By Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent, The Straits Times, 6 Mar 2017
LONDON • No government enjoys admitting that it got things wrong, and particularly not when it comes to decisions affecting national security. Yet that is precisely what Sweden’s government did recently, when it owned up that a previous decision to abolish military national service was endangering Sweden’s security, and reversed it by reintroducing conscription.
Nor is it the only government to do so; neighbouring Lithuania also reinstated the draft, and a number of other European governments are planning to follow suit. But Europe’s teenagers are returning to the barracks not only because their continent’s stability can no longer be taken for granted, but also because the original decision to abolish national service throughout much of Europe has resulted in a number of negative consequences which few initially predicted.
Either way, the countries which for long have resisted the intellectual fashion to end conscription were proven right, and can now afford to feel vindicated.
Critics of conscription have dominated the debate on this topic for decades, well before the end of the Cold War. Many of their arguments are by now very familiar.
Drafting young people may be a cheap source of manpower for the military, but it is expensive for a national economy since it usually means that draftees embark on their university or professional education at a later stage in their lives and join the labour force at an older age, and that imposes a hidden but nevertheless very real opportunity cost on a country’s well-being.
Conscription, critics argued, can also “brutalise” youth by legitimising violence and conflicting with religious and other personal faith convictions.
It also creates other invidious social divisions which can mark a youngster for the rest of his life: those who fail or avoid the draft for health reasons usually find it difficult to get a high-flying civilian job in countries such as Israel or Finland, where a “clean record” of military service is regarded as a prerequisite for any reputable position.
And, far from being a social leveller, the sons of rich parents still get a better deal than the rest of the population, either by scooping up easy military jobs or, as is the case currently in Russia, by registering for university doctorates which are never completed but provide a permanent deferment from national service.
But the most persuasive arguments against conscription were provided after the end of the Cold War. Allegedly, countries no longer needed large standing militaries; in an age of rapid technological advances, what was the point of having large numbers of kids learning to hold rifles, when what militaries really needed were mature but far fewer soldiers operating sophisticated weapons?
And, since most of the wars which European armed forces anticipated were from now on supposed to take place outside their continent, what was the point of having draftees who are simply too “green” to be dispatched overseas? The answer surely rested – the critics of conscription argued – in smaller, nimbler professional forces.
And European politicians embraced this argument, partly because the abolition of conscription was popular with electorates, but also because politicians bought into the idea that the safety of their countries was no longer a matter of life-and-death, that all future wars in which Western forces would be engaged would be wars of choice rather than of necessity.
National service was, therefore, abolished in one European country after another. And, as is often the case with Europeans, the moment they bought into an idea, they also immediately started preaching it to others: Governments around the world were told that they were “behind the times” if they maintained national service.
What went wrong? Almost everything. To start with, it is worth pointing out that the concept of national service always answered different needs in different countries. In Britain, for instance, conscription was always seen as an exception rather than a rule, a utilitarian exercise to be undertaken only when strictly needed; as astounding as this may seem, the British empire – the largest the world has ever known – was created during the 19th centuries by just career soldiers and mercenaries, while conscription was introduced only in 1916 and abolished by 1960.
In other European countries – and especially those which, unlike Britain, did not have the luxury of being an island – national service was the only method to ensure adequate defence.
But in a few European countries, conscription was more than a defence mechanism; it was an exercise in nation-building, a ritual and repeated act of commitment to the nation by every successive generation. As a result, proposals that national service should be abolished were rejected by the public itself. The voters of Switzerland, for instance, decisively rejected plans to eliminate the draft no fewer than three times over the past 25 years and, interestingly, each time by bigger majorities.
Nor are they alone. A crushing majority of Austrians rejected the idea of ending the draft in a referendum back in 2013 while in Cyprus, Greece, Denmark and Finland, the debate was less acrimonious but the decision to keep conscription equally strongly held, for largely similar reasons.
Yet even in the countries which ended conscription, problems quickly became apparent. One difficulty is that, paradoxically, the move to a smaller professional force turned out to be more expensive, as soldiers needed to be paid big salaries and long-term financial provisions for their families needed to be factored in.
Another paradoxical difficulty is that the more a country’s economy performs well, the smaller the pool of people available for military recruitment, since youngsters have financial opportunities the military cannot match. France, for instance, has no problem filling its military recruitment quotas because it suffers from big and chronic youth unemployment, but Sweden’s armed forces have not met their recruitment targets in every single year since national service ended there in 2009. The result is that a nation has to choose between a good economy and a poor military, or a good military and a poor economy – not exactly a very enviable choice.
Old strategic certainties have also been dispelled. Russia is now regarded as a threat by most European nations; Swedish military planners recently watched helplessly while Russian aircraft simulated targeted attacks on Stockholm, their capital, in an exercise, for instance.
Meanwhile, the people of Central Europe worry about large concentrations of Russian troops on their borders. War is not imminent in Europe, but it is no longer credible to claim that it is impossible. And it is no longer feasible to claim that a larger military makes no difference in defending national territory; yet again, quantity has a quality all of its own.
However, probably the biggest damage which the end of conscription inflicted on Europe is by creating a dangerous gulf between military commanders and politicians. In the old days of conscripted militaries, most European politicians would have had military experience and, even if this extended no further than national service, it gave politicians and decision-makers an understanding, however rudimentary, of military life, ethos and decision-making.
Sending conscript militaries into battle was also not something governments could do at will, since putting soldiers in harm’s way was unthinkable without forging a broad and firm national consensus at home.
But in the age of professional militaries, politicians feel able to send soldiers to war without obtaining broad domestic support, since few families are impacted by such decisions. And few of the politicians who opt for war genuinely understand what this means; the result is both more European deployments overseas, and more botched ones as well, just about the worst of all worlds.
Still, the episode is an admission that the continent has not been thinking straight about its defence structures – as well as being a reminder to countries like Singapore that resisting intellectual fashions and remaining cautious about ditching existing defence arrangements is usually the best approach