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An Ethical and Moral Challenge for Soldiers of the German Armed Forces

"Are we still at peace, or is this already war?"

Uncertainty appears to be the hallmark of a kind of warfare that has entered our language as “hybrid.” Intentionally causing confusion is regarded in expert circles as being part of the essential core of its operations. Nothing seems clear, only one thing is certain: with this form of warfare, the military is supposedly no longer dominant. The increasingly “creative use” of civilian methods and means, and the blurring of hitherto recognized boundaries to achieve political goals, are apparently outpacing the classical categories of military thought and action. Covert operations mixed with the overt use of tools of war, the systematic infiltration of intelligence personnel or soldiers without insignia into crisis areas, deliberate disinformation and propaganda, stirring up social tensions in conflict regions, foreign powers building up military potential close to borders combined with economic pressure – all of this together paints a picture of war that appears more total than anyone was previously willing to imagine.

Not least in light of security policy activities in Ukraine and the Middle East, the traditional understanding of wartime operations is losing its doctrinaire selectivity.

In its concept of networked security, the Western alliance developed a kind of strategic counterplan. For this, all existing and available political and military instruments – ranging from rapid reaction forces to financial and economic sanctions, cyber defense, reconnaissance, and police investigations as well as information campaigns – are to be synchronized as best as possible through networking in line with an effective defense strategy.

However, within these strategic consider­ations, German policy makers, armed forces, and the society in general see themselves faced with the challenge of being “intellectually” prepared for the temporally and regionally unlimited political character of hybrid conflicts. Even at the conceptual stage of considerations, it is clear that, for us as soldiers of the German armed forces – as potential participants in future hybrid scenarios – the hitherto known boundaries between war and peace will appear strangely blurred; fundamental distinctions will be even more difficult to determine than they already were.The “dissolution of borders” in conflicts is proceeding apace; as a “citizen in uniform,” I will foreseeably come up against not only legal but also ethical and moral boundaries. Within hybrid deployment scenarios, too, the duty of soldiers may include having to kill – their contribution, in other words, of resolving the conflict in the sense of an ultima ratio.

This requirement stands in diametric opposition to that which tries to prevent them from doing this: their own conscience, the law, a fear of punishment, or a sense of shame – as well as the belief in intellectually agreeing with the basic principles of our constitution, according to which every person is worth just as much as oneself. In order to make resulting inner tensions controllable, special rules of engagement (for the use of military force in armed conflicts) have been issued, which change individual parameters so that for us as soldiers, in defined situations, it is expressly not “wrong” if we are forced to kill. To some people, a sentence like that might sound confusing, almost cynical. In ideologically charged discussions, being a soldier, using violence, and killing are often assumed to be an “unholy trinity.”

Perhaps at this point the objection is warranted that killing is by no means approved of in the military. On the contrary. Even if, under “regulated conditions” of war and deployment, killing appears to be socially accepted, such an extreme experience always demands a personal decision to be made – from any soldier. Even if he is able, in a combat or battle situation, to temporarily set aside his civilizing instincts, this is hardly possible for his conscience or sense of shame. Anyone who chooses the profession of soldier should ultimately be clear about the fact that, as part of the constitutionally enshrined task of the armed forces, he could be forced to have to kill. For us – thank goodness – extreme experiences of this kind are still absolute exceptions. Nevertheless, past operations – especially in Afghanistan – have made it clear that personal action in extreme situations cannot be legitimized solely by the idea of serving a greater good – the security of Germany. “Having to kill” inevitably leads any soldier into ethical and moral dilemma situations.

I firmly believe that only a credible and convincing value framework can provide orientation for thoughts and action in these situations. In my understanding of what it is to be a soldier, “I was only following orders” must never again be regarded as sufficient.

This is not only the essential point that emerges from reflection on German history of the past century, but is also – in my view – a conscious differentiation from the brutal murder perpetrated by holy warriors of the “Islamic State,” which we are currently witnessing in Iraq and Syria. These “fighters” commit murder intentionally and without remorse – not, for instance, because they have become “bad people,” almost overnight, under the influence of religious propaganda. They murder with such ruthlessness because the mechanisms which are supposed to prevent violence in a functioning civil society have completely broken down, to be replaced by a “rule of violence.” In bewilderment and with great reluctance, in the face of the indifference to human suffering that we are observing, we must understand thatthis, too, is a particular “mode of human experience,” but one at an unbridgeable distance from the civil society in which we live.

In conflict scenarios that are becoming increasingly hybrid, the likelihood of a clash with unrestrained fanaticism is high; in encounters with organized actors who, in their conception that they are fighting for their god or some higher power, know no limits to their brutality. For many of us, the immediate experi­ence of such a callous, merciless attitude will trigger feelings of helplessness and rage; and a demand for more rigorous rules of engagement – beyond the leadership philosophy of Innere Führung (leadership development and civic education), which is felt to be too “soft.” How else can such “bestiality” be tackled effectively?

