For many, war is associated with their most terrible nightmares. Nevertheless, there are still enough people who choose to join professional armies. What are their motivations? German filmmakers Willem Konrad and Christian von Brockhausen address this question in their character-driven documentary Soldiers. In following three young men on their path to become professional military men, the filmmakers raise ethical concerns about the ambiguous nature of armed action in general.
First in the line
In 2011, compulsory military service in Germany was replaced by a voluntary, professional army. Critical politicians like Christine Buchholz from the Left Party pointed out the dangers of this transformation. The German armed forces would become more like the American military – people from poor families would be the first to stand in line. In his successful documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), the controversial American filmmaker Michael Moore also claims that it is working-class Americans who are the first to join the army.
Soldiers observes three men, starting from their first day at boot camp until a foreign mission to Afghanistan. Jeremy, Alexis, and Jarell all come from a socially problematic background – be it a divorced family, criminal past, or immigratory status. It seems that joining the army is not a conscious decision but rather one dictated by the very limited options left for them. However, some statistical information would be needed to conclude if the three young men represent the overall reality in the Federal Armed Forces.
Jeremy, Alexis, and Jarell do not really question the philosophical and ethical aspects of their profession. They are more occupied with succeeding in their chosen path. We see their daily routines – shaving, learning to shoot and overcome obstacles, training in the forest. «It’s like going on a school trip,» says Alexis. Konrad and von Brockhausen take a very patient and non-manipulative approach in depicting this controversial subject. The audience is introduced to the structured military education; however, the protagonists are not confronted with brutal commanders, inhuman discipline, or psychological terror that we know from other films about the army.
The German constitution says that the purpose of the Federal Armed Forces or the Bundeswehr is purely defensive. However, in 1994, the Constitutional Court decided that the term «defence» means not only guarding German and NATO borders but also protecting the security of Germany and military allies outside their territory. As a result, in 2020, German armed forces participated in more foreign operations than ever before. Young people joining the German military should now be ready to go to war zones.
In Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore criticised the United States for its participation in many wars following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He also suggests that George W. Bush and his team were lying about Iraq stockpiling weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the military invasion. Even though Germany was not involved in that war, the country has taken part in a number of operations after 9/11, including deployments in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, and others. One of the young protagonists in Soldiers tells his mother that German foreign military missions will continue. The young man is curious to take part in one of them despite the fact that his mother is deeply concerned about her son’s physical and psychological wellbeing.
Recently, in an interview with ABC TV, the current president of the United States Joe Biden confirmed that Russian president Vladimir Putin is «a killer». There’s no doubt that Russia’s activities in Ukraine and its dealing with opposition leaders are highly problematic and unjustifiable. However, in light of recent history, it is obvious that America and its allies have also provoked a great deal of suffering and death while playing «the policeman of the world». Economic control and power games are often part of the wars initiated by the West. And, as Michael Moore pointed out, the mass media are often blindly justifying these actions despite the fact that the country’s economic and human resources suffer.
In following three young men on their path to become professional military men, the filmmakers raise ethical concerns about the ambiguous nature of armed action in general.
This German documentary raises questions about the value of an individual in the society. There are several professions in which risking one’s life is required for the benefit of others. In a pandemic, we cheer for medical professionals; in authoritarian regimes, investigative journalists put themselves in danger; accidents happen to manual labourers. Soldiers, though, depend on governments and high-ranking military personnel to make good decisions. If an enemy is knocking at the door, defence seems like a logical strategy. However, if one goes to a foreign territory, there needs to be good reason. The three likeable young protagonists are eager to proceed with their lives and succeed. Meanwhile, wars will continue as long as there will be humans ready to offer their bodies and brains to the military.