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Corona as a Security Risk: On the Role of the Military in an Insecure Society

In Germany, the relationship between the military and society is precarious and tense. In this context, the assistance provided by military personnel during the corona crisis is an opportunity to positively influence the image of the German armed forces (Bundeswehr). Yet the current situation is also an occasion for deeper reflection on the role of the military in civilian society, as well as the changing attitude toward risk. At the beginning of the corona pandemic in March 2020, the Federal Defense Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, made a statement that could suggest a new model for the relationship between civilian society and the military: “When states and communities, the economy, the police, the Technical Relief Agency and all other institutions reach their limits, of course the Bundeswehr will be there to help.”1

There was great longing for a helper in the time of need. As an experience of crisis, the corona pandemic has shaken communities like an earthquake. A sense of supposed security which existed before this rupture has given way to feelings of insecurity and risk. How a community can be stabilized even under extreme conditions such as these, and under the weight of unforeseeable and uncontrollable risks, is a question of resilience. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer described the German armed forces as an “essential and dependable pillar of our community”,2 and therefore as a kind of backup resilience resource for its stabilization.

What form this contribution of the German armed forces might take and what the boundaries of their involvement ought to be are discussed below. However beneficial it may be to establish this new model in which the Bundeswehr plays a constructive role with regard to civilian society, it is equally important to consider the boundaries of military involvement in our society. The civilian community should enjoy an inalienable freedom which consists precisely in its distance from the state. The Bundeswehr’s free democratic guiding principle of the “citizen in uniform” should also take this into account. Therefore, this article will firstly examine the contribution of the German armed forces to resilience, before discussing the relationship between freedom and risk in a liberal democracy. Questions arise as to the limits the principle of freedom places on the Bundeswehr’s involvement, and how a community can responsibly deal with the necessary complements of freedom: risk and contingency.

The military, and the resilience of society

The collapse of societies has often been brought about as a result of people continuing to live as before, despite the obvious existence of fundamental problems. They failed to adapt to changing conditions.3 These communities therefore lacked a certain elasticity, or resilience. At the same time, there are also positive examples of adaptability: far less dramatic changes than the corona pandemic today have challenged our society to activate adaptive and regenerative capacities. Now, in the corona pandemic, every individual is required to adapt their behavior to the situation. If society had carried on as before without making any changes, the situation would have worsened, making a catastrophic outcome seem all but inevitable. Yet also with regard to other rapid changes in our society, the question of adaptability and resilience has been the subject of widespread debate.

Resilience, meaning a characteristic of systems and societies that makes them robust in the face of unforeseen changes, has become a subject of research in the social sciences. In the attempt to understand this phenomenon, complex system processes are modeled in social theory. In these models, resilience is a process-related criterion that is complementary to substantive concepts. In other words, it is these concepts, based on a normatively determined goal definition, which address the purpose of societal development. Resilience, meanwhile, considers processes not from the point of view of desirable ideals, but in terms of hazards, risks and unforeseen difficulties. The resilience concept attempts to identify characteristics and processes which enable robust adaptation and development of society, even under adverse conditions.

An approach is sought which can be applied to situations where the environment is rapidly changing and these changes are not foreseeable. Resilience includes response strategies, i.e. basic competences for coping with the unforeseen, disruptions and structural breaks, and responding appropriately to situations characterized by contingency, chance and ignorance. Strengthening resilience is a way of preparing for second-order problems, i.e. problems that cause particular difficulties because they are unforeseeable and their substance is unknown.4 Resilience requires more than just optimizing efficiency, because efficiency by definition always relates to known problems or circumstances. Resilience, by contrast, relates to unknown problems whose development is hard to control. The ability to improvise, and openness to surprises, become the guiding virtues of an ethics suitable for dealing with contingency.5 The point is to creatively shape change, and not just suffer it. Resilience refers to a “not clearly controllable process characterized by uncertainty, and knowledge that still has to be gained”.6

