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Next Step : Germany Inching Its Way Back Toward Battlefields : Bosnia would be its boldest overseas deployment since World War II. The proposal is prompting soul-searching.

June 20, 1995|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Step by step, mission by mission, token force by token force, the German military is inching its way back toward the battlefield, 50 years after it lost Hitler's war and bid a humiliating farewell to arms.

Germany's creeping return to the arena of international conflict started in the 1970s, when Bonn began sending the occasional military instructor into the developing world, "to teach our understanding of the role of the armed forces in a democratic society," as the justification went. Germany took a semi-plunge in 1991, sending air crews to eastern Turkey and warships to the Mediterranean during the Persian Gulf War.

In 1993, the first German soldier since May, 1945, was killed on active duty in a foreign country--a 26-year-old medic stationed in Cambodia--to the astonishment of his countrymen, few of whom had realized their government had sent 170 Germans to the Southeast Asian country's infamous killing fields.

And last year, the German constitutional court upped the stakes once again with a landmark ruling that there was no legally compelling argument for keeping the army, the Bundeswehr, out of foreign combat for all time, provided the German Parliament approved each overseas mission in advance.

Now, with NATO defense ministries putting together a rapid-reaction force for Bosnia-Herzegovina, the postwar German army is on the verge of its most politically charged extra-territorial undertaking yet: 2,000 soldiers, 12 C-160 transport aircraft and about a dozen Tornado attack planes are being readied for possible action in the Balkan war.

"Bundeswehr soldiers might die in such an operation," warns German Defense Minister Volker Ruehe, who has been trying to prepare the German public psychologically for the potential sight of young compatriots returning home in body bags.

Germany's proposed contribution to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization rapid-reaction force is notable for its relatively low numbers--Britain, by contrast, already has a 1,500-troop commitment to Bosnia and is expected to send another 5,500 soldiers.

The German contingent is striking simply because it comes from Germany, a U.S. ally that has been struggling for the past half a century to atone for what its soldiers and leaders did in World War II.

Germany has a firmly rooted democratic government, an economy that dominates the European continent, the world's second-largest volume of arms exports and more soldiers under arms than any other nation in the European Union--but it also remains shackled by the fear, inside and outside the country, that the minute those troops move beyond its borders some bad old German habits may come back.

"Don't people . . . realize that you shouldn't offer liqueur-filled chocolates to an alcoholic who has finally gone dry?" asks Oskar Lafontaine, the Social Democratic Party governor of the state of Saarland and a longstanding opponent of any renewed overseas role for the German army.

Sending the 2,000 soldiers to the former Yugoslavia is not the entire issue. Officials here say very few of the troops to be deployed would face potential combat; most would serve in non-combat roles, such as running mobile first-aid units and setting up a field hospital. In fact, Germany already has a small, low-profile force serving in the Balkans, helping to airlift food into besieged Sarajevo and trying to monitor weapons smuggling.

Even among the stoutly anti-military Greens Party, a few parliamentarians have come out in favor of foreign military deployments, as long as the troops remain in humanitarian roles.

The sticking point is the Tornados, attack aircraft that would be equipped with radar-sensing equipment and missiles. Although the formal objectives of the proposed German deployment have not been made clear, it is assumed that Germany would use the planes to take out Serb anti-aircraft batteries before they can bring down any more planes.

"The downing of the U.S. plane [piloted by Air Force Capt. Scott F. O'Grady] could possibly have been prevented with help from Tornados," says Defense Minister Ruehe, who has not only been warning Germans of the risks of Bosnia duty, but has also been trying to persuade them of the benefits.

Comforting though the Tornado deployment may sound to Americans, sending the planes over Bosnia is seen in Germany as the first time since World War II that this country has ventured into a combat situation.

That puts the planes squarely at the center of an anguished debate, one that questions this country's very spirit, and one that is expected to climax soon in a vote by the German Bundestag, or lower house of Parliament.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's coalition government has a slender 10-seat majority in the 672-seat Bundestag, and his Christian Democrats have been insisting that they have the votes to push the Tornado deployment through.

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