Sure, Wolf-Dietrich Loeser says, he could have gotten an MBA and then some job with a company. This doesn't sound very convincing. It sounds as if he only ever wanted one thing: a life in the German army.
Wolf-Dieter Loeser is tall, almost lanky. He wears glasses, and his face is one you wouldn't instantly recall. But he looks younger than his 55 years. And he's been in the military for 36 years.
Loeser is standing in the office of the "Aubert de Vincelles" garrison in Strasbourg. The two-star German general is deputy commander of the Eurocorps. The office is spacious, which may explain the size of his ego wall. Loeser's private gallery features tokens of respect and affection from former comrades. Mountain troops from Berchtesgaden in southern Germany are shown saluting him with a wooden ski. One photo depicts Loeser as a crisis manager during the 2002 flooding which caused great chaos in Germany; members of an eastern German division presented him with a sword as an expression of gratitude. A golden plaque from the Israelis commemorates the outstanding cooperation of the German infantry.
For Loeser, each memento is further proof that he made the right decision in 1968 when, after graduating from Beethoven High School in Bonn, he joined the army - one of only five in his class to enlist. The others refused or "dodged" military duty because they sympathized with the student revolts and preferred playing up on campus to serving in the army.
That's what it's like being a German soldier: belonging to a perennially misunderstood minority, under constant suspicion of still trying to win World War II. Has this attitude changed at all since 1968?
The year 2005 marks the 50th anniversary of Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr. The war had only been over 10 years at the time of its founding. Several thousand members of Adolf Hitler's Wehrmacht were still starving in Russian POW camps, and public opposition to West Germany's "rearmament" was strong. Even the Bavarian politician Franz Josef Strauss, who later became defense minister, had sermonized: "May the right hand drop off him who ever again reaches for a weapon."
Yet hopes that Germany might remain militarily neutral soon evaporated. The Americans and British agreed: Stalin's worldwide advance had to be stopped in its tracks. The Soviets had already locked Eastern Europe firmly away behind the Iron Curtain and were stoking the Korean War. A strong Western alliance was needed to prevent other countries from falling, like dominoes, under the scourge of communism.
To the leaders of the transatlantic allies, West Germany too seemed under threat. When their plan to create a "European Defense Community" collapsed as a result of squabbling between the French and the Americans, they worked to integrate Germany into NATO. Making it the 15th member state would kill several birds with one stone, as the alliance's first secretary general, Lord Ismay of the United Kingdom, put it: "to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down."
For all that, Major General Loeser has come a long way. Loeser has always been something of a poster-boy soldier in Germany: the youngest battalion commander, the youngest brigade commander, one of the youngest generals in the army. Only recently has he returned from Afghanistan, where he was the highest-ranking German officer and second in command at the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Loeser had been serving in an armored infantry unit for just two months when the Soviets crushed the "Prague Spring" uprising in August of 1968. After that, how could anybody still believe in "flower power"? The young recruit was eager to take responsibility and "fight for a good cause." He met his future wife, the daughter of a building contractor, at a dance course for officer cadets held in a Munich theater. He and Dagmar have been married for 30 years.
From his dark leather chair in his Strasbourg office, Loeser expounds on "traditional values" and flashes a signet ring on his left hand. The crest pictures a lion behind a cannon. His family was once aristocratic, and several of his ancestors were high-ranking officers. These included his father, who - as a young Wehrmacht of- ficer - was one of the few to escape Stalingrad alive in 1943. Yet even this experience failed to shake his faith in his Führer. "We were stunned when we heard about the attempt on Hitler's life," he wrote in his memoirs of colonel Graf von Stauffenberg's famous 1944 assassination plot; only much later did he understand the "symbolism" of the event.
The son hardly dared ask his domineering father why he supported the criminal regime for so long and how he could have been ignorant of the Holocaust. On the other hand, Loeser finds "sitting judgment" over the war generation "unfair," by which - as his facial expression reveals - he means "intolerable." His father was one of the many Wehrmacht officers who helped establish the Bundeswehr: "They were the only men left." No, Wolf- Dieter Loeser says, he has "no lingering questions" about his father.
For many years, Loeser Jr. was eager to defend West Germany against the enemy in Moscow. But the worst-case scenario never materialized. Instead he suddenly found himself in Kabul, 5,000 kilometers from Berlin, on the second floor of ISAF headquarters on Great Massoud Road - in front of him the Asmai Mountain, behind him the teeming Afghan capital which was slowly emerging from a quarter-century of war. Some 2,000 German troops were in the country with him.
But there was no front, and no combat. The soldiers' mission was civilian: defending the rights of little girls to go to school, and of women to take off their burkas and show their faces in public. They also helped run the first democratic presidential elections in the nation's history. Does that rate as defense of the homeland, the sole designated duty of the German armed forces?
