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Is the German military just following orders again?

As the country overhauls its army, peaceniks see the slow creep of militarism.

BERLIN, Germany — When Jürgen Rose was called upon to organize an operation in Afghanistan in 2007, the air force lieutenant colonel exercised the German soldier’s unique right to say no. He insisted that the use of six Tornado jet fighters in reconnaissance missions that would call in airstrikes on the Taliban would violate international law.

Six years on, he fears his fellow Germans are falling back into the once-disastrous practice of just following orders.

“There’s a silent change in the minds of the people,” he says.

His fears have been prompted by a comprehensive overhaul of the military over the last two years — including scrapping the draft to create a so-called professional army — that he says represents a creeping return to the militarism that plunged Germany and its neighbors into two world wars.

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“Critical people don’t join the army, no matter whether they’re military [personnel] or civilians,” Rose says.

The military’s so-called reorientation began with deployments in Cambodia, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, when the German Supreme Court confirmed those missions were legal under the constitution if authorized by the parliament.

But the real genesis of the change in mindset can be traced to Sept. 11, 2001, after which then-Defense Minister Peter Struck argued that “the security of the Federal Republic of Germany is being defended in the Hindu Kush, too.”

But as the reality of what that means continues to sink in, many Germans are questioning the role their military should play in foreign conflicts.

The withdrawal from Germany’s sole Afghan base in the northern province of Kunduz earlier this month prompted a reassessment of a mission ordinary citizens once imagined as something better suited to Peace Corps volunteers than its new army of professional soldiers.

“The German soldiers came as friends, liberators and reconstruction workers,” Deutsche Welle’s Florian Weigand wrote in a recent column. “That’s how the soldiers saw themselves and that’s also how they were perceived by their Afghan neighbors.”

But as German soldiers killed and died, he wrote, “the Kunduz mission became the linchpin in, or even the symbol for, an emotional debate about the legitimacy and the sense of a German armed intervention abroad.”

At the same time, the country’s intelligence services face charges they’re violating Germany’s basic law by helping identify targets for assassination by American drones.

Last week, the German military demanded armed drones of its own in Afghanistan before the ink was dry on an Amnesty International report condemning German intelligence for helping US forces target terror suspects for what it said were illegal assassinations in Pakistan, Germany’s Tagezeitung reported.

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“In most cases, German intelligence doesn’t know for which particular operation the information is used by the US,” says Marcel Dickow of the Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

“On the other hand, there’s a kind of written disclaimer under each email that states that it’s forbidden to use this information for targeted killing or any other extralegal action.”

Critics say that the logic of don’t ask, don’t tell is a far cry from the spirit under which Germany first created an army of what it calls “citizens in uniform.”

After World War II, what was then West Germany reluctantly formed a fighting force to support NATO in the event of a Soviet invasion. However, Germany’s post-war leaders took strong measures to ensure that no military government like the Nazi “state within a state” would ever rise again.

The army’s mandate was restricted to defending Germany from attack. Generals were placed under the control of a civilian defense ministry and a new type of soldier was created. Guided by a concept called “Innere Führung” (“inner conscience”), their duty was not to blindly follow orders but question them.

Over the past 15 years, however, serious cracks have emerged in two of the three pillars the post-war architects viewed as essential to creating a morally superior army.

Starting with logistical support, the German armed forces have gradually expanded their role in foreign conflicts. With the elimination of the draft in 2011, they also replaced an army of reluctant soldiers hailing from all walks of life with eager volunteers, most of whom come from poor backgrounds and desperately need the work.

The defense ministry says the reorientation was necessary to reduce costs and attract top recruits. It says Germany has only around half the number 18-year-olds today it did in 1990 and that the skills needed for rapid responses to today’s regional conflicts are radically different from those needed to protect the country from Soviet invasion.

Skeptics counter that it’s no coincidence the military has been involved in three “wars of aggression” — in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq — since this rethinking began.

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With the end of the prohibition on foreign operations, the military reorientation effectively means that all that remains of the revolutionary post-war attempt to create a new army is the ordinary soldier’s conscience and his fundamental right to disobey, they argue.

Even with additional government efforts to ensure that military personnel receive comprehensive education — Germany’s military already funds civilian-operated universities for teaching its officers — they fear that mythologizing conscientious objectors will not be enough to keep the army clean.

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Rose notes that although he succeeded in keeping his own conscience clear, his refusal to provide logistics support in 2007 didn’t stop the air force from guiding US bombs to Afghan targets.

His superiors simply replaced him with another airman.

Similarly, when an army major named Florian Pfaff refused to perform duties during the Iraq war in 2003, it had no influence on the German government’s decision to provide logistical support for the conflict — despite the fact that a German court later upheld Pfaff’s claim that Germany’s involvement was legally questionable because the US-led invasion was never supported by the United Nations.

“No single soldier,” Rose says, “can stop a big machine like the military.”