As the international mission in Afghanistan winds down, Germany and other NATO countries are confronting the homecoming of forces who have seen some of the toughest fighting in decades. In a time of uncertainty about the future of Europe’s militaries, with spending slashed and capabilities diminished, how governments handle the Afghanistan transition could have deep repercussions on societal support for future conflicts.
In Germany, military topics are so undigested that de Maiziere’s first step was to ask whether the word “veteran” means someone who has served in combat or instead applies to anyone who has been in the military.
“German society is not really prepared for these issues, because there is no tradition of it,” said Ulrich Schlie, director of policy planning at the German Defense Ministry. “Our main concern is that there is not enough interest in our society in the armed forces.”
But the question remains an open one, in a country that has neither an equivalent to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs nor a centralized apparatus to deal with the challenges that men and women face after combat. Germany suspended its draft last year, and some worry that the switch to an all-volunteer army could further erode ties between society and its armed forces.
“In Germany, we are not proud of our veterans,” said Roderich Kiesewetter, the head of the German Military Reserve Association and a member of Parliament for the ruling Christian Democrats.
Few discussions about the military’s status in society can avoid Germany’s Nazi past. But the conflicts of the past 20 years — in the Balkans, Somalia and Afghanistan — have slowly changed the primary focus. Germany is the third-largest contributor of troops in Afghanistan — 5,350 troops were stationed there at the beginning of the year, before the drawdown started, and more than 300,000 German troops have served in foreign operations since reunification in 1990. Since then, more than 100 have died.
The simple passage of time has made discussions about veterans less fraught. Few members of the World War II generation are around to raise awkward questions about how they fit into the broader plans. De Maiziere — the son of a prominent general who was active in World War II and postwar West Germany — has said that he intends honors to go only to members of postwar Germany’s military, which was established in 1955 and whose size is still limited to an internationally agreed upon maximum.