"Yes," Loeser says, folding his arms. One can tell it has taken him a long time to come to this conclusion. Many, including including members of the Bundeswehr, had no desire to take this route at first. The end of the Cold War left them at a loss: where in the world was the enemy if not in the East? And why did Germany, which no longer faced a threat, have to go out of its way to find a new adversary?
For years, the question of what constitutes a legitimate international mission has fueled intense debates among politicians and the populace alike. But the issue has been most vigorously discussed among members of the Green Party. The controversy culminated at 10:35 a.m. on May 4, 1999, at the so-called "war convention" the Greens were holding in Bielefeld. A paint-filled balloon hit German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer with such force that it damaged his eardrum.
The Greens' de-facto leader had earlier joined Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, thereafter also known as the "War Chancellor," in gaining parliamentary approval for Germany's participation in NATO's first war against a sovereign country. Beginning in March 1999, German Tornado planes flew combat missions against Yugoslavia in a bid to stop the repression and expulsion of Kosovo's Muslim population. Because this war was waged without a U.N. mandate, legal experts are still debating whether international law was breached or whether a new form of international law was created with the goal of preventing a humanitarian disaster.
The new age of the Bundeswehr commenced harmlessly enough when, in May 1992, German troops set up a field hospital in Cambodia for victims of the Khmer Rouge. A year later, German soldiers were digging wells in Belet Huen in aid of the starving, warlord-plagued Somalis.
From then on the German forces took on ever bigger and more perilous assignments. But these were parceled out in such small doses that the German population accepted them. For pragmaticians like Helmut Kohl and later Schröder, there were few alternatives to the deployment of German troops on international missions. With reunification, the nation had not just regained full sovereignty: it also became subject to rules that had effectively been put on ice during the Cold War. On the new international stage, political influence was reserved for those who were willing and able to assert their interests in concert with their partners. If need be, by force. If need be, by military means.
In 1995 German soldiers began running a military hospital in civil war-torn Croatia. In December 1996 they helped separate the warring factions in Bosnia-Herzegovina. And three years later a German general assumed command of the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo. Today it only seems natural that some 6,700 German soldiers are serving as peacekeepers in long-term international missions from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa.
Today the Bundeswehr has become one of the most powerful tools available to German foreign-policy makers. Since reunification, the once cumbersome organization has undergone a process of constant streamlining, modernization and technical upgrading. That costs a lot of money. But the Bundeswehr, which is evolving from a defense force into an "interventionist army," is chronically underfunded.
Strictly speaking, Germany's draftbased military has long since become a volunteer army which is not much different from the British or American model. Conscription has not been abolished here for the sole reason that it serves as a recruitment pool for badly needed officers and non-combatants. Although the Bundeswehr still has more than 284,000 men and women in uniform, the troops sent abroad, in shorter and shorter rotation, are invariably comprised of the same fixed-term and professional soldiers. Any shortfalls are filled by conscripts who have to sign up for at least a year, and who hail predominantly predominantly from the ranks of jobless East Germans. The government shells out as much as a blanket 92 euros net a day on top of each person's monthly pay, from privates on KP duty all the way to generals.
Among their allies, the Germans have earned a solid reputation for being reliable and adaptable. But that is only half of the story. The Americans, in particular, secretly view the Germans as "wimps" whose chary political leaders always leave Uncle Sam's forces, and their "special" friends in Britain, to pull the chestnuts out of the fire.
In reality, however, the German government is in the process of fostering a totally different breed of soldier. The elite members of the Kommando Spezialkräfte (Special Forces Command), or KSK, stationed in Calw are highly trained professionals who can hold their own with their colleagues from the British SAS or American Delta Force, and who would just as soon head out on the next dangerous mission today as tomorrow. As a "pro," a seasoned KSK master sergeant says, he would certainly have liked to go to Iraq - despite the fact that, as a German citizen, he thought it was right to just say "no" to George W. Bush.
The man served in Afghanistan for several months under an American command and, before that, hunted down war criminals in the Balkans. His motto: "You have a mission, and you get the job done without any ifs, ands or buts. Risk is the last thing on your mind."
Wolf-Dieter Loeser sits at his desk in front of his ego wall, adding finishing touches to a speech he is holding at the Lions Club in Aschaffenburg the next day. His theme: the Bundeswehr's missions abroad and his own experiences as a German officer in Afghanistan. He will say that Germany has "finally reached a state of normality," and that its democracy will now be "defended directly" wherever threats arise. That could be anywhere, soon even in Africa.
The screen saver on his computer pictures two men in uniform. The younger one is Loeser's son Christoph, 27. He is a first lieutenant in a mountain infantry unit that will be deploying to Bosnia shortly.
The young economist is currently weighing his options: should he go corporate after his 12-year stint as an officer, or should he uphold the family tradition - as a third-generation soldier?