Saturday, March 22, 2014

War, casualties and public support

Historian Sönke Neitzel in Der Westen und die Neuen Kriege Eurozine 11/20/2013 (original in Mittelweg 36 5/2013) reports on attitudes toward the military and war in various European countries and in the United States as discussed at a "Berliner Colloquium zur Zeitgeschichte" in April 2013.

Die landläufige Ansicht, dass die Ablehnung von Auslandseinsätzen wächst, je höher die Verluste sind, trifft so im Übrigen auch nicht zu. Auf dem Colloquium haben Beatrice de Graaf und Ron Krebs darauf hingewiesen, dass es zumindest für die Niederlande und die USA keinen kausalen Zusammenhang zwischen der Ablehnung von Kampfeinsätzen und der Zahl der Gefallenen gibt. Offenbar ist die Bevölkerung durchaus bereit, Opfer zu akzeptieren, wenn sie den Sinn der Einsätze versteht. Die ablehnende Haltung in den beiden genannten Ländern zum Engagement im Irak und in Afghanistan hat sich in erster Linie nicht durch die Verluste, sondern durch das Legitimitätsdefizit der Operationen herausgebildet.

[The common view that the rejection of foreign interventions grows the high the losses are, also does not hold true, as well. At the colloquium, Beatrice de Graaf und Ron Krebs pointed out that, at least for the Netherlands and the USA, there is no causal connection between the rejection of armed interventions and the number of the fallen. Clearly, the population is thoroughly prepared to accept sacrifices, if they understand the sense of the deployment. The negative attitude in the two named countries to engagement in Iraq and in Afghanistan developed not in the first line through the losses, but rather through the deficit in legitimacy of the operations.]
This is an important point that is scarcely likely to be accepted by American conservatives. They, and apparently many in the military officer corps, are dedicated to the notion that American casualties are the overwhelming reason, maybe the only reason, that the public turns against wars. Other factors, such as generals continually giving overoptimistic evaluations of their accomplishments or lying about "friendly fire" casualties or committing torture and crimes against civilians, are presumed to be of little effect in turning the public against a war.

A key text in promoting this view was John Mueller's War, Presidents, and Public Opinion (1973). Coming as it did after massive protests and widespread public disgust with the Vietnam War, it provided a welcome message to those anxious to exonerate military leaders and dishonest politicians for turning people against the war.

Germans have a less worshipful view of soldiers than Americans seem to have, at least as it looks from all the honor-the-troops idolatry that one encounters in the US, which in practice extends to the officer corps and the generals, enabling them to escape a lot of responsibility for misdeeds in the eyes of the public. But Neitzel's account also suggests a distinct level of idealization of their soldiers among Germans:

So deutet sich an, dass die deutschen Soldaten als professionell, widerstandsfähig, sozial und interkulturell kompetent sowie unerschrocken und tapfer anerkannt werden. Soldaten werden vor allem als Opfer und Leidtragende äußerer Umstände dargestellt, praktisch nie hingegen als Personen, die andere töten.

[So it is suggested that German soldiers is recognized as professional, tough, socially and interculturally competent, as well as fearless and valiant. Soldiers are represented above as all as victims and people on the receiving end of outside circumstances, on the other hand practically never as people who kill others.]
I don't quite know what to make of Neitzel's article on the whole. It's largely a discussion of the sociological research reported at the Berlin Colloquium. He makes much of the interesting and important but hardly new findings that soldiers in combat are motivated more by team spirit and solidarity with each other than by larger ideological motives. He does mention nationalism as significant force in that context, as well.

But I get the feeling he's playing a bit of a game here. As he himself says, the debate over how soldiers should be perceived and how they should be trained to perceive themselves "ist hochgradig normativ geprägt" ("is characterized to a high degree by normative considerations").

Because his discussion of this point blurs the distinction between the psychology of soldiers in combat and the broader self-conception of the military, the mission assigned to them by a democratic society and the responsibility of military leaders. So his concluding sentences take on a particularly dark tone:

Der Wunsch, das Militärische aus den Streitkräften herauszulösen, sie zu zivilisieren, ist eine Illusion, wie sie im Übrigen nicht nur in Deutschland, sondern auch in Italien, Spanien oder den Niederlanden zu beobachten ist. Er ist eigentlich nur umzusetzen, wenn man die Streitkräfte nicht mehr zu militärischen Aufgaben heranzöge – doch dann wäre es konsequenter, sie gleich aufzulösen.

[The wish to extract the military aspect out of the fighting forces, to civilize them, is an illusion that can be observed not only in Germany but also in Italy, Spain or the Netherlands. It can really only be achieved if one not longer calls upon the fighting forces for military duties - in that case it would be consistent to just disband them.]
It's hard not to read this as anything but a sneer at the entire concept that a democratic society or one that applies the rule of law would expect their armed forces to behave in a civilized manner. This is something very different that insisting on being realistic about the fact that ultimately the purpose of a military is to kill enemy soldiers when and if necessary.

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