In addition, potential for problem-solving can also be found in personal, social, cultural, economic and ecological resources. The central questions, therefore, are how people cope with crises, and how we can design institutions or systems so that they are less susceptible to disruption. Resilience concepts ask about problem-solving potential in terms of actors, actions and resources. This is definitely not about optimism in regard to progress and planning, as some have supposed; rather this is systematically relativized. The idea that a preventive solution can be found to all problems that arise is replaced by the “uncertainty paradigm”. Resilience strategies expect the unexpected, the “black swans” (Taleb). This is why it is assumed in resilience concepts that uncertainty and surprises are by no means always bad. Just as an immune system only develops and becomes active when it has to fight off germs, so social systems and mental processes always need challenges in order to develop their potential. Resilience depends on strengthening the personal-psychological and societal-social immune systems.7 It sees crises as “disruptions that create incentives for greater complexity”.8 Resilience research is interested in processes for dealing with disruptions, and regards such activities as the key feature of complex living or social systems. Their identity therefore cannot be defined statically, but rather as the capacity to react, act and interpret – or even as “antifragility”.9

Antifragility could be confused with stability or rigidity, but that is not what is meant by the term. Instead of stability, it is better to talk about constancy or consistency: something remains constant, something else has to change. Sometimes parts and individual properties of the system have to change so that the system as a whole can be preserved. Thus resilience is different than resistance in the sense of mere persistence, and different than a transformation that leads to a break of identity followed by a transition into a completely different state. Resilience aims at the dynamic self-preservation of an actor, an institution or a system in respect of its identity-giving functions and core characteristics.

In summary, resilience is a coping strategy for a society that is able to learn from crisis experiences. Now we shall see in the specific case how the military has contributed and can contribute to this strategy.

The military contribution around the world

The corona crisis is a severe test for society. As it has clearly shown, there is a real possibility that social institutions could become overwhelmed and collapse. In many countries, the military has provided valuable assistance in the form of logistics, personnel or services. All of these at first glance simple forms of assistance are extremely important for the functioning and survival of our society. Especially under the burdens of the pandemic, with extraordinarily high demand for protective equipment and medical personnel, a reserve of personnel and logistical capacities are essential to prevent bottlenecks and ensure there is no overloading of the personnel and equipment provided under normal conditions. In this very practical sense, assistance from the military can make a decisive contribution to the resilience of society because it can prevent overloading and collapse. We have observed this worldwide.

In France, the military provided additional medical personnel and organized patient transports. In Switzerland, the military took over logistical tasks, but also cared for the sick and transported patients. In Italy, trucks were made available for transportation, and medical materials were produced by the military. In Poland, the military cared for and also offered a psychological counselling helpline for people in quarantine. As the burdened (social) security systems (health, care, etc.) reached the limits of their capabilities, their overloading was effectively prevented in this way.

The contributions of the military – for the most part – met with a positive reception.10 They demonstrated to the public that the state is capable of acting despite the crisis, and has reserves of resilience that protect it from any loss of control or even anarchic conditions. Taking on this helping role makes the Bundeswehr appear as a reliable, competent partner of civilian society. However, here too it is important to maintain the right balance. While relief activities and efforts to compensate for the absence of government staff and officials (e.g. due to infection) are undoubtedly welcome measures, this can become questionable if the military is used only to increase the control density and influence of the state. A free civilian society in a liberal democracy must maintain a reserve of distance from the state. For this reason, it should be important to the Bundeswehr – for the sake of its self-image – precisely not to give the impression that it wants to interfere in this freedom, but rather that it aims to protect and preserve it in the face of external threats. Thus, in essence, a balance must be struck between constancy (through resilience) and freedom (with acceptance of risks). Freedom, it is important to note, requires a certain tolerance of risk on the part of individuals and society. Yet we find a widespread aversion to any risk. This aversion can only be overcome if it is shown that the “insurance mentality” often encountered today is one-sided. It is vital to recognize, additionally, that freedom and risk are closely interdependent.

Freedom and risk

Our understanding of risk has changed. Nowadays, you can insure yourself against risks. The destruction of a house by lightning and fire is no longer a fate that has to be accepted. It can be averted with a lightning conductor, and residential building insurance will compensate for any loss. Much of what used to be fate is now taken into calculation; our actions are based on calculated risks. The expansion of knowledge and the ability to influence events enlarges the radius of responsibility. It transforms fate that once had to be accepted into risk which is taken into account in the decision-making processes of individuals and communities. This change of perspective has brought about considerable shifts in personal perception and the status of uncertainty in social theory. Risk in many cases is now seen as a negative component that can be influenced and needs to be minimized.

