Which country treats its veterans best

Working papers

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is quoted in Bild am Sonntag of November 18, 2018 with the words that “all veterans have one thing in common, whether they have served in foreign missions, in the Cold War or in basic operations, that they are in the uniform of the Bundeswehr for Have established peace and freedom ”. Since the number of all active and former Bundeswehr soldiers, including the generations of those doing basic military service, is likely to amount to around eleven million people, this is an enormous sum. Most people in the German-speaking area are likely to be unfamiliar with the term veteran anyway. After all, the Latin word "Veteranus" describes a long-serving and tried soldier. The fact that a 17-year-old recruit should be considered a veteran from the very first day he enters a barracks defies at least an intuitive definition of the term. It is also completely unclear whether further services or political measures are linked to this definition.

Not until a week later followed a daily order from the Defense Minister, in which she made it clear that from now on “a Bundeswehr veteran is anyone who is a soldier in active service or who has left this service with honor, i.e. not the rank has lost. ”On the basis of this definition, the minister instructed that proposals be drawn up for further appreciation of the veterans. In particular, the aim is to tie in with the numerous initiatives that relate to improving the care of soldiers who have been injured. In addition, the "recognition and appreciation of veterans" is formulated as an important concern, which is why Germany should also try to organize the Invictus Games, a sporting event for disabled soldiers.

Review: The German Debate on Veterans Policy

The discussion about the term veteran has a long history. Back in 2011, the then Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière announced in front of the German Bundestag that the Bundeswehr would formulate a policy for dealing with veterans and for their care. The minister even declared this project to be a focus of his political work. But apart from a brief debate about the introduction of a possible Veterans Day, this announcement remained unfulfilled. It was only after more than a year had passed since his first announcement of a veterans policy that the minister decided on a definition at all. With little publicity, de Maizière announced in an appeal in Bad Reichenhall that from now on someone is a "veteran who has been honorably discharged from active service in the Bundeswehr and has taken part in at least one humanitarian, peacekeeping or peacemaking mission". This definition should also have official validity. Obviously she could not prevail.

Instead, the minister received harsh criticism from the opposition parties. The former defense policy spokesman for the SPD parliamentary group, Rainer Arnold, even described de Maizière's approach as "conservative symbolic politics" and as a "dusty relic from the time before 1945". Politicians of the party Die Linke warned against a further "militarization of society". Doubts also predominated from the ranks of the Greens. After all, the former Green parliamentary group dealt in a technical discussion with the question of whether civilian forces should not also be taken into account. Only the former coalition partner FDP supported de Maizière's initiative for a veteran policy from the beginning and published its own proposals, which could not be pursued after the party's departure from the Bundestag after the 2013 election.

The difficulties of a German definition of a veteran

This political debate makes it clear that the concept of veteran has a heavy legacy in Germany. The experience of two world wars and the strong presence of historical veterans' associations and "warrior clubs" in the camp battles of the Weimar Republic shape the image of veterans to this day. Unfortunately, it is overlooked that certain veterans' associations, such as the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold, which still exists today, assumed an important political and social function in the interwar period and campaigned for the preservation of the republic. Unfortunately, this aspect was completely disregarded in the later discussion about traditions in the Bundeswehr in 2017.

Much more serious for the failure of de Maizière's advance, however, was probably the fact that no consensus could be reached among the major military associations and interest groups on the concept of veterans. The German Armed Forces Association even warned that a definition could split the troops. Accordingly, a definition with reference to operations would exclude those soldiers who had served in the Cold War before the start of foreign missions. The reservists' association argued similarly and, with a view to its membership, demanded that all former soldiers should be considered veterans. For the still young veterans' associations founded in the early 2010s such as the Bund Deutscher Einsatzveteranen or the Combat Veterans, whose membership mainly consists of experienced or even injured soldiers, participation in at least one foreign mission should be decisive for the recognition of veteran status. These newly founded veterans' associations had so far created a high level of attention for the needs of disabled soldiers through their commitment.

