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Foreign Deployment (November 2, 2006)

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Schulz and his company have moved into their quarters in Saxony-Anhalt, in Klietz on the Elbe. The barracks are white and quaint, like an open-air museum. But the bulletin board warns of dangerous developments: the Elbland Terror Organization (ETO) is gaining power with the help of the drug trade. Elbland warlords have divided up the country among themselves, women are being oppressed, men are being executed; there are repeated attacks on Bundeswehr patrols. The soldiers really only control the capital of Stendal.

Since morning, Schulz has been running on an “infantry route” through this make-believe Afghanistan, where the smell of goulash wafts over from the mess hall kitchen. His drill sergeants have built four stations here, a test run for the fight against terror. They stand under birch trees with stopwatches. Schulz has to assemble a rifle and recover an injured soldier. He has to say, “I am standing 500 meters south of the command post and have identified two enemy riflemen,” encoded for radio transmission, and then solve a military quiz: How many lines are there on a march compass? How many cartridges fit into a P8 magazine? What is the battle cry of the 1st Company? What does PAGNAAPPF stand for? There won’t be time for long words in Afghanistan. Schulz has to run, run, run, his feet flap as he runs; he has huge shoes, size 15. His gun dangles on his back; the summer sun has reddened the back of his neck. You can tell that he’s having fun here.

“Outside you’re on your own, people are indifferent,” said Schulz during a break after being asked why he decided on the Bundeswehr. “Outside you’re on your own” – that’s one of his very first sentences, delivered in a throaty Berlin intonation. Schulz is sitting on a bench in the sun, still struggling to catch his breath. His voice is surprisingly soft for his large body. He has been in the military for eleven months now; he’s one of those who, when talking to buddies, disguises the word “fear” behind a protective wall of terms like “respect” and “attention,” and at first he comments only laconically on his decision to participate in the mission: “It doesn’t really matter to me whether it’s Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, or Iran.” Schulz speaks of himself as though he were a character in a film whose plot would inevitably lead him to Kabul. You notice that right away with him, and with all the young soldiers here who stamp the mud off their boots during lunch break as though they had just come from the soccer field.

You can spend days asking the soldiers in Schulz’s company about their worries and no one will say anything. Anyone who leaves Germany’s discourse society and visits the Bundeswehr – the direct participants in the new global scenario, the rank and file – embarks on a journey into a culture of demonstrative indifference. That’s probably the only way to become a soldier. Probably the only way to remain one. But you also start to get the impression that, for many, the army is protection against what Schulz calls “the outside.”

Schulz stands up; he’s got to get back. The next exercise is called “guiding a helicopter.” Schulz stands in a field waving his arms. He already knows that he has been detailed to the ISAF Camp Warehouse in Kabul. His commanding officers have assigned him to the supplies group: new weapons in, old weapons out. Schulz will be fighting a matériel battle for peace while his comrades go on patrol, train police officers, and protect development aid workers. Schulz will shuttle back and forth in his armored Fuchs transporter on the “Purple Route” between the camp and the airport. Twenty minutes from one Western watchtower to the next. Between them: Afghanistan.

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