The Bundeswehr Abroad Don't Shoot, We're German!

By Eric Chauvistré

Part 3: 'We Germans Do not Fight Wars'


Friendly Indifference

Like most members of the Bundestag, the majority of the population regards the debate on the Bundeswehr as a tedious side issue. On the 50th anniversary of the Bundeswehr in 2005, German President Horst Köhler aptly described this attitude as "friendly indifference." According to the president, though the Bundeswehr was "acknowledged in society," it was not exactly clear what this meant. One rarely observed a "real interest in the Bundeswehr."

With this statement the German president qualified a phrase that was often repeated in the run-up to Bundeswehr anniversary celebrations. On such occasions one often hears talk of the Bundeswehr's "broad social acceptance" and standing as a respected institution in the Federal Republic. It may very well be true that the Bundeswehr enjoys social acceptance. There is, in any case, very little evidence that Germans generally reject it. Surveys conducted by the Bundeswehr Institute of Social Sciences confirm this finding, and it is one that the Ministry of Defense also likes to emphasize.

However, the Bundeswehr that most people have in their heads when they are questioned has increasingly little to do with the real Bundeswehr. In fact, there is probably no other state institution that has undergone such radical change and whose new role is so poorly understood by the public. The image of the German armed forces that influences these positive evaluations has very little in common with their changed structures and mission plans. Furthermore, the data paints a very different picture -- a picture that would be more evident to the public if the interviewers dared to delve beyond blanket assessments. The Bundeswehr may be acknowledged in German society, but the same cannot be said of its military missions. Although interviewers hired by the Bundeswehr Institute mistakenly called the ISAF a "United Nations peacekeeping force in Afghanistan," only 30 percent of respondents said they fully supported the mission.

The discrepancy between the positive image of the Bundeswehr as a whole and the more negative views of specific missions is no accident. Rather, it is result of a strategy that has aimed to slowly make the German public accustomed to German soldiers taking part in military operations-a public that, until 15 years ago, believed the best place for soldiers was in the barracks and the purpose of the military was to defend the country.

The makeover began when a few medics were sent to Cambodia in 1992 and a small contingent of troops was stationed in Somalia in 1993. These missions involved little risk. The Bundeswehr was presented as a troop of lightly armed Red Cross helpers in uniform. This policy of gradual change met with no significant resistance. The public became accustomed to these harmless Bundeswehr missions. However, there was collateral damage for the advocates of intervention. The idea of no risk that was initially disseminated to promote the missions stuck in the public's mind, and the population now began to believe that all foreign missions are generally safe.

Orwellian talk of "peace enforcement," "high-intensity operations," and "robust missions" has primarily encouraged one thing: robust illusions. The advocates of intervention are more convinced than ever that they can achieve any objective by force. Among the many people who have given the subject little or no thought, this sort of euphemistic talk has led to the idea that the Bundeswehr is a charity organization that distributes wool blankets and canned food.

Such views can even be heard in parliament. During the first debate on the deployment of Bundeswehr Tornado fighter jets in Afghanistan, a few members of a governing party expressed their fear that the Bundeswehr could be drawn into military actions. And during a debate in 2008 on the formation of the German Quick Reaction Force within ISAF, one Social Democrat is even said to have asked the military policy expert in her own party to promise that "they won't fire any shots down there." One might feel inclined to laugh out loud, but it in fact only takes the government line seriously, without realizing that the government's goal has always been to play down events in Afghanistan.

A Question of Promotion

One contradiction has emerged in this context that no advocate of intervention has been able to resolve. On the one hand, there are more and more complaints, some made publicly, that the majority of the population does not support the foreign missions of the Bundeswehr. On the other hand, members of the Bundestag are often heard saying that decisions as important as those on the Bundeswehr should not be dependent on public opinion.

The foreign policy spokesman of the Social Democrats, Gert Weisskirchen, said: "Anyone who abstains from voting or does not vote to extend the government's mandate strengthens the Taliban." In doing so, he declares the critics of a Bundeswehr mission to be the actual enemy. A real democratic debate works differently. Politicians cannot complain that citizens of a democratic state are not convinced of the necessity of the Bundeswehr mandates that the great majority of parliament has passed while at the same time pretending that the high art of foreign and military policy is unsuitable for public debate.

It is therefore questionable whether there is a real desire for a forthright debate on military policy in Germany, all complaints about the public's "friendly indifference" notwithstanding. When criticism of the Afghanistan mission grew louder in early 2008, the leading military policy experts in the Bundestag apparently felt there had been enough discussion. "I could imagine greater PR efforts to communicate the reasons for the mission to the people," said Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the Bundestag Committee on Foreign Affairs, at the Munich Security Conference in 2008. FDP politician Birgit Homburger also called on fellow Bundestag members to improve PR: "Above all, we must attempt to make people in Germany understand why the Bundeswehr has been deployed in Afghanistan."

Green politician Jürgen Trittin has even complained about the use of a word that most reserve for major, drawn-out conflicts. "It is a fundamental error," said Trittin before the Bundestag, "that 'war' is being waged in Afghanistan." So the Pentagon and US Congress use the word "war" -- to Trittin it is still a fundamental error. The counterview he proposes is that the coalition partners are "attempting, on the basis of a UN mandate, to rebuild a country that has plunged into war as a result of irresponsibility, the intervention of other powers, and its own failings." War is thus something that is waged by other "powers." Ditto for interventions. There cannot be war in Afghanistan, or so we are told, because there is a UN mandate for the mission. Using Trittin's logic, one would also have to say that there was no Gulf War in 1991 because the action was based on a UN mandate. And it also follows that there was no Korean War, which was also fought by a UN force authorized by the UN Security Council.

Strange Neologisms

Ironically, it took a military leader to initiate a debate in Germany about whether or not the incidents in Afghanistan ultimately constitute something akin to war. In September 2008, the head of the German Bundeswehr Association broke the taboo among military policy experts by stating that the ISAF mission was a "war against fanatical opponents who would stop at nothing." Nevertheless, the German defense minister continued insisting that it was not a war. At a funeral ceremony held in October 2008 for two soldiers killed in Afghanistan, Jung did talk of "fallen" soldiers, but, according to him, soldiers can now "fall" in both wars and "missions for peace."

If the German government were in fact to use the word "war," it would face far-reaching consequences. From a legal perspective, it could no longer plausibly argue that there is a distinction between the foreign military interventions and the scenario of national defense as described in the German constitution. In this case, the Bundestag could not be reelected and command of the Bundeswehr would pass from the defense minister to the chancellor. The gradually and laboriously constructed illusion of a Bundeswehr fighting a "robust" mission for peace would collapse.

The political debate on the Afghanistan mission is based on the following military policy rationale: We Germans do not fight wars. And even if we do, they are someone else's wars, or at least wars for a very good cause. This standpoint is certainly worthy of discussion, and one might even come to the conclusion that in some cases fighting a war is necessary and commendable. But nothing of the sort is happening. Almost no one dares to look beyond strange-sounding neologisms such as "robust mission" or "mission for peace." At the moment, the transformation of the Bundeswehr is in full swing. Weapons are being procured that will make it easier for future political leaders to send troops on missions of war, and political structures are being created that will make it more difficult for parliament and the public to stop such deployments. And none of this is secret.

Eric Chauvistré is the author of "Wir Gutkrieger: Warum die Bundeswehr im Ausland scheitern wird" ("We the Good Warriors: Why the Bundeswehr Will Fail Abroad"). This article is an excerpt.

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