How much toughness should soldiers be forced to endure?Image: AP
When Bullies Enter the Military
Tamsin Walker, DW-WORLD.DE
December 8, 2004
Recent reports of mobbing -- bullying -- in the German army, the Bundeswehr, have caused the nation to look at the phenomenon more closely. But it is by no means a purely German occurrence.
While the German government attempts to get to the bottom of allegations that training officers carried out staged hostage-takings on a number of young army recruits at a camp in western Germany and overstepped the boundary to abuse, the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) is trying to fight off the latest mobbing claims levelled at its own army.
At the center of those allegations are the deaths of four young recruits who trained at the Deepcut military barracks between 1995 and 2001. Internal investigations revealed four counts of suicide, but relatives of the dead claimed the soldiers fell prey to a culture of fear and violence, and have called for a public inquiry.
Despite a police report investigating abuse at Deepcut, which besides the four fatalities, uncovered a further 173 allegations of rape, racism, and beatings, Armed Services Minister Adam Ingram has so far ruled out the idea of commissioning an independent inquiry.
Calling for help
This reluctance to allow an independent body to poke about in the armed forces has come as no surprise to Malcolm Thorn, who is trying to convince the MoD to officially recognize his organization called "Forces Helpline."
Thorn set up his helpline in response to what he recognized as a need among soldiers to seek confidential advice on bullying, and he's been overwhelmed at the response. "I've had thousands of people contacting me, not only from the UK, but also from Germany, Holland and even New Zealand," Thorn told DW-WORLD.
The willingness on the part of soldiers to speak out about incidents of military mobbing seems to be growing. Just last week, soldiers in the Austrian army shocked the public with their revelations of torture during training sessions intended to prepare them for hostage situations. That the training got way out of hand was documented on a video tape showing extreme tactics resembling those reported at the US-controlled Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where the recruits were stripped, hooded and dragged across the ground.
More than toughening up recruits
Although the recent incidents of torture in Austria, Germany and Britain have hit the headlines owing to their shock value, Thorn said the usual range of allegations, which are largely lodged by young recruits, reflect his own experiences of military mobbing.
"I joined the army when I was 18. I was a bit of a wimp and I wanted to be toughened up, but I got beaten to a pulp," Thorn said.
While he confirmed that physical horrors, such as hanging recruits out of the window by their boot laces or bathing them in freezing cold water mixed with human excrement are practices which still go on in the army, he said that mental mobbing has just the same power to break a man.
The power of words
It's a view shared by Sven Knüppel, who, now a reservist lieutenant in the Bundeswehr, has two decades of experience in the ranks of the German armed forces. "A soldier might be able to withstand serious physical exertion, but if he is constantly subjected to verbal degradation, no matter how small, that can take its toll," Knüppel told DW-WORLD.
That said, he doesn't believe there is a strong culture of bullying in the German military. "The British army has a very different structure to the Bundeswehr, in that its tradition has not been broken for many, many years. After 1945, the German forces were rebuilt in a completely different way. Yet that is not to say that these things don't happen, because there are always some crazy people who let their personal style flow back down through the ranks," Knüppel said.
But do the armed forces have a disproportionate number of bullies? Patrick Tissington, a psychologist who has researched the phenomenon, told DW-WORLD he didn't think the army particularly attracts bullies.
"But because of the physical nature of the work, the effects of military mobbing tend to be more dramatic," he said. "And what is also very different, is that there is no way to go home."
A widespread phenomenon
Although there is nothing remotely new about bullying, it is now more squarely in the mainframe of the collective consciousness than ever before and is recognized as a problem which not everyone can forget about even once they leave the school yard.
Bullying is certainly not just limited to the barracks.
Official statistics from a "Mobbing Report" commissioned by Germany's Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health documented that one in nine Germans will be mobbed at the office at least once during their working life. The highest number of cases are in hospitals, closely followed by employees in social professions such as caregivers for the elderly, public servants and employees of the church.
"This is the human condition. There is a capability of this kind of thing in all of us. We tend to follow with the crowd, and if the crowd isn't stopped from bullying, it just continues. Of course it's about power, about picking on the weak, but it's also about a desire to be in control of our environment. What are needed are good leaders, who deal with the problems early on," Tissington said.