2009/06/18

The speech of the German general inspector of the Bundeswehr

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Generalinspekteur General Wolfgang Schneiderhahn is the highest ranking soldier of the Bundeswehr. His speech on 15 June has created a huge media echo. Regrettably, it was disfigured on English websites. The typical interpretation of the Anglo-American audience was something along the lines of 'A German general accuses his troops of being lazy pussies.'


That comes at a really poor time. Those people should rather have expended their attention on the fact that the German ISAF troops in Afghanistan are interpreting their RoE now more liberally, and the Taliban casualty count is rising quickly.


Back to the speech; its full text is here (in German, of course).
The speech was part of an event of the Wehrbeauftragter, a kind of tribune for the interests of the soldiers. Soldiers can write a petition to him to complain about grievances, and the respect for his investigations is comparable to a bureaucrat's respect for general accounting office investigations.

The first 19 (of 29) paragraphs of the speech transcript are about history and the role of the Wehrbeauftragter.

The next paragraph is about different society, different soldiers (than 40-50 years ago), distant missions, women in the forces as legitimate reasons for a natural increase of complaints.

Paragraph 21 ("Meine Sorge ...") is about an excess supply of caring people (in addition to the Wehrbeauftragter) and that this serves as an escape route from the own responsibility.

Paragraph 22 begins with the assertion that we have a tendency in the society to re-delegate responsibility (I assume he means the use off social insurances and services that replace family services). His problem is that the leadership technique of the Bundeswehr, Auftragstaktik, depends on the willingness of subordinates to accept responsibility.

Paragraph 23 ("Ein falscher Schlafsack...") offers examples. A wrong (winter) sleeping bag for the Kongo mission (at the equator) was great fodder for the yellow press, but shouldn't get the attention of the parliament.
Complaints of a soldier about being sent on an overseas mission for the third time were illegitimate because his job turned to this profile.
Then comes the important part: He asserts that German soldiers serve Germany conditionally; the state solves all problems, make the soldier feel good, provides a sense of achievement and the soldier agrees to serve.
His other major point is related to the culture/structure of communication.
Grievances should be reported normally and this should lead to an countermeasures, but this doesn't seem to work satisfactorily. Reports about grievances to the public would be the result.


Next paragraph. The problem needs to be taken seriously and its roots need to be found. Organisation? Responsibilites? Excessive demands? Stress by changes? Choice of personnel?

Next paragraph. He supposes that this could be addressed together with the Wehrbeauftragter.

Finally, four more paragraphs of praising the function of the Wehrbeauftragter.

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Now compare a headline in a well-known English language military blog on this speech:

BUNDESWEHR INSPECTOR GENERAL: GERMAN TROOPIES AN "EMBARASSMENT"
The blog posts rests on a Telegraph.co.uk article that simply scrapped the original speech. Its headline:

Moaning German soldiers an 'embarrassment' say chiefs

Timesonline.co.uk uses a wrong context to create an outrageous headline.

German soldiers 'drink and complain too much to fight Taleban'
The official transcript is a pre-speech text, and it may be that the actual speech differed from the transcript. Nevertheless, the English language responses to the speech seem to be crap to me.

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Let's look at some German responses of people who actually understand the speech.

Spiegel reports quite short and objectively (although Spiegel isn't exactly a journal with a good track record on objectivity and accuracy when reporting about military matters. Foreigners don't know this and are often happy to use the Spiegel's English online version ).
The transcript's reference to choice of personnel was accurized in the Spiegel report with a quote that addresses specifically the company leadership (CO and the very important senior NCO, "Spieß").

Wiegold, a Focus (competitor to Spiegel) reporter and one of the few military-related bloggers in Germany answers as well. He usually likes Schneiderhahn, but disagrees very much in this instance.
He emphasizes that shortcomings should become public because of the primacy of the politics and the right of the public to know (because it's providing the funds).
Furthermore, he emphasizes his opinion that the communication culture/competency of the Bundeswehr is indeed not very good - and uses a technical example (internet social network exploitation).

An F.A.Z. (major more-than-regional newspaper) blog reports as well. It's a short summary without expression of an own opinion. The author felt that the excess supply of caring people was directed at the press.

The Bendler blog (another rare German milblog) focuses on the communication-related part and disagrees. He likens Schneiderhahn's attitude that shortcomings should not become public knowledge to the behaviour of large corporations (context: We had some scandals because large corporations used intelligence service-like methods to hunt whistleblowers). He thinks this attitude is anachronistic in our modern society.

Weblog Sicherheitspolitik disagrees as well. The author feels that the sleeping bag example was inappropriate because much more pressing, legitimate concerns were expressed on that occasion. He points out how much separated from the experience of actual out-of-area deployments the higher leadership of the Bundeswehr really is. He recalls how our (not exactly popular) SecDef once mocked a soldier who complained about deficient equipment.

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There are deficiencies in the Bundeswehr as in every army. Both the leadership and the troops have valid points in this affair.
The quality of the English-language coverage on this subject was extremely poor (so far), though. The speech wasn't about lazy "troopies" who are supposedly an "embarassment" - at least not the transcript version. The emphasis was certainly a very different one. The extremely poor English-language coverage was regrettably little more than fresh ammunition for Euro bashers.

Sven Ortmann

P.S.: Why did the general inspector complain about complaints being published and then chooses a public event to make his complaints?
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1 comment:

  1. Btw, the English translation of Wehrbeauftragter is usually (military) ombudsman, a word of Swedish origin, as is the concept itself.

    Anyway, I'm not a soldier yet, I don't know about the Kommunikationskultur in the Bundeswehr, but it seems to me that there is some value to what he says. I also believe the way it was received may not be a problem ... sometimes you have to bang on the table. The Bundeswehr is changing. We're no longer doing "Einsätze", this is war and it's serious business. You can't have soldiers who moan and bitch about everything, you can't have leaders who won't take responsibility, you can't have civilians or soldiers that aren't willing to make some sacrifices. And I also don't mind that the English-speaking press overstates it. They're out there bleeding and dying for our unwillingness, maybe the fact that they see that we see the problem and are doing something about it is a little soothing.

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