In fact, political pressure grew from 2011 onwards, when more and more members of the Bundeswehr returned with experiences from foreign missions, mainly due to the escalation of the Afghanistan mission and the increasing number of skirmishes, wounded and even fallen soldiers, which were in stark contrast to the peace and prosperity community at home stood. On the one hand, there was a lack of adequate care for returnees who were physically or mentally impaired - the Bundeswehr found it difficult to deal with traumatized soldiers for a long time. On the other hand, many soldiers complained that the dangers and burdens of their service abroad in their homeland were either unknown to most of their fellow citizens or even met with open rejection.

Here a gap opened up in the relationship between the Bundeswehr and society, but also within the Bundeswehr between the "Cold Warriors" and the "Generation Einsatz", which was reinforced by the 2011 suspension of conscription and which de Maizière's advance was evident wanted to close. The aim should also be to prevent combat soldiers from abandoning the model of the citizen in uniform through this experience and developing a kind of "warrior mentality".1

Shortly before, De Maizière himself had seen during a visit to the USA the effort with which veterans are honored there. However, while the material supply of injured soldiers in Germany could be mediated politically and their situation has been significantly improved by the legislature in recent years, the problem of a lack of social awareness or even recognition in the eyes of many soldiers still exists today. At the end of de Maizière's tenure, little remained of his announced focus. On the contrary, he offended many soldiers with his public statement that they should please stop craving for recognition. Since then, the Ministry has been quiet about veterans. Another internal round table with the named associations was also unsuccessful.

What is the point of a veteran definition?

The 360-degree definition announced in Bild am Sonntag appears all the more surprising, which on closer inspection is a non-definition as it avoids any definition. It is completely unclear what added value a definition offers that does not clearly differ from the term soldier or reservist.2 It is not surprising that a short time later commentators also spoke up, demanding a kind of veteran status for former community service providers, who undoubtedly also performed an important service.3

The criticism from the Association of German Veterans, which apparently was in no way involved in the definition, but actually excluded, was correspondingly clear. The political opposition also complained that they had not been involved. The large majority of the population, on the other hand, should have accepted the report with a shrug. There was also no greater media attention for the millions of newly baptized veterans. In addition to the reservists' association, the Bundeswehr association in particular praised the new definition in the highest tones, as it, as it has always requested, “does not exclude anyone”. However, whether the criterion of not excluding anyone should be at the center of the veterans debate can be critically questioned. In spite of all uniformity, every organizational area, every branch of the armed forces and every type of armed forces maintain their own rituals, traditions and symbols. Medals and badges that many soldiers wear also serve to highlight certain achievements in the end.

The sense of a veteran definition should rather be to pay attention to a new group of soldiers, which only formed through the foreign missions and which for many years was referred to by the cumbersome term "mission returners". This group is not just about social recognition, which should undoubtedly be given to all emergency services and professional groups who are particularly committed to the common good. The idea that turning to one group would be accompanied by a devaluation of another is not plausible anyway, after all, social recognition is not a limited good. Priority are the special needs of a group of soldiers who are fundamentally involved in operations4 are more affected by physical and mental dangers than those in the home company. However, to this day it is completely unclear how many and, above all, which soldiers served in the foreign missions. However, this would be an important step to empirically determine how former combat soldiers are after the end of their service life. Many measures to improve the situation of injured persons are characterized by the fact that these soldiers are reintegrated into the armed forces and cared for there. However, this approach overlooks the fact that many soldiers who have been damaged by foreign missions consciously distance themselves from their former employers after their service ends. This is all the more true for families, who often see the Bundeswehr as the culprit for the suffering they have experienced. In fact, there are increasing reports of civil pastoral phone calls that former Bundeswehr soldiers or their relatives are looking for help. It is just that these institutions find it difficult to cater to the specific needs of soldiers.

The Netherlands as a model?

