Germany scrambled Friday to limit the damage stemming from the publication of photographs of some of its servicemen in macabre and sometimes obscene poses with a human skull and skeleton in Afghanistan.
The images, one of which showed a skull next to a soldier's exposed penis and first splashed across the mass-selling Bild tabloid this week, have sparked disbelief and outrage in the country as well as fears of protests in the Muslim world.
German politicians have unanimously condemned the incidents and an official inquiry has already led to the suspension of two soldiers.
"I'm devastated and also worried, both about the abuse of Islamic values as well as the yet unforeseeable consequences of these incidents," said Winfried Nachtwei, defense policy spokesman of the opposition Green Party.
Though defense experts have been at pains to point out that the incidents are isolated and that the entire 2,800-strong contingent of German peacekeepers in Afghanistan shouldn't be tarred with the same brush, many are calling for a review of army training programs and the preparedness of German soldiers participating in overseas missions.
The scandal coincides with the presentation to lawmakers this week of a new long-term national security policy, which predicts an increasingly important role for the armed forces abroad.
Training in cultural sensibilities
"We have to ask whether the training that soldiers undergo is sufficient," Reinhold Robbe, a Social Democrat parliamentarian and designated defense commissioner for the German parliament told broadcaster ZDF.
"Though the soldiers are trained very well in defense tactics, we have to equip them with more intercultural sensibilities and moral values," he said.
Thomas Ruttig, an expert on Afghanistan at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said that military training for soldiers being sent to Afghanistan did involve familiarizing them with the country's traditions and cultural sensibilities.
"Soldiers usually are briefed by all kinds of experts and institutions on developing understanding and tolerance for other religions and supplied with all kinds of material and manuals on the region," Ruttig said. "But of course there's no guarantee they will read what's handed out or that they're not sleeping in class."
Not a one-off case?
Revelations of further photographs and media reports that a field of bones near Kabul was used by international peacekeepers several times to stage grisly photo shoots, have however raised questions over whether such incidents may be more frequent than is claimed otherwise.
"We have to finally stop talking about all this being a one-off thing and pure coincidence," said Helmuth Prieß, chairman of the Darmstadt-based "Working Group of Critical Soldiers."
He pointed out that the Bundeswehr has been rocked by a series of scandals within Germany in recent years. In June this year, a German newspaper reported that new recruits with a paratrooper squadron in the state of Rheinland-Palatinate were subjected to humiliating initiation rituals including stripping naked and being slapped with paddles.
"We only hear a part of these incidents when they make it out into the open, but the real problem is much bigger," said Prieß, a former lieutenant.
"Being a soldier changes a person. Walking around with a loaded weapon in a foreign country, far away from everything that's familiar and bound within group dynamics, does lead to brutalization and a loss of inhibitions," he said.
On Friday, the Bild newspaper published an interview with a man it said belonged to the army patrol responsible for the initial photos. The witness was quoted as saying that macho culture and poor morale were to blame for the incidents in Afghanistan.
Changing role, increasing demands
Many experts agreed that part of the problem also lies in the changing role of the Bundeswehr -- away from being designed to protect Germany from foreign armies to one actively and increasingly participating in peacekeeping missions in the world's hottest spots. At present, more than 9,000 German soldiers are deployed in peacekeeping missions around the world.
"The thing with foreign deployments is that even a low-level soldier faces increased demands. It's a high-stress job," said Nachtwei. "Within one minute, he has to be capable of dialogue and reaching out to the local populace as well as ready to fight and repulse an attack. That's a challenge that practically doesn't exist in any other profession."
"A hero is someone who opens his mouth"
Others point out that the Bundeswehr has to also offer better pay packages in order to attract the right talent as well as take steps to encourage soldiers to report any wrongdoing they witness.
The army needs to screen its candidates rigorously with the help of experienced independent and critical psychologists and doctors and make an effort to instill moral and ethical values in its recruits, said Prieß.
"It has to be made clear to the soldiers that a hero isn't someone who keeps his mouth shut, but rather someone who opens it to protest against inhuman acts."