Afghanistan and the West The Difficult Relationship between Democracy and War
Part 3: The Course of Battle: The Beast and its Victims
If there is any war that is widely recognized as a good war, it was the Allied war against Nazi Germany. And if there was a soldier who was widely recognized as a good soldier, it was the American GI, who stormed the coasts of Normandy from landing craft in the face of ridiculously high risks. The survivors still remember handing out chocolate to German children.
In his most recent book, British historian Antony Beevor has revealed that some of these heroes of democracy were war criminals. These GIs, who butchered German soldiers after they had surrendered, were probably good people when they boarded the landing craft. But then war awakened the beast within them.
The taming of this beast is a project of democracy, begun by the Greeks, whose democracy was a response to the capriciousness of cruel tyrants. They sought and found a means to resolve political issues and power struggles without violence. In war, however, they continued to welcome the beast that still lurked within their souls. There was no such thing as humanitarian compassion for an external enemy, and they did everything that was necessary to achieve victory. The democracies of today take a different approach. Their image of humanity has been refined to such a degree that the external adversary, the enemy, is not to be fought with the greatest degree of violence possible. The public on the home front demands a decent and clean war, a war in which the enemy is treated considerately.
Democracies attempt to manage without hatred. Contrary to what one might assume, conflict, not peacefulness, is the essence of democracy. Everything is always contested, and there is no permanence or uniformity, as there is in a dictatorship. New conflicts are constantly arising and no one can be assured of keeping his or her position. To ensure that this functions properly, conflict must remain civil. Violence is a taboo. This is not paradoxical, but logical. Precisely those who have turned permanent conflict into a form of government are the most insistent that the struggle remains fair and nonviolent.
Permanent Violation of a Taboo
During the course of Christianity, the Enlightenment and a humanitarian universalism, this concept has intensified to such an extent that rules must always be preserved, even in war. Even a Taliban fighter is not an enemy but a human being. This is the way we see it in democratic societies, and rightfully so.
A war, therefore, is the permanent violation of a taboo, which is why democracies try to wage war as humanely as possible. And because the German public is particularly sensitive, as a result of the two world wars, the Bundeswehr has even tried to create a new type of soldier: the good, good-natured warrior, a man with a rose in his gun barrel, friendly, helpful and devoid of the inner beast. In the first few years in Afghanistan, the Bundeswehr devoted itself primarily to reconstruction. Some of its rules were so grotesquely considerate that soldiers felt defenseless.
The Americans too, though they are often chided, try to take the civilian population into account in Afghanistan. The US magazine The Atlantic recently reported that American soldiers have stopping walking on the fields of a certain farmer during their operations to avoid angering him. It is as if soldiers waging a war in Germany were to obey signs that read "Do not walk on the grass" so as to remain on the good side of building custodians. This is the way a democracy wages war.
Nevertheless, the home front is always dissatisfied, always alarmed. This makes sense, because every war remains a violation of taboos, no matter how humanely it is conducted. Still, two points of criticism are unfair.
The first is the criticism of the lengthy duration of a war. In his book "The Changing Face of War," Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld described two forms of counterinsurgency that were successful. In 1982, the then Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad brutally crushed the Muslim Brotherhood resistance movement. Up to 25,000 people were reportedly killed in the process, including many women and children. The campaign enabled Assad to keep his family in power to this day.
The second example is that of the British struggle in Northern Ireland. After initially taking a brutal approach, they spent the next few decades gaining the confidence of the population by imposing strict military restraint, until the IRA eventually recognized that its struggle was pointless.
The second version is the only option for a democracy. Brutality contradicts the image of humanity on which democracy is based. But a society needs patience for the second approach to succeed. It takes a long time and is expensive, and there are setbacks. Success is not a certainty, but a possibility.
The other unfair criticism is that the war in Afghanistan is a dirty war.
Soldiers waging a war are often unable to satisfy the august demands of a democracy. They cannot remain as detached as the speakers in a parliamentary debate. Their companions in combat are fear, bloodlust, hate, megalomania and, eventually, coldness and a dulling of the senses. All of this only brings out the inner beast even further. The result is actions which are seen as intolerable.
