Kosovo Offensive: Luftwaffe set for war after 54 years

Germany's Taboo
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FEAR STALKS Germany, the fear of German soldiers going into battle in a distant field. It has not happened for 54 years, but over the skies of Kosovo, any day now, a German is almost sure to fire in anger, breaking a national taboo of two generations.

The Germans have ducked out of previous conflicts with great skill. In place of troops, they had sent a cheque to the allied battalions that liberated Kuwait. And although they had loudly proclaimed their special interest in the Balkans, they declined to contribute to the defence of Sarajevo and the other so-called "safe havens" of Bosnia. When the war came to an end in 1995, Germany sent in army doctors and nurses, stationing them at a safe distance from the main conflagration.

But now the Germans are coming. A fleet of 14 Luftwaffe Tornados is standing by at the Italian base of Piacenza. Their missiles were armed a year ago, after the German parliament, the Bundestag, voted to approve German participation in a Nato strike. Since then, the pilots have been watching developments closely on CNN.

German politicians are not sending them in lightly. Discussions about whether the constitution allowed Germans to kill abroad in situations not directly endangering the Fatherland have been going on at various intensity for decades. With a leftist government now in power, the marching orders are particularly ironic. The Greens coalesced 20 years ago largely around their pacifist sentiment. Yet it is now a Green Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, who must tell the country that bombing the Serbs is the only way. Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, another former peacenik, explained the decision in the simplest words: "There is no other choice."

The 14 German Tornados will be in the first waves of any attacks. Their mission is to destroy Serbian air defences and radar installations, softening the enemy for the heavier bombers of the US.

That is where the Germans draw the line. To illustrate the government's lack of enthusiasm for the Kosovo mission, Defence Minister Rudolf Scharping has already made it clear that German ground troops will be kept out of the action. About 3,000 soldiers of the Bundeswehr are camped in Macedonia - half near the Kosovo border, ostensibly looking after the OSCE monitors who are no longer there.

The other half are, in principle, available for a Nato mission invited by Slobodan Milosevic into Kosovo. As that is not likely to happen, the troops are digging in.

They are about to be united with their heavy gear, arriving via the Greek port of Thessaloniki. However, the German press is full of stories about the shambolic nature of this force. The 28 Leopard tanks are said to be too bulky for the small roads leading to the Macedonian capital, Skopje. The government denies this, but admits that reports suggesting the Leopards lack spare parts are not without foundation.

There are also rumours that the German encampments are vulnerable to Serbian air attacks. The government says this is nonsense, but is rushing Stinger air defence missiles to Macedonia, just in case.

The hardware will probably work. No one is quite certain, however, how the soldiers will react. Unlike other forces, the German army and Luftwaffe are governed by the central dogma of "Innere Fuhrung" - "internal leadership". Because of their history, German soldiers are encouraged to place moral considerations above military commands. If they don't like the order, they can lump it. The folks back home will understand.