BONN, Germany (AP) _ Postwar Germany's armed forces celebrate their 40th birthday tonight with a torchlight parade that has refocused attention on a question Germans have been grappling with since losing World War II: Do soldiers deserve respect?

The ``Grand Tattoo'' stems from Prussian tradition, and pacifists criticize the march as a throwback to times when Germany was a military menace.

Peace groups vowed to protest during the march by Bundeswehr soldiers on the vast lawn of Bonn University before an audience including Chancellor Helmut Kohl and foreign ambassadors.

``The military tattoo has connections to old Prussian military traditions and was enthusiastically fostered in the Nazi years,'' says Manfred Stenner, who is organizing the peace demonstration.

Stenner wanted the tattoo moved to the grounds of the Defense Ministry, rather than held on the university lawn, a favorite site for huge peace demonstrations in past years.

A number of leftist politicians and religious activists share Stenner's view and said they would boycott the march and attend the demonstration.

Kohl defended the open ceremony. ``It is absolutely crucial that we celebrate this birthday in public. It is self-evident that we stand by our soldiers.''

The leader of the main opposition Social Democrats, Rudolf Scharping, said he would not attend the ceremony, citing other engagements. But he said he would make a formal reception at the Beethovenhalle concert hall, with Kohl as host.

Until German unification on Oct. 3, 1990, only West Germany's military called itself the Bundeswehr. On that date, the Bundeswehr absorbed East Germany's National People's Army, the military arm of the communist-led state.

Defense Minister Volker Ruehe said the Bundeswehr deserves thanks for helping NATO keep the Warsaw Pact at bay during the Cold War.

``Forty years of Bundeswehr _ that's four decades of war prevention in difficult times,'' he said Monday in Berlin.

During the Cold War, a reluctance bred by the Nazi years kept the Bundeswehr from assisting the United States and other allies in missions on non-NATO soil.

Since unification, Kohl has steered the Bundeswehr in a new direction. He has offered 4,000 troops for a multinational peace-policing mission in former Yugoslavia. Bundeswehr medics are already in Croatia. German troops have also served in Cambodia and Somalia.

Much of the German populace seems to accept this, mainly because the new missions are intended to save lives, rather than engage in combat.