Herrmann Lübbe criticizes this almost omnipresent communication of risk. He regards it as a pattern of thinking in which the concept of risk one-sidedly dominates. This generates a tendency for excessively high safety expectations, as well as a moralism which often takes the form of accusations.11 It drives politicians into a “declamatory responsibility overload”,12 since they get elected by promising an ability to manage risk that goes far beyond their capacity to act.13 The understandable call to minimize risks is a phenomenon that is intimately linked to the primordial human emotion of fear and the desire for security.

The concept of risk often arouses negative associations which prevent us from seeing how closely risk and freedom are related. If you want freedom, you have to learn to live with risks. Any freedom that encompasses only those alternatives for action which are without risk is a hollow freedom. Manytimes such action alternatives do not exist, or differ in purely banal aspects. Whether driving a car, barbecuing outdoors, setting off fireworks or keeping animals – many of our actions involve a (permitted) risk for others. Of course it would theoretically be possible to stop people driving cars or ban fireworks to eliminate certain risks, but these are individual decisions concerning the social question of which specific risks we accept and put up with as a society, and which not. The fundamental question of balancing risk minimization against freedom remains with us, as the issue is sure to surface again elsewhere (e.g. self-driving cars). To believe in the utopian idea that risk can be completely eliminated is a fatal error, even though this belief springs from and feeds people’s need for security. Ultimately there are boundaries that a free and democratic society must not cross. One very obvious case is censorship, where even the question of what books we read has been seen as a risk to society – not for the first time under the National Socialist and communist dictatorships – and met with harsh censorship. But well before we get to this obviously anti-democratic example, we will find boundaries where a liberal order demands the courage to accept risk.

We can also see these boundaries in the fundamental decision of the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) on the deployment of the German armed forces within Germany, and in an examination of the arguments used to criticize militarism – not in a merely aesthetic sense, but in a sociological, theory-of-state sense.

Militarization of society?

Article 87a (2) of the Basic Law formulates a constitutional proviso for the deployment of the armed forces as a “means of executive power in a context of intervention”.14,15 This proviso does not cover every use of military resources: it covers every use in which the armed forces’ potential to threaten and intimidate unfolds. A possible use of the armed forces that is expressly provided for can be found in Article 35 (2) sentence 2, (3) of the Basic Law. High requirements are placed on official assistance by the Bundeswehr: “In order to respond to a grave accident or a natural disaster...”16 In the words of the Federal Constitutional Court, these must be “events of catastrophic proportions”.17 The constitution therefore sets high hurdles for the deployment of the armed forces inside Germany. Behind such provisions, a certain reservation about the power of military institutions may rightly be suspected. The explanatory memorandum to the draft legislation to amend the Basic Law with the above provisions states that “the freedom and wellbeing” of citizens is to be protected precisely by the separation of powers and through further decentralization and division of power.18 Thus there is a general reservation with regard to overly strong central state power inside Germany, which could significantly curtail the freedom of a civilian society. Especially given the history of National Socialism, this freedom has a special meaning in Germany.

The criticism that resides under the heading of “militarization of society” can be understood in a similar vein. A purely historical reference to Prussian militarism, which some authors see as the root of the fragility of the Weimar Republic, would be too brief a summary of this line of argument. The point being made is precisely that a civilian society should not be fully integrated into the hierarchical construct of the state, and not every area of society should be accessible to this hierarchy and its structure of command and obedience.

With these concerns in mind, the boundary applicable to military involvement can be formulated as follows: the Bundeswehr should primarily take on assistance activities, but its involvement should not mean an increase of state power. It should only compensate for a weakening of the state due to the current crisis. If we remain within these boundaries, any involvement of the military is based on respect for the sanctuary of civilian society, and the Bundeswehr is a strong partner in the face of overwhelming crises.

But it is not enough only to demand this restraint from the Bundeswehr, which in any case must be strictly observed according to the provisions of the Basic Law. In addition, other political actors and civilian society should not call for assistance from the Bundeswehr beyond what is necessary. Civilian society should instead actively engage with the questions of risk and contingency, and develop strategies for dealing with risks and contingency individually, without reflexively demanding safety at the expense of freedom.

