Born in Aberystwyth, John Dyfed Loesche served as a paratrooper in the German Army – the Bundeswehr. He has also worked as a journalist in Afghanistan. He spoke with Dr Sulien Morgan about his experiences.
Sulien Morgan: You were born in Aberystwyth on the western coast of Wales, so a good place to start is to ask how does someone born in Wales end up in a parachute regiment of the German army – the Bundeswehr?
John Dyfed Loesche: Yes, I was born in Wales but grew up in Hamburg, as my father was German. The draft was still in effect back then. Military service was compulsory. In reality though, many young men weren’t being recruited anymore and were left to do the alternative civilian service, as there was no need for a large standing army after the end of the Cold War. Still, the system was upheld and a percentage of recruits were drafted into the military. I joined the army after finishing my A-levels. To this day, the draft has still not officially been abolished, but instead was suspended in 2011. Nobody gets drafted anymore unless there is the real prospect of an all-out war.
Sulien: Was there any specific reason why you chose the parachute regiment? Paratroopers are often known for being amongst the elite soldiers in most armies; was this appealing to you at all – a kind of desire to train with and be amongst the best of the best so to speak?
John: Conscripts didn’t get to choose where they were sent. You could voice preferences about which branch you would like to join (the Navy, Army or Airforce) and say what you would be willing to do. Whilst still at school, I had to do a medical and physical examination and also take a written test. On one of the forms I ticked the box next to the question if I would be willing to join the paras. I repeated my willingness to do so when asked in a personal interview with a civil servant. My overall test mark was a so-called T2, so I could join all units, except for the guard’s battalion (those poor sods that get to stand in formation when foreign dignitaries are on a state visit to Germany).
That’s how I ended up being sent to a small town in Lower Saxony called Wildeshausen in the fall of 1999. The first two months were reserved for the basic training. I learnt to shoot, scrub boots, clean guns, march in line, attach green stuff to my helmet, dig fox holes and erect tents. Then I was transferred to my permanent unit located at the same base, a so-called air mobile mortar company, Luftlandemörserkompanie in German. There I was specifically trained on shoot mortars. In spring 2000 I was eventually sent to the Bavarian town of Altenstadt with some of my comrades, where back then all German paras were trained to jump out of planes.
I joined the paras for an adventure. That they are considered to be an elite force never interested me much. I was somewhat of a freak in my circle of friends, because anybody in their right mind tried to avoid having to join the army and did the alternative civilian service, doing good deeds tending to the sick and elderly in hospitals and retirement homes. I was shooting guns, firing off mortar rounds, running through the woods, driving around in Jeeps and jumping out of planes. Others surely know how to spend their time in a more productive manner.
Sulien: And what about staying on after you had served your required term of duty? Did it ever cross your mind to stay on, and maybe see active service somewhere?
John: No, not really. I had my fair share of adventure and couldn’t see myself staying on for longer, even though the pay would have been good. To be honest, adventures are much less adventurous when somebody orders you to take part in them. I hated some aspects of army life, like having to board the train to get back to the barracks on Sundays, but I have never regretted my time in the army.
Deployment wasn’t that big of an issue in the Bundeswehr back then. It was early days for German troops to be sent abroad and many people still felt strongly that the German army had no business whatsoever being deployed to other countries after the epic havoc the Germans managed to wreak all over Europe. Though, some German troops were for the first time since WWII deployed to former Yugoslavia as peace keepers. I had older comrades that had been on duty in Kosovo. But it wasn’t until the invasion of Afghanistan that German soldiers took part in a proper war again. This still was so controversial that it wasn’t until 2010 (!) that the former German Defence Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, tentatively called the conflict by its proper name: war.
Sulien: After leaving the military you returned to Aberystwyth to study International Politics. Do you think, after your experience in the German Army, that your political views and beliefs had been influenced to some extent? Did the experience affect your views on war and conflict?
John: No, I don’t think my political views had changed at all. I was still very much convinced that the use of force was under all circumstances the worst possible solution, because it rarely solves any given conflict without creating further cause for conflict. Fight fire with fire and you’ll in most cases just end up with a huge blaze, so to say.
The Second Iraq War broke out during my time studying in Aberystwyth, in March 2003. I couldn’t believe that a war like that was possible. It was clear that the charges brought against Saddam Hussein, the alleged weapons of mass destructions, his links to al Qaida, were trumped up. There was no just cause for war. Surely, Hussein wasn’t a nice guy, but neither were many of the dictators the U.S. had supported during the Cold War, ironically including Saddam Hussein.
I was also really disappointed by the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for supporting such an undertaking. I got onto a bus and drove to a mass rally in central London to protest against the completely unnecessary shedding of blood. It turned out to be one of the largest protest rallies London had ever seen.
Neither could my time in the Army get me to change my critical stance. When I was discharged my then platoon leader, a Lieutenant First Class, let me know that he generally thought I had what it took to be a good soldier, but sometimes felt I was a bit too critically inclined. I took that to be a compliment.
Sulien: In recent years you’ve visited Afghanistan, not as a soldier but as a journalist. How did this come about, and what was the specific journalistic objective you hoped to achieve by visiting?
John: Back in Germany, I went on to study journalism. My first proper job as a journalist was on the foreign desk of the now defunct German news agency dapd in Frankfurt. There, I spent most of my time translating English news copy from the U.S. agency AP into German, for distribution to German media outlets. After about half a year I knew I had to get something started or I would just ditch the job. I was still pretty much up for the more adventurous side of things. Whatever drove me to tick the box on the form to join the paras now drove me to get into contact with the U.S. Army in Germany. Even though I was still convinced that the application of military force rarely brought good results, it didn’t stop me from wanting to have a look for myself what it actually meant to go to war. And I knew from my experience in the army what I was possibly facing. The U.S. forces in Germany got back to me, telling me I could join one of their brigades on an exercise in Bavaria, preparing to go to Afghanistan later on the same year. A photographer and I joined them for a week. Then, in September 2011, ten years after the incidents in New York, we joined the platoon we had been on exercise with in the south-eastern Afghan province of Paktika for three weeks. Living alongside the soldiers in the Combat Outpost Sar Howza was one of the strangest experiences I ever had.
To be honest, I’m not sure I ever really had a real clear objective besides making another extreme experience. I must admit that for me journalism partly always has been a bit of an excuse for getting myself into unusual situations, experience things others read in the news first hand. It’s an idiosyncratic approach, that motivates more journalists than are willing to admit to it. Whatever led me to join the paras also had me boarding a plane to fly to Afghanistan. And my time in the army did prepare me for this experience. Perhaps it was the deployment I had shied away from eleven years earlier, with the boon of calling the terms and conditions myself and not being ordered around.
For further reading on John Dyfed Loesche’s time in Afghanistan-frontlinefritz.com
German paratrooper training in Altenstadt- youtube.com/watch