Between Counter-Strike and Comradeship

A Global Journalism Project
by Julia Leiber, Sandra Lohse, Selina Oberpriller and Matthias Reinelt

Do we need armed forces in every country? Should military service be mandatory for young people? Questions asked in modern democracies – like in Germany. How the German armed forces Bundeswehr tries to form its identity.

A tower wrapped in camouflage shows the way to the biggest event in Dillingen today: The armed forces visitor day. In front of the tower: A red sign with Arabic inscription on it. Families, pensioners and adolescents pour to their Saturday-trip. On top of the tower: A soldier with a gun – apparently a MG. “Is this the new MG or the old one?” asks an elderly man. “The old one”, replies the soldier. “Ah I know this one as well”, shouts the visitor like talking about a car. A situation representative for that day. Weapons, camouflage and tanks next to baby carriages, sun blocker and beer.

This year the fifth armed forces visitor day took place at 14 different locations simultaneously all over Germany. Barracks opened their doors and gave visitors insight in all kinds of departments they have.
24.000 people came only to visit the information engineering battalion in Dillingen, a 19.000 inhabitants city in Bavaria. Organizer Oliver Burkhart says the visitor day became necessary because the suspension of conscription created a gap between the civil population and the military.

In the course of the end of Cold War the number of soldiers was constantly decreasing since October 1990 from 585.000 soldiers to their all-time low with 166.500 professional and regular soldiers in June 2016. Subsequently there has been staff reduction for 26 years. Since conscription was suspended on the first of July 2011 in Germany, Bundeswehr has to actively recruit their employees.
Due to Ukraine crisis and because the German budget was prospering, former defence minister Ursula von der Leyen announced in the same year that the workforce is supposed to grow again – the project is called trend reversal. The purpose is to reach 203.000 soldiers until 2025.

The main interest of the visitor day is to cast a positive light on the German armed forces, Bundeswehr and presenting it as a modern, competitive and attractive employer. Visitors can test-drive tanks, watch close combats and get to know some of Bundeswehr’s top athletes.

„A turning point in the recruitment structure of our country“

Colonel Frank Reiland
Source: Bundeswehr/Max Strote

Colonel Frank Reiland is the head of Bundeswehr’s recruitment department. He says the automatism that society runs automatically to the military was interrupted with the suspension in 2011. In former times, it was normal for young men to do military service. Nowadays people think it’s important that military exists but they don’t consider it as their own employer. So, the suspension increased the emotional distance between the population and the military. Colonel Reiland notices this, for example, in consultations nowadays, when they use standardized words that used to be commonplace like “sergeant”. Simple conceptual words are no longer anchored in today’s generation. For him “this is a turning point in the recruitment structure of our country.” That’s the reason why young people have to be recruited actively by Reiland and his team now.

And Bundeswehr does not make a secret about that – a big green truck with the word “career” on it is supposed to attract young people and their parents. The sixteen-year-old Florian does not need to be attracted anymore – he is sure: he will work for the armed forces. ”I always went to fairs where they had their job-offer and I thought it is a very versatile job where you have to take responsibilities”, Florian explains. He will do an apprenticeship at Bundeswehr. Isn’t there always a bit of fear? “Yes, of course. Anything could happen anytime – you never know.“

Nevertheless the military seems to be an attractive employer for young people, the place in front of the truck is crowded like a schoolyard. Friedrich is one of the local visitors who does not want to be attracted for a job. On the one hand because he is already 20 years old and goes to university. On the other hand because he did not want to have the duty for so many years in this young age.

There are different options to join the German military. Men and women starting at the age of 17 can accomplish a “Freiwilliger Wehrdienst” (FWD). This means voluntary military service and is comparable to how the compulsory military service used to look like. After three months of basic training they get prepared for deployment in the armed forces. Within half a year there’s the possibility to quit, afterwards they enrol for up to 23 months in total. After their FWD they can choose to become a regular soldier, who is serving for a fixed term. But it’s also possible to start with that right away, without accomplishing the FWD before. After the term of being a regular soldier the third option is to make an application for becoming a professional soldier. This means deciding to be a soldier until retirement.

Military service worldwide

Since the end of the last century a lot of countries ended conscription. As an overview, we created a map based on data from CIA – The World Factbook. Click the map for several information about conscription in each country in the interactive view.

„The campaigns cause more effect than a single person ever could“

Recruiter Franz-Josef May in front of the Bundeswehr recruiting truck – „On our way to find your strengths. Do what really matters“

Of course there are not only soldiers but also several civil positions in military. Franz-Josef May is one of them, working as a recruiter he isn’t wearing an uniform. Based in Augsburg he advises people about their professional possibilities in Bundeswehr. “Back in the days, everybody knew someone working for the armed forces. The uncles, brothers and fathers were liable to military service”, tells May – now the military is not that lucid anymore. The reason: “Our former Minister meant to abolish the conscription.” The problem: “80 percent of the regular soldiers are former persons liable for military service”, explains May. Because of that, the active recruiting gets more and more important. That’s why Bundeswehr has been running several advertisement campaigns for a few years now. These campaigns cause more effect than a single person like him ever could. According to May it’s not only about going to schools anymore. Representing the work of the armed forces in the internet is essential nowadays.

So the only reason to organize such a big event like the visitor day is to make the armed forces more lucid? A lot of expenditure for a nice Saturday-family-trip. Already a few weeks before the visitor day, the barracks in Dillingen hired German stars and influencer to promote the event online. Among them a German playmate, a comedian and an ex-bachelor.

