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Foreign Deployment (November 2, 2006)

In November 2006, Corporal Björn Uwe Schulz was about to become one of nearly 9,000 Bundeswehr soldiers stationed abroad. A reporter for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit followed him during the three months he spent preparing for his deployment in Afghanistan.

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Schulz Goes to War

How a twenty-year-old corporal from Berlin is being prepared for the mission in Afghanistan – a story from an army that has gotten used to foreign deployments.

When the time comes, he’ll stand up and take his helmet, just as he has done so many times in his mind. He’ll line up with other soldiers, many of whom still have boyish features, and, as always, he’ll stand out in the crowd, pale as the moon, red hair, soft features, a thin beard on his chin. On November 10 at 0800 hours, Corporal Björn Uwe Schulz, twenty years old, supplier in the Armored Infantry Battalion 421, formerly stationed in Brandenburg on the Havel, now detailed to the Cologne-Wahn airport, will board the gray Airbus outside on the runway: destination Uzbekistan. From there, Schulz will be transported in a Bundeswehr Transall to Afghanistan, to Kabul. The flight will end in a steep dive to avoid possible enemy fire. For four months, Schulz will be part of the ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, an army of soldiers from thirty-seven countries, an army that is supposed to bring peace to Afghanistan. With weapons.

His mother will cry again when she says goodbye, and Schulz will tell her to stop again, like a teenager who is slightly embarrassed by his parents. That’s how it has been for weeks between mother and son. The quiet family suffering behind the news reports, which grow more confusing by the day.

For forty years the Bundeswehr was barely visible in everyday German life. It did its time in the woods until the Cold War came to an end, without a single shot ever being fired. But now here’s Schulz, born in 1986, laden with his field kit and responsibility. Schulz, an ordinary German. Schulz, like Müller, Meier, Schmidt. One of the nearly 200,000 young Germans who have already served abroad. On the day that Schulz will board the plane, 9,000 Bundeswehr soldiers will be serving abroad, in Afghanistan and Bosnia, in Kosovo and Congo, off the coast of Lebanon and in the Horn of Africa, as observers in Georgia, Eritrea, and Sudan. Their missions have unwieldy names – ISAF, KFOR, EUFOR, UNIFIL, UNMEE, UNOMIG, acronyms as complicated as the world itself, with all the dirty conflicts that the Bundeswehr is supposed to bring to an end. Politicians have, in their usual fashion, found more appealing ways of putting it; they speak of “humanitarian,” “peacekeeping,” and “peace enforcement” operations, and ever more frequently of “robust mandates,” especially in Afghanistan, where the Bundeswehr, in the new era of small, hot wars, has suffered twenty-one of its sixty-three casualties worldwide. It’s as though we stopped paying attention for a moment and “heading out,” “conflict resolution,” “protection,” and “putting yourself in harm’s way” suddenly became part of German everyday life. And smack in the middle of it all is Schulz. How did he get there?

At our first meeting, Schulz is nothing but a name and a very short resume taken out of the desk drawer of his company commander: Schulz, Björn Uwe; born on May 23, 1986, in West Berlin; single; high school diploma; son of a gas station lessee, retail salesman specializing in minerals and lubricants; class B, C1, and C driver’s licenses; hobby: precision mechanics. And he’s the one who said he’d be willing to allow Die Zeit to follow him on his way to Afghanistan, for three months, until his flight out.

It is August. The country, still decorated in black, red, and gold*, and still savoring the World Cup euphoria, is worked up about Günter Grass’s belated confession that he once belonged to the SS. Reports of Bundeswehr soldiers getting caught in heavy fire in the Congo can’t compete with this surge of emotion.

* Black, red, and gold are the colors of the German flag – trans.

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