Ausgabe 44/2006

Desecrators of the Dead The Bundeswehr's Excesses in Afghanistan

The photos of German soldiers posing with skulls in Afghanistan have endangered the mission of an army deployed to win the "hearts and minds" of Afghans. The government has promised tough disciplinary actions.

Scandal photos in the Bild newspaper: "We were nervous."

Scandal photos in the Bild newspaper: "We were nervous."

German State Secretary of Defense Christian Schmidt was practically gushing with praise for Germany's troops, calling them "citizens in uniform" with strong characters and rock-solid ethics. Schmidt, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), even ventured to characterize the Bundeswehr's soldiers as "well-balanced individuals."

That, at least, was the theory.

Schmidt's statement was released to the press last Wednesday. On the same day, the German public got a taste of a completely different reality when images were published showing German soldiers who had placed a skull onto the hood of a Mercedes "Wolf" all-terrain truck as a sort of war trophy, a soldier pressing his naked genitalia against a skull and soldiers using the remnants of skulls as decorations, all the while smiling for the camera.

The scandalous photos from Afghanistan, published by the tabloid Bild and distributed worldwide last week, have plunged the Bundeswehr into its biggest crisis in years. They fly in the face of a concept under which German soldiers are meant to serve as ambassadors of democracy, and under which they are meant to seek acceptance in crisis regions like Afghanistan and Lebanon, a strategy intended to boost their own security. Only if it manages to win the "hearts and minds" of the local population, says Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), can the German military prevail over the enemy in such countries.

Jung calls Berlin's strategy "networked security policy." Indeed, the approach is the centerpiece of a document released last Wednesday, titled a "White Paper on Germany's Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr." The theory is that if the military can provide security, other government or private agencies will build schools and roads, and distribute food and clothing, thereby enabling Afghan villages to recover from the ravages of war partly as a result of the German presence.

Desecrators of the dead

Graphic: Bundeswehr soldiers stationed abroad

Graphic: Bundeswehr soldiers stationed abroad

Until last Wednesday, the defense minister had proudly touted northern Afghanistan as a prime example of the successful implementation of German policies. Germany's troops were the good guys, and their combined civilian and military reconstruction teams in places like Kunduz and Faizabad were seen as a "model" that was to be "applied to all of NATO."

But how can the Bundeswehr hope to capture the hearts of Afghans, now that its soldiers are seen as desecrators of the dead?

Hoping to limit the damage to Germany's image, Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly appeared before the press in an effort to appease the Afghans. "Such behavior is inexcusable," she said, adding that the German government intends to deal severely with those responsible. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat (SPD), dispatched his ambassador in Kabul to the Afghan Foreign Ministry to express his regret and to underscore the German government's "strong" condemnation of the incidents.

The public's dismay has only been amplified by the fact that the Bundeswehr is still widely viewed as a humanitarian relief agency in military garb, an organization whose work normally consists of projects like building emergency dikes in flood-stricken regions.

But the series of photos shows German soldiers abroad doing precisely the opposite of what they are supposed to do, and it serves as a painful reminder of something the Germans have apparently forgotten over the past few decades: death and the military are all-too-often closely intertwined. Peacekeeping missions are rarely conducted in peaceful regions, and life on such missions means life at the limit -- the kind of life not every soldier can handle emotionally.

Only this spring, reports of the Haditha massacre in Iraq, where United States marines murdered 24 civilians in cold blood, invoked memories of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, when US soldiers murdered about 500 Vietnamese civilians. And the images of torture at Abu Ghraib are also recent enough not to have been forgotten.

We have always known that the emotional effects of war are devastating on those involved, and German troops are no exception. And yet compared to the excesses of American GIs, the Bundeswehr's behavior is almost innocent.

Disciplinary actions

The military, under the leadership of General Inspector Wolfgang Schneiderhan, has taken tough steps to lessen the shock of the incident. Last Friday Defense Minister Jung suspended two of the main suspects, a 25-year-old junior staff officer and a member of a mountain division based in the southern German town of Mittenwald. The case is being investigated by the public prosecutor's office in Munich, which plans to question the first defendant early this week.

The Bundeswehr base in Mittenwald, Germany: Sent on missions without fundamental knowledge

The Bundeswehr base in Mittenwald, Germany: Sent on missions without fundamental knowledge

The soldiers could face up to three years in prison for the crime of "disturbing the dead." In addition, they are almost guaranteed to lose their jobs, their ranks and their military pensions. The message the military intends to send with its tough action is that, despite a few bad apples, it remains a morally upright organization. Nevertheless, the incidents in Afghanistan also demonstrate that it is no longer as innocent as once believed.

The Defense Ministry has since managed to reconstruct the events leading up to the incriminating photos that so abruptly spoiled Germany's image abroad. The pictures were apparently taken in the spring of 2003 after a group of German soldiers had just completed a morning patrol. The group, which consisted of three "Wolf" and "Wiesel" military vehicles, stopped two or three kilometers from the Bundeswehr's Camp Warehouse. The vehicles contained eight soldiers from the Mittenwald-based mountain battalion 233, considered one the Bundeswehr's elite units, and an interpreter. The patrol stopped next to a field near Shina, a town south of Kabul. But German soldiers are not the only ones who are familiar with the site as a gold mine for souvenir hunters with macabre tastes.

In a clay pit that the locals use as a source of building material, there is apparently a mass grave containing visible human remains. Several wrecked Russian tanks are nearby, leading investigators to conjecture that the remains could be those of Russian soldiers killed in the Soviet war of occupation from 1979 to 1989.

It was also where the photos were taken that have now become such a boomerang for Germany's armed forces. And the repercussions are growing with each new image that is released. Last week the RTL television network secured another set of photos from Afghanistan, these images dated March 11, 2004. One of them shows a junior German officer kissing a skull, while another depicts a soldier posing with a skull on the hood of a military vehicle. The photos are presumed to be the handiwork of members of Armed Infantry Battalion 182, which is based in the northern German town of Bad Segeberg.


© DER SPIEGEL 44/2006
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