Contingency management as an individual challenge

Religion and religious ethics can also make an important contribution. According to Niklas Luhmann, the central task of religion is “contingency management”, which means keeping alive an awareness of unresolvable uncertainties and paradoxes. Particularly in view of current questions of risk in the context of the corona pandemic as well as ecological and political destabilization, this seems fundamental. Religion can help on the level of individual coping.

But the individual, just like society as a whole, has to develop “risk maturity” – the term that Wolfgang Kersting uses to describe a responsible approach to uncertainty.

“Thinking in terms of probabilities, weighing up multiple possibilities, forms part of the cognitive infrastructure of the modern era, for the modern era is the age of only relative, certainty-free rationality. [...] Hence in technical and moral respects we should become risk-mature and develop a system of managing uncertainties”.19

Risk maturity is the ability to take justified and responsible decisions even in situations characterized by high complexity and uncertainty. In a free society, risk is a constant companion. But uncertainty and insecurity also stem from an increasingly complex society and discourse environment. Insecurity is fueled by sometimes uncertain consequences of actions, by different standards of judgment held by those affected – on which consensus is rarely found – and by the pressure to act, which arises from the fact that passivity could also be highly dangerous.

Uncertainties abound in complex systems, as has become increasingly apparent during corona times. Therefore a priority of risk minimization – consistently applied – would result in complete paralysis of the capacity to act. Strict avoidance of any risk results in a resigned loss of innovation. It could therefore ultimately turn out to be a strategy that blocks potential for action and so creates more risks than it avoids. “Risk maturity” does not aim to absolutely minimize all risk, but to avoid a critical threshold of risks and increase flexible problem-solving potentials.

A social compromise on these thresholds has to be found, which every rational individual can potentially support. “Yet precisely because the perception of risk is not shaped by the grammar of absolute rationality, but is instead embedded in a plural perceptual behavior which balances different value perspectives, it should remain embedded in participatory decision-making models of risk management”.20 To the extent that many situations involving complex interrelationships are particularly context-sensitive, the judgment of those who are directly acting and affected acquires an essential importance over that of external experts. Particularly in the context of the corona crisis, risk maturity requires democratic processes that ceaselessly reflect on the decision-relevant limits of knowledge, with the representative involvement of the persons affected and various specialist expertise.

Risk maturity on the part of individuals and society is therefore complementary to the resilience resources that our society also draws from the involvement of the German armed forces. The path that Germany has taken so far is leading in the right direction, i.e. toward a just balance of freedom, risk, safety and stability. A perfect mix cannot be formulated as a recipe to suit all times and all communities; it is instead a subject of discussion which must be constantly democratically renegotiated in a pluralistic society.

The corona pandemic has shown that risks can occur which had not been considered in social discourse. It is therefore all the more reassuring that the Bundeswehr is making an active but at the same time subsidiary and restrained contribution to the resilience of our community. Under the weight of serious problems, and in the face of unforeseeable events, democratic processes can necessarily sometimes present only incomplete solutions. The involvement of the German armed forces helps to ensure that these processes do not collapse and are not swept aside because of crises, but instead are resilient. This enables our society to deal with crises – even such serious ones as this – in freedom.

1 (Translated from German.) Kramp-Karrenbauer, Annegret (2020): Statement, press conference of March 19, 2020.

2 (Translated from German.) Kramp-Karrenbauer, Annegret (2020): Statement, press conference of March 19, 2020.

3 Cf. Diamond, Jared (2005): Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.. New York.

4 Vogt, Markus / Schneider, Martin (2017): “Selbsterhaltung, Kontrolle, Lernen. Zu den normativen Dimensionen von Resilienz.” In: Karidi, Maria et al. (eds.): Resilienz. Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven zu Wandel und Transformation. Wiesbaden, pp. 103-123.

5 On this point cf. Vogt, Markus (2014): “Handeln unter der unsicheren Bedingung”. In: Neuner, Peter (ed.): Zufall als Quelle von Unsicherheit. Freiburg im Breisgau / Munich, pp. 229-232.

6 (Translated from German.) Endreß, Martin / Rampp, Benjamin (2015): Resilienz als Perspektive auf gesellschaftliche Prozesse. Auf dem Weg zu einer soziologischen Theorie. In: Endreß, Martin and Maurer, Andrea (eds.): Resilienz im Sozialen. Wiesbaden, pp. 33-55.