From a functional point of view, this seems almost comprehensible; after all, an army proves itself in the tasks that a real world sets for it. And in doing so, it learns what it needs to learn. The danger is that one of the “lessons learned” hereby could seemingly be that “the ends justify the means.” Yet if an emotional perception experienced by soldiers in the German Armed Forces automatically triggered reactive social behavior of this kind, we would lose  the essential justification for that which we are fighting for. To be deployed in complex, highly emotionally charged scenarios, in which all norms and rules appear suspended, and yet still be able to experience feelings of empathy and consideration, is likely to be one of the crucial ethical and moral tests for soldiers in the German Armed Forces.

How well is our own organization prepared for challenges of this kind? Will the current management philosophy prove resilient under the described conditions?

Current discussions make it clear that many soldiers now perceive the essential core of Innere Führung as being associated only with commands and duties – namely, as more of an intellectual concern with principles and rules that all too idealistically describe what a soldier “should” do. This makes it clear that the management philosophy and guiding principle of our army are in danger of making abstract demands, which, in the absence of emotional involvement, will hardly show any conscious impact on the social behavior of its soldiers or provide them with guidance in the context of an increasing sense of disorientation. Admittedly, Innere Führung in its pure form is an ideal, and an army in keeping with this management philosophy remains a utopia.

But I feel that Innere Führung is always more than its definition and personally regard  it more as an experience. It is combined with the realization that only I myself can make it clear who I am as a soldier and who I want to be. Furthermore, I do not believe it possible to answer intellectually specific questions arising in my everyday life as a soldier using a leadership philosophy and on the basis of a guiding principle that is binding for all. I tend to find my answers in things that I have experienced and lived through in the soldierly community.At the same time, I also reflect upon my actions to see whether I have done what I previously thought I was supposed to have understood to be what I “should” do. It is one thing to think clever things when it comes to leadership culture and the soldier’s self-image, and to “feel thrilled” about it. However, here, too what counts is whether I then actually do what I have recognized as being the right thing to do.

Thus, Innere Führung cannot be understood as a confessionally correct model for dealing with all ethical and moral challenges in our profession. Doubts remain and are normal – also as an opportunity to continue learning. What personally sustains me is more “my heart’s quest” for a sense of soldierly community, for camaraderie, for soldierly identity. Skepticism about the effectiveness of the concept of Innere Führung may very well be a part of this quest. I firmly believe that one can have doubts about individual formulations but nevertheless be able to live their “spirit.”

Even so, it is important that the greatest possible number should be able to believe in the shared vision of a soldierly community. Indeed, the will to trust and serve is more than an inner matter. Allowing closeness to other people who trust in the same thing, enabling shared tasks to be performed better, is the essential core of camaraderie. It is not abstract, but rather a “feeling” when interacting with one another on a daily basis. Understood in this way, Innere Führung can help us to “take something to heart” and to want to make a lasting change to something in this spirit. Sometimes this is nothing more than a new perspective that provides orientation at the right time – also and particularly in the confusing circumstances of hybrid conflict scenarios.

But Innere Führung is never effective in an arbitrary way and is not an all-purpose tool for universally dealing with ethical and moral challenges. It is based on particular rules, because social coexistence among soldiers is not possible without this. Yet these exterior rules should have the effect, above all, the effect of helping us to understand the interior connections. Every soldier has the task of interpreting and shaping his life, both when he is wearing his uniform and not. The results are and will always remain provisional. Despite this, they significantly influence ideas concerning how we want to coexist and also “fight” as a community. But if we are not willing to live as part of and for a soldierly community, we will not be able to win any “hearts” for it. Innere Führung does not provide any “rules of life” here – either in generally valid or definitive terms. It is rather a “testimony” in that it tells us what we can experience and pull through together if we live by what we consider to be important.

Major General Jürgen Weigt

Major General Jürgen Weigt is Commander of the Center for Leadership, Development, and Civic Education of the German Armed Forces (Zentrum für Innere Führung der Bundeswehr) in Koblenz. After completing a degree in Education at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Hamburg, Major General Jürgen Weigt has served on numerous leadership and ministerial assignments in the armed forces during his military career. Prior to his position in Koblenz, he worked as commander of the Army Officers’ Academy (Offizierschule des Heeres) in Dresden. Under NATO and UN mandates, he has taken part in various Bundeswehr deployments overseas, most recently representing the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan in 2011.

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All articles in this issue

Hybrid Attacks Demand Comprehensive Defense
Bastian Giegerich
Hybrid Wars. The Dissolution of the Binary Order of War and Peace, and Its Consequences
Herfried Münkler
"Hybrid Warfare" – A Possible Trigger for Advances in the Comprehensive Approach?
Fouzieh Melanie Alamir
From Hybrid Threats to Hybrid Security Policy
Christian Mölling
Just Peacemaking and Hybrid Wars
Drew Christiansen SJ
Old Wars, New Rules – The Impacts of Hybrid Warfare on Women
Karin Nordmeyer
Myths of Hybrid Warfare
Mary Ellen O’Connell
"Hybrid Warfare" and the Continuing Relevance of the Just War Tradition in the 21st Century
David Whetham
Media Battlefields: Hybrid Wars and Their Communicative Declarations of War
Bernd Zywietz


Michael Gmelch Jan Heymann Andreas-Martin Seidl Elke Tießler-Marenda
Jürgen Weigt