Dulce et decorum est

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Why bringing back the draft could be a boon for liberal societies – and why (some) soldiers dislike the idea

Hardly a profession today is so removed from the society it is supposed to serve as the one that wields deadly weapons in its defence. Military life in many ways is the antithesis to most citizens’ everyday life in liberal democracies. Some western societies celebrate their soldiers as warrior-like icons of pop-culture, but that is arguably a long way from mindfully contemplating the realities and implications of a life in uniform. Others see their armed forces as complicit in the horrors of war, and dislike them with a vengeance. Meanwhile, career soldiers themselves sometimes struggle to make sense of the dazzling, colourful and ever-changing societies they have sworn to protect. The estrangement is thus mutual and the fact that many western countries – in lockstep with one another, not unironically – have suspended or outright abolished conscription has not helped.

Only most recently have some countries performed an about-face. President Macron’s pledge to bring back the draft reinvigorated the debate in France. Too young to have been drafted himself – France phased out conscription in the late 1990s –, he is facing stubborn resistance from the military establishment.

This should not come as a surprise: While committed to a wide range of operations at home and overseas, the grande nation’s uniformed services are not yet stretched so thinly that they have a desperate need for more manpower like their German counterparts. (Neither do they have to resort to painted broomsticks to depict machine guns during exercises.) Rather, the generals fear that implementing a mandatory service for up to 750,000 young people a year would take up a sizable portion of their resources and thus diminish, not strengthen, military readiness. Their argument is plausible: estimates range from 5.5% to 8.3% of the planned 2019 budget of € 34.4bn, for an individual service period of just one month. Set-up cost is estimated at between €3.6bn and €20bn – the large spread suggests they were chosen mainly to either add to or weaken the plan’s perceived feasibility. The scheme’s military use case – or rather, the lack thereof – warrants scrutiny as well: A single month of basic training does not make a citizen a soldier and acts as little more than a burden on the forces administering such a programme. Subsequently, a recent parliamentary defence committee report judged the scheme neither feasible nor desirable.

Does this mean that Mr Macron has marched off in the wrong direction entirely? Not quite. It seems he has a different objective in his sights: Re-termed a “universal national service” and revised to last for three to six months, his plan is expressly aimed at “national cohesion”. While still of a briefness that makes it marginal in terms of military purpose, the broader social purpose might be a lot more attainable than appears at a glance. Those who went through military service often speak of an experience that is a quasi-antithesis to the prevailing culture of individualism, and one that got them up close with members of very different strata of society. Good news for mutual understanding and thus common resilience against all kinds of shocks, even more so in times of social media induced “bubbles”. Mutual exposure is not a one-way street however:  giving young citizens a degree of insight into the military also works to keep the military in touch with its base in society and ensures that a country’s armed forces act as a mirror of society, not a removed caste.

Then there is the case of conscientious objectors. Not wanting to serve in uniform on moral grounds is a legitimate notion and countries with mandatory military service usually allow opting for service in a civilian capacity, too. In some countries, rescue and care organisations as well as civil protection agencies heavily rely on staffing via this route. That too is often a formative experience for young adults, and it should relieve the military of having to impose service on the unwilling.

Having young people come together and devote a brief period of their lives to the welfare of the society they grew up in, is neither outdated nor unjust. Having them do it with rifle and kit can act as a powerful reminder of the preciousness of peace – and that keeping it begins at one’s doorstep.

Title image: WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/swiss-image.ch/Photo Michele Limina

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