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Germans Make War Over War
by James Dunnigan
January 17, 2010

There's another military scandal playing out in Germany. Senior officers are being accused of lying. Although the lies were told to save German lives, many Germans don't want their soldiers involved in combat, and are seeking to punish army commanders as much as possible for any activities related to combat.

All this began earlier in the year when the phrase, "the use of deadly force is prohibited, unless an attack is underway or imminent," was quietly dropped from the NATO rule book for troops in Afghanistan. This particular rule meant that you could not shoot first, even if surrounded by armed Taliban. The Taliban knew all about this rule, and increasingly exploited it. The NATO contingents that followed this rule (not all did), were stationed in parts of northern Afghanistan where there were no Taliban. But in the last few years, Taliban moved into parts of the north occupied by Pushtun tribes, and proceeded to terrorize these tribes into tolerating, or supporting, the Taliban presence. The local NATO troops, there to provide security, were unable to do so. The Taliban knew the NATO rules, and exploited them.

German commanders complained to their political bosses back home. Many politicians understood, and urged that German troops be allowed to fight. But many German politicians were obsessed with the concept of an army in name only, and were out to sabotage a policy they had not voted for (sending troops to Afghanistan). The majority prevailed, and the troops were allowed to "defend themselves aggressively." That's where the current problem began. German troops went after the local Taliban with increasing success. Then, last September, the Taliban hijacked two fuel tankers. When the Germans found out, they went after the stolen vehicles, fearing that they might be rigged with explosives and used to attack a German base. The Taliban liked using fuel tankers for this sort of thing. When the Germans caught up with the trucks, they could see that the heavy trucks were stuck in the sand, and the Taliban had called people from a local village to help unload part of the cargo (keeping the fuel for their trouble) to lighten the vehicles so they could move again.  The German commander decided to call in an air strike, and destroy the trucks, and a bunch of Taliban. But the American B-1 bomber overhead had just left, because it was out of fuel. When the Germans called for another bomber, they were told that could only be done if German troops were in contact with the enemy. German troops were not, but the German commander lied, and quickly got two fighter-bombers overhead. A smart bomb was dropped, the trucks destroyed (along with a troublesome Taliban leader and many of his followers). Some civilians also died, and the politicians back home demanded an investigation. The German colonel involved admitted to his political superiors that he had lied to get the fighter-bombers needed to hit the trucks. These politicians kept quiet about that, and now they, and the colonel, are being castigated for lying.

Germany has a problem with war. Part of it has to do with the revulsion, against the crimes of the Nazis, and many German soldiers, during World War II. Despite that, the continuing threat from the Soviet Union, led to Germany rearming in the 1950s, and creating a new armed forces. World War II veterans put it all together. But for half a century, German soldiers saw no combat. Germany had warriors, but no war.

Now Germany is at war. In 2009, the German army awarded the first Iron Cross medals, for bravery in a combat zone, since 1945. From 1813 to 1945, nearly five million Iron Cross medals were awarded to German military personnel (and a few civilians who were performing military functions.) The Iron Cross medal ceased to exist between 1945 and last year. But popular demand caused the German government to create an "Honor Cross for Bravery" which is, to all appearances, a continuation of the Iron Cross medals that have been awarded for over two centuries. The first recipients were four army sergeants, who performed heroically during a Taliban attack in Afghanistan.

After World War II, the government designed an Iron Cross for World War II veterans to wear, one that did not include a swastika (which has been illegal to display in Germany since World War II.) Until 1918, there were several higher (than the Iron Cross) order decorations for distinguished service in combat, but these were replaced during World War II by more elaborate versions of the Iron Cross. At the moment, all the German armed forces have is Honor Cross for Bravery. But, as in World War I, where the first Iron Cross you got was the Iron Cross 2nd class, and if you got another one, it was the Iron Cross 1st class, the Honor Cross may also morph a bit. Just as Germany is morphing its attitudes about war.


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