This is a followup to my previous posting on the infamous Kunduz air strike, where Oberst Georg Klein, a German ISAF colonel, ordered an air strike against Taliban terrorists who stole two fuel tankers, nearly a year ago. This air strike killed around 142 people who were surrounding the tankers at night, siphoning fuel. Among the casualties were 70 to 80 innocent civilian bystanders, including 24 children under the age of 18.

Now, why am I insisting on this particular event, knowing full well that collateral damage is an unavoidable aspect of modern asymmetrical warfare, and that Kunduz is but one of many mistakes that high tech armies are bound to make again and again in this kind of war? The reason is that I’m actually very disappointed by the way the German authorities handled the judicial aspects of this whole debacle.

If this incident had occurred to a disciplined and well organized army like, say, the US Army, the usual procedure would have been a thorough investigation by the Judge Advocate General (JAG), almost always resulting in an indictment, especially when civilians have been deliberately killed. A regular court martial (military tribunal) would have taken place, and the commanding officer responsible for the civilian casualties would have had to explain and justify his decisions, with the whole world watching. Depending on the outcome of this trial, the defendant would have been acquitted or sentenced to an appropriate penalty.

In my humble opinion, Colonel Georg Klein should have been prosecuted for violating both the Rules of Engagement prohibiting air strikes against targets possibly surrounded by civilians, and for violating International Law and Conventions regarding the protection of civilians in the vicinity of military targets. I’m not really keen to see him punished if he acted in good faith and if he really thought and was persuaded that there were only Taliban around the tankers, and I wouldn’t have minded an acquittal in this case, provided that he could have justified his decision in a transparent way, for all of us to see.

However, German authorities, both civilian and military, seem to have conspired to prevent a court martial of Colonel Klein, for reasons that can’t be verified independently. Indeed, on April 14th, 2010, the civil prosecutor dropped the case. Shortly after that, the military authorities decided to let Colonel Klein off the hook as well, even though some opaque and non-transparent investigations are still under way.

Before I come to the main reason for this posting, please let me add the following appeal to Colonel Georg Klein himself, should he ever stumble across this posting:

Col. Georg Klein, like any self-respecting officer of an Army, you are probably sharing my opinion that honor and personal integrity are ultimate military virtues. If that’s the case, and if you’re a decent man, you are probably regularly haunted at night by the nightmare of your decision. Col. Klein, you can’t undo what you’ve done, and the memory of the innocents that you have ordered to be dismembered and cremated alive in a ball of fire will forever haunt you. You can’t run away from your conscience. So what can you do? You could summon up the courage and greatness of character to visit the families of your victims, and humbly apologize and explain to them why, in your judgment, their relatives had to die the way you’ve ordered the pilots to kill them without any slightest forewarning (such as buzzing them with a pass at low altitude or giving warning shots). This, you really morally owe them: they need to look in your face, and hear it from you personally. If you lack the courage to look them in the eyes, you do have a slightly less honorable option: just like a Bushido warrior would have committed Seppuku, you too could as well write a letter of apology, don your best uniform, stand up in your empty room, aim your pistol at your head, evtl. say your last rites, and pull the trigger. Either one of both behaviors is the only honorable thing to do… though I’d prefer that you had the stomach to visit the families of the victims instead of escaping in a suicide to ease your conscience.

So far to Georg Klein. The romantic in me wants to believe he’ll heed my advice and will act honorably as a responsible commanding officer, instead of hiding behind legalities and the institutions that are covering his rear by preventing a trial. The realist in me isn’t quite as optimistic though and thinks that this air strike will go unpunished, both juridically and ethically.

Now to the fog of war. Whether Colonel Klein apologizes or not for his deeds, or whether he’ll be judged or not for his decision, isn’t as important as the real lesson to be learned from this episode. What’s that lesson? It’s that a nation at war tends to lose its moral compass and ethical purity. One typical loss of ethics is the covering up of war crimes and the lacking of the necessary discipline of self-control and self-regulation to prevent such abuses from recurring. A nation that covers up war crimes of its soldiers who act in its name is actually saying to its armed forces: “Boys, it’s okay to kill those people over there, you don’t have anything to fear at home. Go for it, fire at will. No questions will be asked. It’s not like they are valuable down there: do what you have to do.” Nasty and ugly, isn’t it? But so is war in general — a gradual breakdown of civilization and decency.

