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Responding to Accusations

Posted: 09/11/09 06:47 PM ET

NEW YORK - I'm used to taking heat for my job as a military analyst for Human Rights Watch, because our findings that this government or that armed group has violated the laws of war frequently provoke accusations that we're biased or siding with the enemy.

Now I've achieved some blogosphere fame, not for the hours I've spent sifting through the detritus of war, visiting hospitals, interviewing victims and witnesses and soldiers, but for my hobby (unusual and disturbing to some, I realize) of collecting Second World War memorabilia associated with my German grandfather and my American great-uncle. I'm a military geek, with an abiding interest not only in the medals I collect but in the weapons that I study and the shrapnel I analyze. I think this makes me a better investigator and analyst. And to suggest it shows Nazi tendencies is defamatory nonsense, spread maliciously by people with an interest in trying to undermine Human Rights Watch's reporting.

I work to expose war crimes and the Nazis were the worst war criminals of all time. But I'm now in the bizarre and painful situation of having to deny accusations that I'm a Nazi.

The Second World War turned my grandfather, who was conscripted and served on an anti-aircraft battery, into a staunch pacifist. He couldn't understand why I went to work at the Pentagon, where I was on 9/11, of learning from his experiences - the horrific stories he told me late in life of seeing the bodies he shot down fall out of the sky. It wasn't until he died that I really took his lessons to heart, and decided to use my military expertise to try to lessen the horrors of war.

So I left my government career and joined Human Rights Watch to use my expertise in weapons systems and targeting to push soldiers to protect civilians, to uphold the laws born in the ashes of the Second World War. My first investigation took me to the bomb craters in Iraq and brought me face-to-face with the survivors and other victims of the strikes I helped plan. It was a traumatic experience and provoked much soul-searching. I thought often of my grandfather.

As an American child, I learned that Germans were the bad guys; as I got to know my grandfather, I realized that not all Germans were Nazis. Because of him, and my great-uncle, a gunner on an American B-17 bomber, I developed an interest in German and American war memorabilia, and I wrote a long monograph, published last year, on German Second World War Air Force and anti-aircraft medals.

I've never hidden my hobby, because there's nothing shameful in it, however weird it might seem to those who aren't fascinated by military history. Precisely because it's so obvious that the Nazis were evil, I never realized that other people, including friends and colleagues, might wonder why I care about these things. Thousands of military history buffs collect war paraphernalia because we want to learn from the past. But I should have realized that images of the Second World War German military are hurtful to many.

I deeply regret causing pain and offense with a handful of juvenile and tasteless postings I made on two websites that study Second World War artifacts (including American, British, German, Japanese and Russian items). Other comments there might seem strange and even distasteful, but they reflect the enthusiasm of the collector, such as gloating about getting my hands on an American pilot's uniform.

I told my daughters, as I wrote in my book, that "the war was horrible and cruel, that Germany lost and for that we should be thankful." I meant what I wrote. And because of the intense suffering during the Second World War and the genocidal campaign against the Jewish people, I spend my days doing what I can to ensure that such horrors are never allowed to happen again.