The Routinization of Security Communication and the Risk of Military Casualties

Routinization in military life manifests in fixed rituals, in training and education programs, in procedures and—as the most rigid form—in regulations and directives.

Looking back to the time of the Cold War, routinization of internal security communication was rather mature. The general understanding and the interpretation of our constitution let it be clear that the Bundeswehr had the only purpose of defending freedom and security of its own country, primarily by deterrence. This was to take place within NATO. But since the main threat was expected in Central Europe, for German soldiers deterrence and collective defense within the alliance meant nothing else but homeland defense. And it was part of training and education that—if deterrence failed—soldiers would have to fight, to eliminate the enemy and would be exposed to the risk of being killed or wounded themselves as were their families. In the external security communication this view was transferred into society where, on the one hand, it caused heavy disputes but, on the other hand, was accepted by a majority of the population.

But things changed significantly after the end of the East-West confrontation. Germany increasingly became an equal partner within the international alliances and was asked to take—and probably was also looking for—more responsibility on the international stage, including the use of military force as a means of foreign politics.

This change first occurred in the minds of the political elites and was adopted by the public only reluctantly, and with significant delay. One reason for this was the disregard of security communication processes, both external and internal. For example, in 1990 soldiers in my command had read first reports in a newspaper about plans for sending a medical unit of the Bundeswehr to Cambodia. This was extraordinary compared to German policy so far, and they asked me for further explanations. However, I could not give them such details because I did not have any official information from my chain of command.

During the Somalia mission, Minister of Defense Volker Rühe had issued the informal guideline that those missions had to be carried out strictly without any casualties. The Bundeswehr structured its internal and external communication along this guideline. This was for political reasons, since a mission in Africa broke with the consensus that had been complied with before by all governments and which stated apodictically: The Bundeswehr must not be engaged out of area of NATO territory.

As a member of the Bundeswehr for more than twenty-five years, the fact that missions out of area were banned by our constitution, the Grundgesetz, had been self evident. Yet suddenly, in 1994, both military and civil society had to learn from a decision of the Constitutional Court that the “no out of area” restriction was, rather, a self-imposed political interpretation. The the court stated: our Grundgesetz allows assignments out of area.

This new interpretation changed the internal security communication processes rather than the external ones. During the Bundeswehr missions in the Balkans, which were justified to the public mainly by the rationale of international solidarity and humanitarianism, the aspect of fighting and self-defense became more and more present in the internal communication. And the risks for the soldiers’ lives and health were integrated into training and education.

A first training aid titled “How to handle injury and death in combat” dates back to 1996. It was issued by the Leadership Development and Civic Education Center where parts of the training for missions abroad have been conducted since the mid-1990s. First, these courses were primarily for leaders, but also mandatory for every soldier assigned a mission abroad. In these courses the soldiers are confronted with the expectation of combat stress, of injury, and of death. The discussions range from ethical to very practical aspects, e.g., how to safeguard a family in case of death or how to formulate a last will and testament. These aspects were also included into the Joint Service Regulation 10/1 which is our “bible” of leadership development and civic education—in German, “Innere Führung.” It states “Issues such as injury, death, fear, guilt and failure must not be suppressed or played down.” With rising numbers of soldiers killed in action, these initially rather hypothetical aspects have become more relevant for most soldiers.

The justification of the first Balkan missions by international solidarity and humanitarian reasons did not lead to a major discrepancy in the reality experienced by the soldiers. But this changed significantly during the ongoing Afghanistan mission. In the first years, government and parliament justified the German participation mainly with showing solidarity to our allies, especially the U.S., and assistance to the Afghan people in state-building. Supported by the media, the German government pretended to the German population that they sent “armed development workers” rather than military men and women to Afghanistan. A different line of argument was opened by defense minister Peter Struck who introduced the idea that “Germany’s security is also defended at the Hindu Kush.” This was an attempt to catch up with the credo in the German society that the sole task of the Bundeswehr was to defend its own country.

