Distributed November 2001
Copyright ©2001 by William O. Beeman
Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 790 Words


William O. Beeman

Op-Ed: German, Japanese help in Afghanistan conflict breaks a pattern

The addition of German and Japanese military resources to the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan raises Middle East suspicions and hatreds more than a century old and may create some domestic problems for those two countries. But German and Japanese support is also proof that even the worst of enemies can eventually become friends.


The U.S.-led conflict in Afghanistan has led to the first international military actions by Germany and Japan since World War II. This breaks a 50-year pattern and is thus a significant gesture. The German and Japanese efforts will help the United States both politically and logistically in Afghanistan. However, the militarization move may touch off internal and regional troubles for each nation.

The Bush administration in its “war against terrorism” has called for direct participation by Germany and Japan. Japan has already at this writing sent support troops and ships. Germany is considering a similar operation. Both nations have not provided troops for any combat mission since World War II, and no U.S. president has dared to make such a request until now for fear of upsetting conservatives and war veterans.

The symbolic impact of these actions on the people of the Middle East is likely to be great when the people realize that America is now cooperating with its World War II archfoes. Never mind that the actual numbers of troops are very small and that their role is to provide logistical support rather than engage in combat. The German-Japanese military presence makes the American coalition more credible.

The anger in the Middle East that underlies actions such as the attacks of September is more than 100 years old. Starting in the 19th century, European colonial powers began exploitation of the nations of the region. With their technologically superior military forces, they established territorial dominance, even to the point of direct annexation of territory. The principal European rivals for power during this period were Great Britain and Russia. It is small wonder then, that in two world wars the empires of the Middle East sided with Germany and its allies, since Germany was the enemy of Britain and Russia (in the form of the Soviet Union).

The Ottoman Empire suffered dismemberment as a result of this alliance in World War I. Reza Shah Pahlavi was forced into exile as a result of his seeming complicity with the Germans in World War II. Since World War II, Middle Easterners saw the United States as the successor to Great Britain. They therefore saw the Cold War not as a fight between communism and capitalism, but rather as a continuation of the old British-Russian rivalry. Thus far, President Bush’s campaign has enlisted two principal partners – Great Britain and Russia. For this reason, his efforts look like a continuation of the same old historical pattern. This has made both the coalition and American’s motives seem incredible.

People throughout the Middle East will note the entrance of America’s World War II enemies onto the scene as military partners. They will quickly note this as a significant departure from the century-old political pattern. For the purposes of this conflict, the United States would do well to encourage the Germans to proceed with their decision to participate and make much of the Japanese decision to send ships for logistical support.

However, there is a dark side to this development. Germany and Japan’s neighbors have been fearing the day when both nations would think about remilitarizing. With most of the former Eastern European nations likely to join NATO, the difficulty is not so great in the German case. Nevertheless, Poland and the Czech Republic are likely to watch developments closely. Japan constitutes a more serious problem. China, Korea and the Philippines still harbor deep resentment about Japanese military atrocities from World War II. Commentators in Korea have never stopped writing about the potential Japanese military threat. Even a semi-benign military role in opposition to terrorism in a region where Japan has clear economic interests is enough to set off alarums in Seoul.

The potential new military activities in Germany and Japan have sparked protests at home as well. Many Germans and Japanese are determined never to see their nations remilitarize. Even these small logistical support operations have been enough to provoke consternation among the citizenry of both nations.

All of this shows how intricate international relations are today and how little they can be based on pure expediency. What is likely to seem functional and sensible in one context raises fears and concerns in another. It also demonstrates that symbolic relations, historical memory and other intangible factors can trump considerations of power and economics.

However, on balance, these small moves by America’s former enemies are welcome proof that old wounds can heal – that enemies can eventually become friends. Germany, Japan and the United States may be signaling the effective end of World War II and taking steps toward a new world order. Let us hope that we will eventually be able to repair our conflict with the people of the Middle East in a similar manner.


William O. Beeman teaches anthropology at Brown University. A Middle East specialist with
more than 30 years experience in the region, he has also conducted research in Japan and Germany.

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