The Netherlands, on the other hand, practiced a better model, which had struggled for many years to find an appropriate way to deal with veterans. Here, too, there were definitional difficulties, since initially only former soldiers with operational experience were to be considered veterans. Only later did people become aware that participation in a mission creates a special need regardless of their status as an active or former soldier. This was responded to with the veterans law passed unanimously (!) In the Dutch parliament in 2012. Since then, all soldiers with operational experience have been considered veterans. They have their own veterans institute as the linchpin of the state and social veterans' initiatives.5

There is also a scientific study and operational documentation takes place. In addition, veterans are contacted at regular intervals by the state to obtain information about their condition. Measures to increase social recognition such as a veterans day under the auspices of the Dutch Crown, a veteran's card that is linked to certain bonuses, and formats such as the "veteran in the classroom", through which the pupils are brought closer to the experiences of soldiers in a much more relaxed manner than in Germany , round off the veterans policy. Of course there is also a memorial dedicated to the veterans. These measures have led to a significant improvement in the image of veterans in Dutch society in recent years. According to a survey by the Veterans Institute in 2013, well over 90 percent of the Dutch associated terms such as “helpfulness”, “dutiful” or “courageous” with veterans.6

The term veteran should be given a positive connotation

This veteran policy could be a model for Germany. In the course of ever closer multinational armed forces cooperation, a definition agreed with the alliance partners would be desirable in the long term. So far, such aspects have unfortunately been left out of the discussion about a European army. The German definition that has now been chosen, however, is unique in an international comparison.7 It would therefore make more sense to follow the Dutch model and to link the term veteran with the assignment abroad. This is implicit in the order of the day for the definition of a veteran, which emphasizes measures for injured soldiers and lists the Invictus Games as an example of possible measures with reference to operations.

The connection between the definition of a veteran and the day of national mourning is particularly unfortunate. The associated focus on dead soldiers or negative aspects such as the physical and psychological consequences of the mission means that this aspect dominates the public perception of the missions. It is not for nothing that veterans appear in the media, for example in “Tatort”, predominantly as mentally disturbed violent criminals. In view of the overwhelming number of soldiers who come back from operations without harm or who even notice positive aspects such as increased personal maturity in themselves, a distorted image is created in the public perception. This makes a sober observation even more difficult.

On the other hand, Peacekeeper Day, which has been celebrated on May 29th every year since the UN General Assembly decided in February 2003, seems more suitable. This is intended to honor both the military and civilian personnel who serve peace worldwide on behalf of the United Nations. This day of remembrance also offers the opportunity to remind German politicians of their responsibility for the personnel who work for the peace and security of the Federal Republic of Germany in international missions, sometimes at high personal risk. A memorial near the Reichstag could have the effect that the Bundeswehr memorial, which is located in a side street near the Ministry of Defense, or the appealingly designed, but far away from the public at the operational command in Potsdam, the "Forest of Remembrance" is denied. This would also take into account the networked approach as a guiding principle of German foreign and security policy.

The new definition of veterans wants to do justice to everyone. However, the added value of such a maximally inclusive approach appears questionable. Rather, the focus should be on the group of soldiers with operational experience for whom there is a special need. To describe this group as veterans is not an expression of exclusion, but of care and thus corresponds in the best sense to the model of the citizen in uniform. Because this model is the central idea that all active and former soldiers actually share and that should unite them much more than the concept of the veteran.

Dr. Christian Weber is captain of the reserve and works for the Bernstein Group in a political management consultancy. In 2015 he served as a soldier in Mali abroad. In 2016 his dissertation “Veteranenpolitik in Deutschland” was published by Nomos-Verlag.

2 In Germany today, a reservist is anyone who has done military service in the Bundeswehr and has not been dismissed from the armed forces without having to withdraw his rank (“dishonorable”).

4 In view of the increasingly complex tasks of the Bundeswehr and the increasing burden of large-scale exercises abroad, an appropriate definition of the term “deployment” or “mission” should be made. The participation of German armed forces in the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States, for example, is treated by the German armed forces as an “equal duty”, and the soldiers involved are awarded a mission medal.

7 Even the application-independent and therefore relatively broad definition of the USA, for example, only refers to former and
Honorable soldiers discharged from the armed forces.

Copyright: Federal Academy for Security Policy | ISSN 2366-0805 page 1/5