My silent tantrum

I wrote this text in January, weeks before the war in Ukraine. This text is about moral injury, a phenomenon that can happen to soldiers, humanitarian aid workers, members of emergency services or police forces asf. Through the lense of this article, one may have a look at what the German chancellor is doing and not doing these days.

Who exactly do you think the Taliban are? A bunch of nice, kind of reformed guys who are just waiting for the opportunity to apologise for their actions?

We act quickly, but sometimes things change much faster than we can deal with the consequences. We don't have time in such cases because the challenges grow and change so fast that we watch breathlessly and at the same time (have to) act extremely fast - caught in an action movie-like escalation of the situation.

Our soldiers were in Afghanistan for almost two decades. Then the withdrawal.

When the former defence minister stood in front of the microphones last summer, visibly overwhelmed, struggling for words and unable to find any suitable ones in the face of the withdrawal disaster, I was stunned and... furious.

Germany is defended in the Hindu Kush, one of her predecessors had said. The reality would certainly need more appropriate explanations. That is what the average German has heard about Afghanistan: mountains, Islamists, war operations. And "Hindu Kush" somehow sounds image-laden, gloomy, archaic. Defending Germany there? Why exactly? It wasn't allowed to be called a war mission.

And 20 years later: Why exactly did we leave the country so suddenly without taking with us our "own" (those who worked for us) and those to whom we gave hope (parts of the younger generation and professional groups that would not exist in Afghanistan without us)? And what was all that helpless stammering in front of the cameras about? Disasters cannot be glossed over; at the very least, leaving those who trusted us behind was just that: a disaster. But not for "us", but for "them". Except that those of us who had actually built relationships were suddenly deprived of any explanation - it's one thing for yourself - hard enough everywhere when you've been in the field yourself - but when you have to explain it to someone there you know, it becomes something completely different.

What is one then? Helpless? Unable to speak? Angry?

The disaster in Afghanistan reminded me of my own doubts. I was on foreign assignment in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1996 to 1999, and I was always amazed at how ineffective one's work remains, even if one speaks the language fluently, seeks to understand the culture and tries hard to make a difference. My moral obligation to make a difference anyway was high.

In the end, we can think what we like about foreign missions, their purpose and their effect: if one is deprived of the legitimacy, the rationale, the justification for the mission - even more so in retrospect - that is horrific. Suddenly everything is called into question, appearing pointless in retrospect.

In August 2021, I only had "proxy emotions". My deployment was a long time ago and I was "just" in Bosnia at the time. No comparison with Afghanistan.

The problem is that the politicians in question seem to know nothing about it. They might think so or they might be advised accordingly, but they have (as a rule) never been on such a mission themselves.

Imagine the average German politician. Maybe once you were young and wanted to get involved and joined a party. Then you saw how things really work in a party - and quickly left or stayed. If the latter, then perhaps because you still wanted to shape things, perhaps because the cause was fun, perhaps also because power is something that is hard to escape. You also learned to do the right things to get ahead. Getting ahead in a party is not only about expertise.

Now this politician finds themself in an acute situation and has to prove themself. We can see the real human being in such tests: While some grow from it, others rattle around nervously. The reasons for the decision to seek a political mandate probably have little to do with the situations one may face later.

I still remember my very first conversation with a genuine Islamist. Genuine because he not only looked and talked like one, but because he had also fought. There were a higher number of Islamist fighters in Bosnia who had previously fought in Afghanistan and other countries, and who were accordingly combat-proven and helped the Muslim-dominated "Armija BiH" in Bosnia. These people, like the war as a whole, have contributed to the radicalisation of some Bosnian Muslims. My counterpart was such a Bosnian: young, enthusiastic, radicalised in the war. Given the unequal distribution of power at the beginning of the war and the unspeakably cruel events, this was perhaps no wonder.

Unlike most other people I met there, it was extremely difficult to talk to my counterpart. He couldn't and wouldn't give me anything because I had once helped his sister in such a way that he had to be at least "somehow grateful" to me on her behalf. Moreover, we met at his sister's house. But it was not a good conversation, on the contrary: in view of the overly enlightened rhetoric, there was hardly any common ground for conversation. Dialogue remained impossible. It was a tough discussion full of incantations.

As is well known, the Islamist current has not prevailed among Bosnian Muslims, but the experience remains in my memory: dialogue is refused, there is no common basis for understanding or action. So what are words supposed to express in such a case?

The crazy thing about such a foreign mission is that at first you think you're doing something good. You need some kind of explanation for the mission. In my case, it was voluntary, I was there in civilian clothes, and as I said, I was "just" in Bosnia. For me, it was the desire to help and to understand why people do such things to each other. Especially since I liked the people, their language and their culture.

The soldiers who were sent to Afghanistan probably had an argument for the mission. The healthiest case might have been to say to themselves, "This is my job and I chose this job, so this is part of it." But what about all those who thought "somehow more"?

That's the thing: if I have to do something, but I didn't choose it, and if I'm not inclined to give the "it's just my job" explanation, then I have to legitimise the deployment, justify it to myself - and even more difficult: to my loved ones. And then come the corresponding sayings - hopefully not as obscure as defending Germany in the Hindu Kush - or explanations: to help, for example. And in deployment, there is usually an "response" for the need for justification, one finds goals for the motivation to help, one can perhaps actually make a difference here and there, even if doubts remain.

But what if society's support for the mission suddenly dwindles? It was never easy, especially with regard to Afghanistan; there were always doubts in the debates. But in August 2021, everything suddenly seemed different, especially in retrospect.

Imagine seeing intense suffering in children and not being able to help, or being exposed to very stupid superiors for years.... Imagine the consequences of that. The same effect is caused by an actual or perceived withdrawal of social support for a mission.

Suddenly it's all worth nothing.

And no, this damage cannot be compensated with money or anything else. And after it has happened, words don't help at all, on the contrary. This is about trust. And if the mission is already risky and the reasons are not directly understandable, all the worse.

Then politics has snubbed a significant part of the former and current forces and "morally hurt" them without even seeing or understanding it, let alone taking responsibility for it.

In view of such events, I don't think we should be surprised if confidence in our democracy diminishes. In addition to the current unavoidable tests of democracy (corona, climate change...), there are the stupidities of those who have power but are not up to the challenges.

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