress approved and funded the interstate highway system, "for national defense," we were told. Autos and airplanes were to be the transportation of the future, and they were subsidized by tax revenues for highway and airport construction and promoted with untold billions of advertising dollars. Public investment in rail transportation? "No way!," we were told. "That's socialism!" Why public investment in roads and airports were not also "socialism" was not explained.

The short-term return on investments for the holders of automobile and petroleum stocks were extravagant. The long-term social, environmental and economic costs - well, we're beginning to find out. In the coming global competition among nations, as energy costs rise (as they must), economic advantage will be enjoyed by nations with fast and fuel efficient transportation and distribution infrastructure in place - the sort of infrastructure that I experienced when I rode the trains in Europe and Japan.

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Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. Partridge has taught philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The (more...)

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