Though training and education were internally aimed toward enhancing fighting skills, the rules of engagement for German soldiers in Afghanistan did not really reflect this in concrete terms. Those rules had been rather restrictive until 2009; for example, soldiers were entitled to use their arms only as long as they were directly attacked and they had to cease fire when the attackers withdraw, even if the enemy was definitely preparing for the next attack.

In addition, government officials as well as members of the Bundestag refused to use the word “war” for the activities of German soldiers. As a consequence, they had to act in a grey area of law. Whenever casualties resulted from actions that did not occur in open combat—something that happens quite often in asymmetric warfare—the public prosecutor in the soldiers’ hometown in Germany had to start an extensive and sometimes lengthy investigation under the auspices of domestic law. It was not before 2010 that the government acknowledged the ISAF mission as an international armed conflict for which the law of international conflict does not have to be applied.

Turning to how casualties in military missions were treated in the security communication, we were unprepared in the first years of ISAF incidents for German soldiers being killed. The first four soldiers killed in 2003 in a terrorist attack came from my area of command, so I know what I am talking about. Over the next years a routine developed, that took into account the fixed rituals of how to honor the bodies in the field and how to bring them home. In Germany, usually the minister of defense—sometimes even the chancellor—is present at the mourning services, where they address the families as well as the public.

And for the last couple of years, a kind of culture of remembrance has been developing in our society. Meanwhile, pictures of politicians who acknowledge respect to killed soldiers at an improvised memorial in Kundus are standard in the media coverage. In Berlin an official central memorial for killed soldiers has been set up. Since the end of 2010 combat medals have been awarded to soldiers who were directly engaged in combat or had been wounded by terrorist attacks. This culture of remembrance has been developing as a part of internal as well as external communication. Some weeks ago I witnessed the award of that medal on the occasion of a military celebration, which was held in public and which deeply impressed both military and civilian spectators.

Originally, in external security communication, politicians did not use the expression “killed in action” for which there is a special term in German (“fallen soldier”). Officials and media spoke only of “dead soldiers” or “victims of terrorist attacks” or similar expressions. It took until 2008 for defense minister Jung to use the term “fallen soldiers” at a mourning service for the first time. But not only was this special term avoided. In external communication, officials tried not to mention dead soldiers at all. Searching the records of the relevant debates in the German Bundestag for the word “death” related to killed soldiers being used, one sees that it was not until 2007 and the death of a German man who had died in Afghanistan became an issue during a parliamentarian debate on the Tornado mission. This death was considered proof of the dangers in that country. The man they were talking about, however, was not a soldier but a development worker. By that time, seventeen German soldiers had already been killed in Afghanistan. And it was not until 2009 that the risk of military casualties was eventually discussed in the Bundestag. However, in the latest debate on the new mandate in January 2012, such a discussion did not occur.

Nor does there seem to be any attempts to weigh the political objectives of the military engagement against the risk of sacrificing soldiers’ lives. To weigh facts would require clearly and precisely defined political objectives of the mission from a German perspective, which cannot be found today. According to official statements, German interests are obviously considered 100 percent congruent to those of the alliance. In my opinion they are not.

To conclude, security communication in Germany—internally and externally—has contradicted itself for a long time. Even today, in 2012, it is still a big challenge for decision-makers to convince society of objectives and values that are worth the sacrifice of soldiers’ lives in Afghanistan. A conviction has not been achieved yet, although developments toward routinization of security communication can be recognized in the last couple of years. They should finally lead to a weighing of political objectives against the sacrifice of soldiers’ lives. Without this process our society will no longer back politicians for their decisions to send soldiers in missions abroad.


Dr. phil. Ulf von Krause served in the Bundeswehr for forty-two years, reaching the rank of General Lieutenant (Generalleutnant). In his last assignment, he had some responsibilities for Bundeswehr missions abroad.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.