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
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.
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 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.
"We must instill greater values into our soldiers"
Military Commissioner Reinhold Robbe says he is not overly surprised by the shocking images. "Given the gruesome experiences to which these soldiers are exposed, such excesses are not exactly surprising."
Eighteen German soldiers have already been killed in Afghanistan. This is the highest death toll among all German military missions abroad, and it demonstrates just how dead serious life has become for these troops. Since the first deadly attack on the German military in June 2003, in which four German soldiers riding in a military bus in Kabul were killed -- an incident that almost coincided with the first skull photos -- Taliban and al-Qaida sympathizers have launched dozens of attacks against the Bundeswehr.
Most recently, unknown assailants attacked German patrols in northern Afghanistan with bazookas, wounding one soldier. One of the soldiers who was involved in the desecrations of corpses attributes the outrageous behavior to the tremendous pressure the troops face in a war zone. "We were nervous," he says. "There had been several accidents and attacks." Indeed, the risks have become so great that Defense Minister Jung has ordered his troops not to leave their camps unless they are riding in armor-plated vehicles. Welcome to war.
The photo scandal weighs heavily on a military force that, though currently involved in ten foreign missions worldwide, is poorly prepared for operations in real crisis zones. For decades, the Bundeswehr operated on the basis of Cold War principles, pursuing a strategy of military preparedness to avert military conflict.
Even operations such as the 1993/94 mission in Somalia, where the Bundeswehr drilled wells, or the airlift into besieged Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996, had little in common with true combat operations. Indeed, close encounters with war -- such as Serbian attempts to shoot down German fighter jets during the Kosovo conflict -- have been the exception rather than the rule for the Bundeswehr.
But in 2002, when then Defense Minister Peter Struck (SPD) announced that Germany was in fact being "defended in the Hindu Kush," it was an almost insurmountable challenge for what Struck characterized as a "powerful force." Suddenly German soldiers were being expected to have both the capability and the motivation to fight.
Before being sent overseas, the soldiers who volunteer for foreign missions spend weeks in training at the Bundeswehr's infantry school in the Bavarian town of Hammelburg. In addition to learning how to properly set up guard posts and what to do if taken hostage, soldiers are also trained in how to settle disputes and respect foreign customs -- at least in theory. The navy even offers "Islam lessons" for soldiers deployed to patrol the Horn of Africa, where they are patrolling the seas in order to prevent shipments to terrorists.
"Equating it with Abu Ghraib is ridiculous"
But for experts like Reinhard Erös, a former military physician who, with his organization German Aid for Afghan Children (Kinderhilfe Afghanistan) has been building schools in the Hindu Kush region for years, this isn't enough. Germany's soldiers, says Erös, were sent on missions "without fundamental knowledge" -- knowledge that a few hours of cultural sensitivity training in Hammelburg could not possibly have provided.
Robbe, a Social Democrat, agrees: "We must instill greater intercultural competency and moral values into our soldiers." Robbe believes that the troops must understand "that these values are not just applicable in Berlin or Hamburg, but should also be applied during missions in Afghanistan or the Balkans."
But Klaus Reinhardt, the former commander of NATO peacekeeping troops in Kosovo, warns against exaggerating the problem. "It's certainly a macabre affair, but equating it with Abu Ghraib is ridiculous." German soldiers, says Reinhardt, may not be "ethnologists or anthropologists," but compared with troops from other nations they are still the best prepared for foreign cultures. "More than that simply cannot be achieved in six weeks of preparatory training."
In truth, not too many German soldiers would do well if required to undergo excessively intellectual training. The Bundeswehr has not been successful in attracting the kinds of people it needs -- qualified officers, at the very least -- for foreign missions. In most cases, those with the best job prospects would much prefer to spend their days sitting in a comfortable desk job than risk their lives in inhospitable Afghanistan.
