Has the German Army Gone Soft?
‘Bundeswehr’ lavishes troops with nurseries, flat-screens
The classic image of the German military is of obedient, iron-disciplined soldiers clicking their heels before arrogant, monocle-wearing officers. Frederick the Great, the legendary 18th-century Prussian king and strategist, said he wanted his men to be more afraid of their officers than of the enemy.
But today’s German army, the Bundeswehr, seems more concerned with quality time with the kids. The German military plans to offer flexible work hours for soldiers. Barracks are getting flat-screen televisions and minibars.
There will be nurseries for soldiers’ children, and the army will time personnel transfers so as not to conflict with school terms.
Frederick the Great is turning over in his grave. Adolf Hitler, in whatever ring of Hell he resides, surely blames it on the Jews.
But these family-friendly changes are actually the work of Ursula Von Der Leyen, Germany’s first female defense minister. Her goal is to attract volunteers to the German military, which abolished conscription in 2011 and now must compete with private industry for the best people.
“In a society that is changing rapidly, so do the individuals’ expectations of work,” Von Der Leyen said. “We have to react very flexibly as an employer, otherwise we will soon face empty hallways and an empty parade ground.”
But one former German general denounced the policies as being for “sissies and wimps.” Other retired commanders said the Bundeswehr needs new equipment, not nurseries. Britain’s Daily Telegraph sniffed that the changes are “all a far cry from the Prussian ideals of rugged self-sufficiency that once defined the German military.”
Indeed, German troops in Afghanistan weren’t exactly up to the standards of the World War II Afrika Korps. Internal Bundeswehr reports admitted that German troops were poorly trained, poorly equipped and not very enthusiastic about fighting the Taliban. In 1945, this might have pleased Germany’s neighbors, but the U.S.-led coalition might have appreciated a more warlike force.
Nonetheless, with all due respect to the former Herr Generals and other critics, they forget something quite important. Frederick the Great and Hitler had armies made of conscripts.
Those days are over. More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, almost every country Western Europe has abolished conscription in favor of a volunteer army. Denmark still has conscription, but its men rarely get drafted—and only for four months.
Even in the U.S, where voluntary military service isn’t quite so unpopular, the Pentagon offers tens of thousands of dollars in reenlistment bonuses. The fact is that today’s advanced armies need to attract volunteers—and uncomfortable barracks and family-unfriendly deployments don’t help.
Neither do harsh living conditions make for a more efficient army, as Imperial Japanese and Soviet soldiers could attest. If the armies of Kaiser Wilhelm were efficient, it wasn’t because of Spartan living standards, but rather because the men were well-trained, well-equipped and well-led.
Nurseries and flat-screen TVs don’t make an army strong. But they don’t make it weak, either.