“War is as frightful as heaven’s pestilence,
Yet it is good, is it heaven’s will as that is.”
(Friedrich Schiller, “The Death of Wallenstein”)
Television, in its own way, tells the truth. The fact that the war in Afghanistan isn’t merely a humanitarian intervention, or the containment of a regional conflict with military means, or any other of the euphemisms that have been used in the past, is evident in a TV production that recently aired in Germany. On a Wednesday night, the TV guide recommended: “‘Foreign Deployment,’ War Movie. Germany, 2012”. The “war-like” mission in Afghanistan (another euphemism!) had surely been molded into entertainment before, but at least in Germany many of those attempts had focused on traumatized soldiers or on the difficult relationship between the home front and the country’s heroes (a relationship that was marked by, and usually described as, a lack of understanding). Of all countries who had sent their sons and daughter to Afghanistan, none struggled harder than Germany to come to terms with the unsightly fact that they were at war.
Now German soldiers (including one female soldier) were allowed ninety minutes of on-duty action, and that fact alone speaks volumes to the discursive tightrope that the country finds itself on, where live ammunition is fired – and kills, too – but where German soldiers remain just as reflective and burdened by their own conscience as one would wish; soldiers who don’t really know (and passionately debate with their peers) how “sensible” this mission really is, and who gasp for air after the first enemy bullets fizz past their heads. The soldiers portrayed in the movie are the proverbial “citizens in uniform” who wish to do good but are kept awake by the nagging question of whether their actions spawn evil instead.
For the movie, the idea of “war” is first and foremost discursive ammunition, a fictional extension of the TV talk shows that endlessly debated the sense or senselessness of military invasions, and in both cases the conclusion appears to be that war is obviously stupid but sometimes necessary to ensure that the girls in the Afghan boondocks have the right to go to school. “We must not abandon the people of Afghanistan,” goes the argument of the young development worker in the movie when she tries to sooth the soldiers’ conscience.
And just to stress the gravity of her words, it seems, the movie’s directors treat us to her kidnapping and killing at the hands of Taliban beardheads – but not before three brave soldiers ignore their officers’ orders and launch a rescue mission. Note to self: the modern soldier isn’t a brainless machine anymore, blindly obedient to orders, but instead triumphs morally (at least) and also manages to snag two innocent girls from Taliban hands. It makes the subsequent dishonorable discharge from the army almost appear honorable, like the price one needs to pay for a clean conscience, and the deal is only sweetened by the words of the commanding officer who proclaims that he, too, privately admired and respected the soldiers’ decision to rescue the women. If only the rules had been different…
What can we learn from a movie like that? First, war is good because little girls can now attend school. (As one commentator quickly pointed out, even the Taliban didn’t prohibit all girls from attending school, and neither did the Russians, who were driven out of Afghanistan with weapons supplied to the Taliban by the West.)
Second, if war is really necessary, let’s at least fight it with tall blond chaps who are willing to defy orders, who build wells and schools and help wherever they can while the Americans, who apparently don’t care about Afghan children, pump a few bullets into an Afghan boy just for the heck of it, or because the reason of military engagement seems to demand it, and who really shouldn’t be surprised if they’re later blown to bits by a suicide attacker instead of becoming best buddies with the village elders like their German compatriots.
Third, war has pushed into the contemporary pop mainstream (even in a country like Germany) and we might as well save ourselves the effort of engaging in more critical reflection.
Following the logic that even anti-war movies (or, in this case, soap operas in military fatigues) count as war movies, especially if they’re packed with action, heroes, drama and beautiful women, “Foreign Deployment” merely marks what is now considered a normal foreign policy discourse. As the former German President Horst Köhler remarked in 2010 (just before growing criticism over the remarks forced his resignation), “we’re on a path where the mainstream of society begins to understand that a country of this size, and with such a big dependence on foreign trade, must also realize that sometimes, in an emergency, military force might be necessary to protect our interests.”
And to ensure girls’ education, of course.