According to Ulrike Merten, the chairwoman of the defense committee in the German parliament, the Bundeswehr doesn't face the US military's problems of recruiting from among the lower classes of society. In his white paper, the defense minister raves about how innovative the Bundeswehr is when it comes to training and education. And yet the military has trouble making military service attractive to highly qualified IT specialists, medical professionals or radio operators. As a result, many of the more skilled positions within the Bundeswehr, especially among its medical corps and special forces, have remained unfilled.
The level of education among soldiers has declined considerably, says military commissioner Robbe. Indeed, during a visit to one of the Bundeswehr's recruitment offices, the military commissioner was able to witness the lack of adequate education within the military profession firsthand. "One of the junior officers," says Robbe, "couldn't even tell me the names of the defense minister or the chancellor."
Sending uneducated hoodlums into war may be the customary practice worldwide, but the Bundeswehr knows all too well how a small spark can quickly set off a major conflagration. Late last week, the Defense Ministry gloomily predicted that the longer-term effects of the macabre photo shoots were unpredictable. The photos have circled the globe, reaching Afghanistan and the madrassa in Akora Khattak, Pakistan, a place so renowned that even chief Taliban religious warrior Mullah Omar received his religious training there.
Sami ul-Haq, the Taliban's senior religious teacher, clicked on the "shock photos" on the Internet the morning they were released. He is familiar with the photos showing German soldiers placing a bleached-out skull taken from Afghan soil onto the hood of their "Wolf" all-terrain truck.
The act was clearly a serious violation of the laws of Islam, the prominent madrassa director says over green tea and cookies. But, he adds, "how serious" a violation has yet to be determined. It would depend on whether the skull was that of a Russian infidel who once attacked Afghanistan or of a Muslim fighter, who would qualify as a holy warrior in Sami ul-Haq's eyes. He thoughtfully strokes his brownish-red beard as he speaks. In the latter case, as he sees it, the Germans would be no better than the Americans, with their torture chambers and sexual humiliation in the prisons of Bagram and Abu Ghraib.
Fears of a backlash
Things remained calm in the Islamic world until the weekend. There were public holidays and no newspapers were printed. Nor had the question of whether the skulls were Russian or not been resolved. Nevertheless, the West has already experienced just how explosive such incidents can become in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
At least 15 people died during mass unrest in Afghanistan after Newsweek published an article in May 2005 about alleged desecration of the Koran at the US prison camp in Guantanamo. The Muhammed cartoons that were published in a Danish newspaper drove angry Muslims into the streets for massive protests in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. That incident also claimed lives, as radical Islamists skillfully took advantage of emotions to incite violence. Pictures make for powerful arguments, especially in countries where the majority of the people are illiterate.
The international echo is already devastating today. "It is to be feared that, when television stations like Al Jazeera and others in the Middle East broadcast the images, a wave of anger and hate will rise up in the Islamic world," warns La Repubblicca in Rome. In Russia, Moscow daily newspaper Kommersant wrote on Friday that the incident was reminiscent of the darker pages in German history, and of "soldiers of the Führer playing with the skulls of their enemies." The conservative Turkish paper Cumhuriyet even wrote of what it called a "civilization of skulls."
"This is the way a lance-corporal can trigger a small war," says former military doctor Erös, who fears for the safety of his schools in Afghanistan if a wave of protests erupts.
Despite all the outrage, the main impact of the photos at the Bundeswehr's facility in Kabul was to trigger concerns over the German contingent's own safety. "As if it weren't dangerous enough here," complained one member of the German force.
NATO officials in Kabul, however, have taken a more relaxed approach to the incident. After all, they argue, other nations with a presence in Afghanistan have experienced dramatic mistakes on the part of their troops at one time or another. "Shit happens to everyone at some point," an English officer told a glum German companion at NATO headquarters late last week. "And today it happened to you. That's life."
By ULRIKE DEMMER, SUSANNE KOELBL, BRITTA SANDBERG and ALEXANDER SZANDAR