Germany has been a poster child of a very peaceful and highly ethical nation after it has lost World War II, and just before it intervened in the last Balkans war. The Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces, was a very ethical army, an army of “citizens in uniform” (Bürger in Uniform), mostly draftees in the lowest ranks, and officers higher up, who were expected and repeatedly told to think twice, and even to refuse to obey orders that would potentially violate International Law or harm civilians. By NATO standards, the Bundeswehr’s discipline (Innere Führung) had an excellent reputation. I’ve had the opportunity to look inside the Bundeswehr (the Air Force, Luftwaffe) before the flurry of international out-of-area interventions that German politics dragged it into, and I was impressed by the decency and also humanity of the soldiers serving there back then.

Unfortunately, the many out of NATO area military interventions managed to corrupt the purity of the Bundeswehr as a purely defensive good-natured army. This corruption occurred gradually, like a slow but inexorable erosion:

  • It started innocuously enough with a tragic incident in 1994 during the humanitarian mission in Somalia (which ended up in a fiasco, but that’s another story), where a presumed thief who tried to enter a Bundeswehr base was shot dead with a well placed shot in the middle of his head, and the soldier who delivered the lethal precision shot (and who probably didn’t deliver a warning shot before) hasn’t been court-martialled (just like Col. Klein today). That was the initial sin, IMHO.
  • A new low was reached in Afghanistan in October 2006 where Bundeswehr soldiers were caught on photo, playing with human skulls.
  • The gradual loss of respect for human dignity within the Bundeswehr progressed further, when reports emerged on torture (or should we euphemistically say “rough, unconventional, and unauthorized training methods”) during Basic Training at the Coesfeld base in Coesfeld, Germany.
  • The Kunduz air strike strikes me as a continuation of that gradual loss of respect for the value of human life and dignity that has been going on in the Bundeswehr for quite some time.

Maybe that’s an unavoidable consequence of being in a state of war: just like a hunter gradually and unconsciously starts to behave like his prey, an army (and by extension a nation) at war unconsciously starts to behave like its enemy, and slowly loses all inhibitions inherent to civilized societies. When we train and then send young people abroad to kill other people, it is no wonder that those people start acting in a devious way: we as a society wanted and encouraged them to do so. It’s not their fault, it’s ours (collectively). Furthermore, we are systematically raising a whole generation of potential soulless killer machines by exposing way too many young people to FPS (first person shooter) computer games, games that contribute to lower the barrier of entry for those young people to kill in real. Those FPS games may have a great deal of responsibility for the gradual loss of respect for human life in the young generation. Sorry FPS fans, please don’t shoot me (for real!) for expressing concerns about your favorite recreational activity, but I think it is necessary to take a second look at the subverting psychological effects of those games.

The fog of war is clouding the ability to think clearly. Be it the United States at war with insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, which slowly turns islamophobic on its political right fringe, or be it Germany at war in Afghanistan, turning islamophobic as well, the general pattern is the same: war makes people lose their empathy for the “other side,” and induces them into a tragic pattern of thought that the (real or imagined) enemy isn’t worth the same standards of humanity that we are willing to bestow upon our peaceful neighbors and that we are expecting in return. Continuous, never-ending war dehumanizes us, whether we want it or not. That’s its greatest damage to us: not the loss of human lives, and certainly not the financial and economic losses… it’s the loss of basic human decency and of our moral compass of universal compassion and justice that is the main casualty of this never-ending war.

George Orwell’s Nineteeneightyfour-ish society (in which we live today, let’s not fool ourselves by believing we were not there already) was stabilized by the eternal war with two barely visible external entities. Endless war seems to be essential to maintain our current morally bankrupt models of society (with total surveillance, general suspicion, the poor footing the bill to save big banks etc.), but isn’t the price we pay for our ephemeral economical wealth that results from this pathological (or rather perverted) form of surveillance society at perpetual war way too high? Is our loss of humanity really worth it?