7 On this point cf. Sloterdijk, Peter (2013): You Must Change Your Life. On Anthropotechnics. Cambridge, Malden, pp. 442 ff.

8 (Translated from German.) Horx, Matthias (2011): Das Megatrendprinzip. Wie die Welt von morgen entsteht. Munich, p. 306.

9 Taleb, Nassim (2012): Antifragile. Things that Gain from Disorder. London.

10 For example: Möhle, Holger (2020): “Einsatz ohne Beispiel, Kommentar zur Bundeswehr als Helfer in der Viruskrise”. In: Westfalenblatt (March 20, 2020), www.westfalen-blatt.de/Ueberregional/Meinung/4173846-Kommentar-zur-Bundeswehr-als-Helfer-in-der-Viruskrise-Einsatz-ohne-Beispiel (accessed October 29, 2020). Generally more critical, but clearly defending the use of the military against anti-militarism: Müller-Neuhof, Jost (2020): “Da kann die Verteidigungsministerin dem Linksdrall mal einen einschenken”. In: Der Tagesspiegel (October 2, 2020), www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/widerstand-gegen-bundeswehr-im-corona-einsatz-da-kann-die-verteidigungsministerin-dem-linksdrall-mal-einen-einschenken/26235826.html (accessed October 29, 2020).

11 Lübbe, Hermann (1994): “Moralismus oder fingierte Handlungssubjektivität in komplexen historischen Prozessen”. In: Lübbe, Weyma (ed.): Kausalität und Zurechnung. Über Verantwortung in komplexen kulturellen Prozessen. Berlin / New York, pp. 289-301, here p. 297. He defines moralism as the attempt to solve urgent problems of civilization via appeals to the collective of unorganized involved individuals; cf. ibid., p. 298.

12 Cf. Lübbe, Hermann (1994): “Moralismus oder fingierte Handlungssubjektivität in komplexen historischen Prozessen”. In: Lübbe, Weyma (ed.): Kausalität und Zurechnung. Über Verantwortung in komplexen kulturellen Prozessen. Berlin / New York, pp. 293-297.

13 Ulrich Beck analyzes the “risk society” and its globalization as the “world risk society” in light of fundamental deficits of political controllability and the illusion of promised but unfulfillable responsibility; cf. Beck, Ulrich (1992): Risk Society. Towards a New Modernity. London; Beck, Ulrich (2008): World Risk Society. Cambridge, Malden.

14 (Translated from German.) BVerfG NVwZ 2012, 1239 (1244).

15 When it comes to the details, the definition of deployment is disputed. On the state of opinion cf. Epping, Volker (2020): “Art. 87a GG”. In: Epping, Volker and Hillgruber, Christian (eds.): Beck’scher Online-Kommentar zum Grundgesetz. 44th edition, margin no. 18.

16 (Translated from German.)

17 (Translated from German.) BVerfGE 115, 118 (143).

18 (Translated from German.) Deutscher Bundestag (1967): Drucksache V/1879, p. 6.

19 (Translated from German.) Kersting, Wolfgang (2005): Kritik der Gleichheit. Über die Grenzen der Gerechtigkeit und der Moral. Weilerswist, p. 317; on risk maturity see the whole section on pp. 317-320.

20 (Translated from German.) Kersting, Wolfgang (2005): Kritik der Gleichheit. Über die Grenzen der Gerechtigkeit und der Moral. Weilerswist, p. 318.

Authors

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Prof. Dr. Markus Vogt (born 1962) is the chair for Christian Social Ethics in the Faculty of  Catholic Theology at LMU Munich (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität). He studied Catholic theology and philosophy at Munich, Jerusalem, and Lucerne (Switzerland). He took over the chair for Christian Social Ethics at LMU Munich in 2007. Markus Vogt is a member of the academic advisory board of the Institute for Theology and Peace (ithf) in Hamburg, and of the Center for Ethical Education in the Armed Forces (zebis). He became a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in 2019.

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Mag. theol. Rolf Husmann B.A. studied theology, philosophy and law at Münster, Munich, Uppsala (Sweden), Rome and Padua (Italy). He is currently completing his law studies at LMU Munich, where he also works as a research assistant at the chair of Christian Social Ethics.