Kasernen im Kopf: Reflections on narratives and frames in the KMC

by Allison Haskins, M.A. 

Kaiserslautern and its expansive American military community often appear as an enigma to those who reside outside of it. Part of the understanding built around a community, especially a community that encompasses multiple cultures, comes from how it frames its culture and history. Robert Entman theorizes that to “frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.” By using this theory, one can examine the frames used by stakeholders in the German-American military community in order to understand what they consider to be important, or “salient.”

German narratives and texts

A brief look at German “communicating texts” that describe the American military community reveal certain, consistently presented narratives. There is a plethora of German produced documentaries that present and discuss the Kaiserslautern Military Community. A search for „Ramstein“ in the ARD Mediathek reveals a number of retro and contemporary documentaries covering the American presence in Germany. The contemporary documentaries include: Leben auf dem Pulverfass and Geheimnisvolle Orte: Ramstein. These documentaries all present the Air Base with a slightly critical and mysterious perspective by alluding to the post-9/11 security and perceived secrecy of US military operations. They emphasize the shared history of the community while lamenting a perceived “loss of friendship” after the end of the Cold War and 9/11.

Other German media outlets covering the American presence in Germany include local newspaper Die Rheinpfalz. In addition to regularly reporting on Landstuhl, Ramstein-Miesenbach, and Kaiserslautern, the newspaper introduced a series called “Die Amerikaner und Wir (The Americans and Us)” in late December 2021, writing:

Die RHEINPFALZ-Lokalredaktion Kaiserslautern widmet sich in den kommenden Tagen dem Thema Amerikaner in und um Kaiserslautern. Welche Spuren haben die Amerikaner hinterlassen? Wo begegnet man ihnen? Berichten Sie uns, liebe Leserinnen und Leser, von Begegnungen, die Sie mit den Amerikanern hatten, Freundschaften, die entstanden sind.

The Rheinpfalz editorial office in Kaiserslautern will be reporting on the topic of Americans in and around Kaiserslautern in the coming days. What traces have the Americans left behind? Where can you meet them? Dear readers, please let us know about encounters you have had with Americans and the friendships that have developed.

The first article, titled “Ein Blick auf die komplexe Welt des US-Militärs rund um Kaiserslautern (A look into the complex world of the US military in and around Kaiserslautern)”, presented a factual picture of the base and its community, writing about how the military is the largest employer in the region and describing the Americanized Vogelweh area of Kaiserslautern. Other articles offered a variety of perspectives, commenting on Fluglärm (noise pollution), stereotypes that Germans and Americans have of each other, and certain local initiatives and actors that work in the German-American sphere. A brief analysis of this reveals that local media is much more varied in the perspectives it presents, compared to the more unified narrative presented by larger German media.

American texts

Local American media also reports on the KMC. The print/online news outlets include Stars & Stripes, and the Kaiserslautern American. The Kaiserslautern American reports specifically on news affecting the military community on base and is directed by the 86th Airlift Wing Command. Stars & Stripes is an American news outlet catering to military members across the globe, funded both by subscriptions and the Department of Defense, and includes news and editorial content. The news outlet created a separate page dedicated to informing the KMC about happenings in and around the community, called “K-Town now.” The page is home to “the latest news and information in the Kaiserslautern Military Community, verified by a team of reporters with decades of experience in the area.”

Stories on this page differ from the Amerikaner und Wir series in that they focus on local events and short news updates. The page reads like a tickertape, presenting quick news briefs such as “Speed cameras are set up in Kaiserslautern” and “Your household gas prices are going way up starting Nov 1.” K-Town now also links to longer articles covering local events, restaurants, and other topics such as local COVID cases and sports. In comparison to the documentaries and longer form opinion pieces found in German media, American “communicating texts” in the region comment very little on cultural relations and perceptions of each other.

Observing or inclusion?

This cursory comparison of the German media’s presentation of the KMC and the American one show that German media seeks to understand as well as question the American military presence. The comparatively fuller German coverage of the base versus American coverage highlights the importance of understanding the American community for a German audience, for those in the region and those beyond. It also reveals that the German perspective and narrative of the Kaiserslautern Military Community greatly outshines the American one, adding to a narrative of Americans service members that only observes, and doesn’t necessarily include them.