When German Colonel Georg Klein felt that the Bundeswehr camp in Kunduz was threatened early last September, he ordered air strikes on two tanker trucks that had been hijacked by insurgents. He lied to the American pilots to eliminate their concerns about the air strike. Up to 142 people, including many civilians, died in the attack. Colonel Klein is a person who would probably never have harmed anyone in Germany. But he was in a war, a war that had brought him to the point at which he could issue that fatal command.
This doesn't make the entire war dirty. As bitter as it is, mistakes and excesses with horrific consequences will always occur in the chaos of war. Each individual soldier cannot be relied upon to wage the kind of war that is appropriate for a democracy. We can be sure, however, that the nation, in this case, the Federal Republic of Germany, does not intend to wage a brutal or dirty war. All of the politicians who are principally responsible for this mission, including former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and current Chancellor Angela Merkel, are civil people who are opposed to war and approach the matter with great scruples. They wanted and still want to wage this war in a way that does justice to the German democracy.
Inevitability of Deaths
They are also not the types of politicians who would recklessly send people to their deaths. On June 16, 1813, Napoleon said to Clemens Wenzel von Metternich: "I grew up on the battlefield. A man like me does not give a shit about the lives of a million men." A greater contrast to Angela Merkel is difficult to imagine, and yet she too is willing to accept the inevitability of the deaths of German soldiers.
It is probable that virtually everyone feels that that there is a higher purpose than his or her own life. Many parents would sacrifice their lives to save their own child. Bodyguards are expected to protect politicians with their bodies. Police officers and firefighters repeatedly expose themselves to life-threatening situations to rescue people who are in danger.
None of this is debatable. But should one comment that it is justifiable for German soldiers to risk their lives for their country, Germany, unease is likely to be the response. It is no coincidence that the debate over the war in Afghanistan began heating up after seven German soldiers were killed there within a short period of time. There is a prevailing sense that their sacrifices were in vain, and that their deaths were pointless. This too has something to do with Germany's past. The Nazis sent millions of Germans to a death that was then celebrated as martyrdom. Since then, Germans no longer have a need for heroism -- nor should they.
The sad truth is that Germans today have almost no passion in their relationship with democracy and freedom. It was an advantage for the Greeks that they were democrats when they went into battle against the Persians. In contrast, the German peace movement coined the phrase: better red than dead. With these words, pacifism has betrayed democracy.
Pacifism is the attitude of a minority, and yet the majority of Germans still have no passionate relationship with democracy and the nation, unlike many Americans or Frenchmen, whose ancestors fought for freedom. But pathos is necessary to make death halfway bearable, as many funerals demonstrate. And when a young person dies, in particular, we need a higher purpose to give us comfort.
Therefore, it stands to reason that post-pathos, post-heroic Germany is especially troubled by the deaths of its soldiers -- particularly given the decades-long view of soldiers as people who can obtain a truck driver's license without having to pay the usual fee and who feel at ease when camping in the countryside. Now a soldier is a person who could soon die in Afghanistan.
The death of a young person is always a catastrophe. The question is whether Germany can consider it reasonable to expect some of its citizens to face such a catastrophe. The answer is yes. Again, it should be pointed out that Germany is an established state. Despite its many defects, it gives its citizens the opportunity to lead a relatively good life, it provides and guarantees considerable freedoms, and it is a functioning democracy. Germany gives it citizens so much that it can also expect sacrifices from some of its citizens.
To date, 43 German soldiers have died in Afghanistan. This is a horribly high number, but also an unexpectedly low number. What nation has been embroiled in a war for eight years without having to mourn thousands or hundreds of thousands of deaths? It always seems cynical to treat the dead as a statistic, and yet one can honestly say that this war has not claimed a terrible high death toll.
On the whole, the course of this war does not suggest that a withdrawal of the Bundeswehr would be necessary.
- Part 1: The Difficult Relationship between Democracy and War
- Part 2: The Beginning:Terror and Solidarity
- Part 3: The Course of Battle: The Beast and its Victims
- Part 4: The End: Aftermath and Innocence
- Part 5: The Legitimization: Public Sentiment and Responsibility