The empires strike back

As the world focuses on the Balkans, the return of Germany and Japan to military action barely made news.

Published March 29, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

They're back.

For the first time since their empires lay in sizzling ruins a half-century ago in the waning days of World War II, old Axis partners Germany and Japan went on the offensive this week, firing and bombing outside their borders.

As Germany dropped bombs on targets in Yugoslavia, and Japanese warships pursued unmarked spy ships across the Sea of Okhotsk to North Korea, the two powers seemed a shadow of their former ferocious selves militarily, but they crossed a historic, if symbolic, threshold nonetheless.

The unprecedented events were widely noted in Europe but virtually unnoticed here amid headlines on the bombast in the Balkans, as NATO warships and missiles pounded Serb targets, and turmoil erupted on Yugoslavia's frontiers with Macedonia and Albania. Even Greece, subjected to Nazi atrocities during the Third Reich's 1941-45 occupation, had little to say about the German Tornadoes dropping bombs to the north, opting instead to denounce the NATO offensive as destabilizing to the region.

Even less was made of Japan's first naval engagement since the meltdown of the Imperial Empire in 1945, as Tokyo's warships hotly pursued two unmarked spy ships, disguised as fishing trawlers but bristling with antennae and steaming at unnatural speeds. Japanese military ships, firing warning shots, joined in the chase after the coast guard failed to stop the fleeing vessels, which were moving at high speed. Japanese warplanes also dropped what officials called "warning bombs.'' The spy ships escaped undamaged into North Korean ports, leaving behind a debate across Japan over its proper military role.

But the sudden reanimation of the two former military titans is just one more sign of the shifting balance of world power already evident in the conflict over Kosovo.

The changing role of Germany is most obvious. Japan and Germany's postwar constitutions, virtually dictated by the Allied victors, strictly limit their military forces to self-defense or, in Berlin's case, action in concert with NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization established in 1949. Germans were prohibited from taking part in Operation Desert Storm, targeting Iraq, in 1991.

But currently some 3,000 Germans -- nearly a third of the European and U.S. peace-keeping force for Kosovo -- are deployed in Macedonia, the potato-shaped republic stuck between Kosovo and Greece. Fourteen German warplanes have been bombing Yugoslavia from the soil of another fascist-era ally, Italy.

Nazi forces, allied with fascist Croatia, viciously attacked Belgrade in 1941. To some, especially victims and surviving Allied war veterans, the specter of rifle-toting "Huns" on foreign soil and the Japanese Navy pursuing enemy ships across the open sea inevitably evokes new shudders and old nightmares. Those with no memories of the global holocaust -- the vast majority of today's Americans, Europeans and Asians -- will most likely say it's about time that the two economic superpowers started carrying their military weight.

Either way, the deployment of German air and ground units abroad this week marks the biggest break yet with the Third Reich's bitter Nazi legacy, positioning a reunified Berlin on the threshold of becoming the inevitable military -- not just financial -- leader of the New Europe.

As European papers devoted pages to the World War II memories of Nazi pilots, Germans themselves maintained a stoic aloofness over their historic step back into the Balkans.

"There's not a huge debate going on there, no huge demonstrations for or against the involvement in Kosovo," said Claudius Fischbach, a spokesman at the German embassy in Washington. "I think the general feeling is that this was an indispensable step of the international community to avert a deepening humanitarian crisis in Kosovo, that's all."

Fischbach added: "No one was looking forward to it."

Even Germany's pacifist Green Party supported the German mobilization, though there were pockets of dissent in parliament from individual Greens and former East German communists. The relative quiet was surprising in a country that quickly erupts in protest over fascist sentimentality in the ranks of the Bundeswehr, Germany's 330,000-strong army.

In 1991 there were reports that Germany was disappointed it had been prohibited from participating in Desert Storm, but Fischbach called those reports "incorrect."

As for whether Germans felt pride in their country's belated military coming out in Kosovo last week, he said, "I can't see that anywhere now. "

In a nation with a deep military culture, however, there was carping that NATO didn't do it right. "A surprise air attack would have been better. NATO unnecessarily weakened its chances,'' complained Bernhard Gertz, chairman of the Federal Army Association, which represents German soldiers' interests.

Meanwhile, there are signs that Japan -- facing the missile-rattling North Koreans a day's sail away, and a muscular Chinese military buildup only 500 miles from its southernmost islands -- is likely to take even more, albeit cautious, steps toward a military role commensurate with its economic muscle.

"There's no question that Japan is beginning to realize inch by inch how dangerous that part of the world is and is preparing to do a little more," said Ayoko Doi, editor of the U.S.-based Japan Digest and a former correspondent for Japan Times. "But it's still at a stage where the politicians in the Diet debate whether it's constitutional or not to supply water to U.S. warships going to conflicts in Korea," Doi chuckled. "That would be aiding a war effort."

Doi humorously recounted the worried conversations between Japanese naval commanders and Tokyo officials even as they pursued the spy ships across the sea toward North Korea last week.

"There was a debate while the chase was going on, between the destroyers and Tokyo, of whether to shoot at the rudder to incapacitate the ships or not," she said. "The Navy guy said we have only 5-inch guns, and if we use them, it will blow up the whole stern and sink the ships and people will die and we can't do that. So they didn't, they just fired warning shots, and when they came to the end of the Japan air self-defense zone, they said, that's it."

The Japanese government, which usually downplays North Korea's constant provocations -- from dumping amphetamines on Tokyo's black market to flinging a ballistic missile over the country last summer -- no doubt made a big deal of the spy ship intrusion on purpose, to tilt a just-opened parliamentary debate over Japan's military profile, including the question of whether to embrace a theater missile defense system and extend its operational zone to Taiwan.

Reflecting Japanese restiveness, just last week Tokyo's outgoing ambassador to the United States warned the U.S. to reduce its criticism of Japan, or risk reviving militant nationalist sentiment at a time when many people still wave the Rising Sun flag and sing the wartime national anthem.

"I'm not worried about a problem yet," warned Kunihiko Saito, "but I don't think we should forget that only 50 or 60 years ago we made some big mistakes, and one of the reasons was excessive nationalism."

As German pilots flew their maiden missions toward Kosovo with the setting sun on their backs Thursday, however, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder issued an appropriately somber statement.

"The government did not take the decision lightly," he said. "After all, this is the first time since World War II that German soldiers have been deployed in combat.''

The threshold had been crossed.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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