Marketing Expert Christian Rechmann

For marketing expert Christian Rechmann, the star-promo has a single message: “The selection of the prominent figures fits the campaign – it addresses the lower class.” With the campaign Rechmann means all the advertisement Bundeswehr published the last few years. With a call for tenders, the department of defense searched for an advertising agency to give Bundeswehr a new face. The agency CASTENOW got the job and started a big campaign with the claim “Do what really matters”. Since then the German armed forces are represented on the streets, in public transportation, in schools, on Facebook, Snapchat, they even have their own Youtube Channel – as an adolescent you can’t overlook the military job offers. And that’s pricey. According to the federal government, just in 2018 34,48 million Euros were spent for Bundeswehr’s personnel advertising.

“They only attract the muscles and not the brain”

Also, one of the posters of the campaign was criticized a lot in German media: At the Gamescom – the worlds biggest fair for gaming – the Bundeswehr made an advertisement comparing a multiplayer game with multiplayer in real life – the armed forces. As to Rechmann, the moral is one of the most important things in doing campaigns – more important than the success of the campaign. As a governmental facility the armed forces should really be careful with being immoral. “They had scandals and for me, the immoral campaigns remind me of that: It reminds me of soldiers being knocked down in showers, of people that collapse in training sessions and of bullying. As the Bundeswehr I would be over-morally instead of being casual”, warns Rechmann.

„Multiplayer at its best“ – the armed forces tries to attract gamers of shooting games like Counter-Strike. The small print says „Real Comradeship instead of singleplayer mode“.

“I wouldn’t say the print campaign is bad per se. I think the claim ‚Do what really matters‘ is a good claim for armed forces. It promises something right and I  would say, the armed forces could actually fulfill that”, says Rechmann generally about the campaign. But he also criticizes something about what the German armed forces tries to do with their campaign. He sees a clear strategy behind that. All the videos and photos only show sports, fights, weapons – it’s like they promote an adventure vacation. Rechmann thinks they should also try to attract academics – that is what he doesn’t see in the campaign. “They only attract the muscles and not the brain”, Rechmann concludes.

The online campaign also reached twenty-year-old Friedrich. Friedrich thinks about the visitor day and about what he has seen, before he says: “For example the YouTube series The recruits – that’s a definite no-go! I think, if we would have conscription there would be a cross-section of the German society. It would have another image. Right now it feels like only a certain type of people is represented in the miliary”. The recruits is a YouTube series that was published in 2016. The spectator can accompany young men and women during their basic training. In a total of 58 videos you can see what the volunteers experience during their first three months.

Rechmann would agree to that argument. For him, the majority of the campaigns is made for the same target group like The Bachelor, Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity … Get me out of here. He implies that the armed forces tries to attract young men with lower qualification. “I think that’s very sad because the Bundeswehr needs good computer specialists, good doctors and people that can think strategically – maybe they need them more necessarily than they need people who can carry a weapon”, says Rechmann.

In that point the statement of Colonel Reiland, responsible for personnel development work of Bundeswehr, concedes to Rechmann: „We absolutely don’t have a problem with candidats in general. But we have a problem with the lack of specialized personnel, for example combat aircraft pilots”, he states. In general, that’s a challenging task in Germany: the fight for skilled workers. There’s a concurrence to the industry, so the armed forces try to offer better conditions like high salary or a good work-life-balance.

Even though German media often criticizes that military has problems recruiting young men and women, Colonel Reiland doesn’t see any problem: “We have set ourselves annual targets for how much we would like to recruit per year in each target group and are fulfilling these plans”.  The plan is to have 203.300 soldiers by 2025. For example, within the next six years, up to 14.000 regular and professional soldiers have to be recruited. The growth per year in this area is 2.000 to 2.500 soldiers, according to Reiland they are making good time. The target for this year, 174.800 soldiers, will already be reached in July, so Reiland isn’t worried at all. A reactivation of conscription would in his opinion only make sense or be necessary if the menace in Germany would change fundamentally.

Why do people in other countries join the military?
We asked adolescents from the USA, Lithuania, Denmark, Greece and Switzerland.

So the great challenge is to reach potential candidates who want to be volunteers just as qualified employees or students. “While people used to come up to me, I have to get out to them today”, says Colonel Reiland. He adds that the recruiting is successful through active modern approach, for example the new design, that meanwhile has become a brand name and is associated with the armed forces by most of the people. “I have to offer the access channel the person is looking for. If I want to reach 17-year-olds after graduation, I need to be on their platforms, like YouTube and Instagram”.

One strategy of the campaign is telling people that you can do sports in the armed forces and experience a lot of exciting things. But there are many reasons more that count, like for example the comradeship. The 24-year-old German Joel Capalbo joined the armed forces three months ago. He didn’t really find his way before that: He studied two different studies with economics, worked in a company, when a friend from university told him, that he will join the armed forces. Joel toyed with the idea of joining Bundeswehr for two years – till he really did.

„We go through everything together“

Oliver Burkhart, organizer of the visitor day in Dillingen stresses out the importance of comradeship as well: “Young people learn how to deal with people. I think today that could be even more important: The adolescents of the smartphone-generation don’t search any contact to society, they only deal with themselves. Military service is giving something back to the great country we’re living in”. He also says he probably wouldn’t have joined the armed forces voluntarily if there wouldn’t have been conscription at that time.