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Military

German troops making peace with war

It has been 22 years since the German military restarted its participation in missions abroad. As the military prepares to play a role in the Sahel region of northern Mali, DW looks at the wider role of the Bundeswehr.

Since its foundation in 1955, the Bundeswehr has always been anxious to stress its purely defensive role. In the aftermath of World War II, Germany was considered too dangerous to be allowed military might.

But as the icy grip of the Cold War took hold across Europe and the world, it was decided that the Bundeswehr should be set up to provide a bulwark for NATO in Europe against the threat of the Soviet Union amassing military might just across the border in the former East Germany.

The Bundeswehr was envisaged as "citizen defenders of a democratic state," fully subordinate to the political leadership of the country - and, of course, to the international bodies of NATO, the European Union and the United Nations, to which first West Germany and now united Germany belongs.

With reunification in 1990 and the dissolution of the old Eastern bloc, the Bundeswehr gradually started to participate in missions abroad. But in policy terms, the missions have always been sold as humanitarian and defensive.

No war, we're Germans

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gets her lunch in the military camp in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, (Photo:Bundesregierung/Steffen Kugler, Pool/AP/dapd)

Merkel gets her lunch in the military camp in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.

As the missions have increased, the idea that Germany's job is to "take care of things ... improve living conditions ... and ensure compliance with human rights" is one politicians like to stick to, said Chauvistré, author of the 2009 book "Wir Gutkrieger: Warum die Bundeswehr im Ausland scheitern wird" ("We the Good Warriors: Why the Bundeswehr will fail abroad") published by Campus.

Chauvistré told DW that the way missions are sold to the German public is different from the reality most German soldiers meet on the ground. He said it's difficult for soldiers to make the democratic difference they've been trained for, and they become disillusioned when they realize that keeping a mission low-risk means there is very little human contact with the people they are supposedly there to "protect."

German politicians - and initially foreign organizations - wanted to keep the Bundeswehr's role to a non-combat status, and Germans were keen that their missions would be as low-risk as possible. Many of its missions are in a supportive or logistical role rather than on the front line, which has kept casualties to a comparatively low 100 deaths since 1994.

But Chauvistré said the mandates under which the German army deploys and the missions in which they participate are often at odds. For example, when they are shot at, as in Afghanistan, they are allowed to fight back. Germany is the third largest foreign presence in Afghanistan, after the United States and Great Britain, but most of their soldiers are not able to leave their bases.

Politicians mull military deployment to Mali

On Tuesday (23.10.2012), German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and UN Special Envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, met to talk over what kind of role Germany could feasibly play in Mali and in particular in the northern Sahel region. Since a military coup earlier this year, the majority Islam north has split from the Christian-dominated south.

Chauvistré said if other European nations send forces to Mali, Germany might too, but always under the banner of providing training and support. The justification of eradicating terrorism and protecting security is similar to the way the ISAF Afghan mission was described in Germany. But Chauvistré said if troops are sent, it would be a far smaller commitment than in Afghanistan, more along the lines of other African missions.

Map showing Bundeswehr deployments around the globe
Photo: DW

German troops are deployed in a number of places around the world

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking at a military conference on Monday (22.10.2012), said Germany would be prepared to participate in a European mission to train security forces in Mali in order to combat this potential threat. The Bundeswehr has a long tradition of training forces, having been engaged in training troops for the New Iraqi army in 2003 and 2004 in both United Arab Emirates and on German soil.

America drops bombs; Bundeswehr rebuilds

Germany currently has about 6,500 military personnel deployed on missions abroad. There is still little political appetite for high-risk combat missions, as seen when Germany decided to pull out of the second conflict in Iraq and keep its role in Afghanistan smaller than that of other NATO members.

The idea of actual combat missions is still anathema in many German policy making and public circles. Chauvistré said the German public is happiest when the Bundeswehr acts as "a kind of respected civil service, who turn up to their jobs in barracks every day, and go home in the evening."

The ethos of the German military is "America drops bombs, and the Bundeswehr rebuilds the country," Chauvistré added. "We might support the ISAF operations but we're doing it in the right way. We're stationed in Afghanistan, but we're not like the others.

German soldiers sit on a armoured fighting vehicle Boxer during a presentation of German army Photo:REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

Changes are in full swing in the Bundeswehr

"The Bundeswehr that most people have in their heads when they're questioned [about their attitudes to the German military] has increasingly little to do with the real Bundeswehr. The public believed, until the '90s that 'the best place for soldiers was in their barracks.' That the Bundeswehr is a charity organization that distributes wool blankets and canned food."

While Germans say they support "peace missions," their support drops when asked about intervention in Afghanistan, with 25 percent saying they are in favor and 75 percent opposed.

The transformation of the Bundeswehr

As the Bundeswehr states on its website, a commitment to peace means deploying a "wide range of foreign, security, defense, and development policy instruments in order to identify, prevent, and resolve conflicts at an early stage."

"We Germans do not fight wars," Chauvistré describes as the main perception in Germany. "And even if we do, they are someone else's wars, or at least wars for a very good cause. Almost no one dares to look beyond strange-sounding neologisms such as 'robust mission' or 'mission for peace.'"

While the Bundeswehr - and Germany - feels comfortable in this role, Chauvistré said changes being made in the military could affect the types of missions it handles in the future.

"The transformation of the Bundeswehr is in full swing," he said. "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."

DW.DE