To Draft or Not to Draft?

Following the Greek bailout and cost cutting demands, abolishing mandatory military service in Germany seems to be inevitable.

German soldiers on patrol in Northern Afghanistan | Photo: ISAF

The debate over mandatory military service in Germany is reaching an endgame; it appears that mounting governmental opposition to retaining conscription will likely result in the abolishment of the practice, in place since 1949. Germany is among the last remaining conscript armies in the European Union, and many argue that it is only a matter of time before they follow suit with other major European powers.

The end of conscription has been characteristic of post-Cold War Europe. Factors both military and non-military have guided these decisions; NATO doctrine has long called for a European transition to fully professional armed forces, and given the post-Cold War Zeitgeist and a desire to cut military spending, many European countries have made the switch – most notably France in 2001and Italy in 2005, both of which possessed a long-standing “citizen-soldier” tradition.

The reason for Germany’s position as the last major European holdout defines the debate. The positive elements of a conscript army lie in its relationship to society at large: a draft force is made up of all members of the community, imparting a sense of national duty on all citizens and unifying the people through service. As The Guardian’s Kate Connolly recently pointed out, in light of Germany’s militaristic past, an armed forces ‘of the people’ helps keep a check on the military’s political power. And regardless of repeated efforts a professional army failed to deter the rise of the Nazi regime.

So why change? First and foremost, it is an economic issue. Given Germany’s record deficit and its massive bailout to Greece, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is looking for ways to cut costs – a motivation shared by many European states in their decision to end conscription. Indeed, around three quarters of Germans support budget cuts on the military. However, the prospect of ending mandatory service remains controversial for the reasons mentioned above.

But there are military reasons for switching to an All-Volunteer Force (AVF). The United States, which became an AVF in 1973, has long advised its NATO allies that a professional force, smaller and more experienced, is better suited to modern conflicts. Moreover the British Armed Forces – considered by many to be the best-trained military in Europe – has been an AVF since 1962.

A major argument has been the questionable skill set of short-term conscript soldiers. The average U.S. soldier has four years of experience; the average British soldier seven – and military experts stress that experience is paramount to professionalism. Compared to the now half-year service that the German Bundeswehr requires, the disparity is considerable.

“Six months is ridiculously short,” states security expert Henning Riecke of the German Council for Foreign Relations. “You cannot use these people when it comes to complex training exercises or using highly sophisticated equipment.”

Historically however, conscript armies seem to have been preferable. Napoleon’s Grande Armée – the first ‘people’s army’ – was a draft force and a modern military legend, dominating Europe for years. Britain’s small professional expeditionary army needed to be augmented with legions of draftees to survive the human wave attacks of the First World War. The defeat of Nazi Germany was at the hands of British, American and Soviet conscripts and their overwhelming numerical superiority.

In all these cases, conscription also had important secondary effects on their societies; in a conscript army, all classes fight together side by side, coming to know and trust each other in ways often not possible in civilian life. These experiences led to the opening and democratizing of the West following World War II, making possible the policies that supported European social democracy and the unprecedented growth of a prosperous middle class in the United States.

But with the advent of modern guerrilla wars, insurgencies and low-intensity conflicts, the end of total war and the abandonment of the anachronistic strategy of attrition, the utility of gargantuan hordes of infantry quickly dissipated. Studies of modern conflicts such as the Vietnam War, the Malayan Emergency and the Soviet-Afghan War have illustrated that too many soldiers is often a problem. Moreover, conscripts lacked the skills to succeed in these so-called “new wars”. The demands of modern military technology, the complex doctrine of counter-insurgency and impediments of unconventional warfare require dedication and proficiency to which small, full-time forces are better suited. Also, considering the difficulties of modern warfare, perseverant morale is essential, echoing the proverb, “a volunteer is worth twenty pressed men.”

An obvious exception to this argument is the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Based originally on the Swiss military model, the IDF is a renowned and highly skilled conscript force, having defeated numerically superior enemies on many occasions. However, Israel’s situation and approach are unique: all males are conscripted for three years, women for two, and reservist training requirements are intense, resulting in a highly trained populous, ready to mobilize quickly. But with the increasing unpopularity of mandatory service in Europe, the time requirement has, such as in Germany, been reduced to a point that is unjustifiable on military grounds.

Strategic thinking is also a factor. Most post-WWII European militaries constructed themselves around the doctrine of territorial defense, i.e. repulsing a Soviet invasion of the homeland (at least until the U.S. Army got there). But foreign operational commitments such as ISAF in Afghanistan have prompted many European governments to restructure, the most prominent example being the French who, in addition to abolishing conscription, have realigned their entire defense configuration toward global threat contingencies as opposed to national defense.

Ultimately, the transition to AVF simply makes economic, military and socio-political sense for European governments. The vital role which conscription once served in fostering the collective responsibility of defense in social democracies has petered out; devoid of conventional military threats a la the Soviet Union, mandatory service is viewed as an atavistic nuisance by most young Germans. With this critical social function absent, it makes the argument for the keeping conscription a weak one – particularly in the face of military arguments championing the utility of the professional force. However, unpopularity and the military opinion niche can be debated and even ignored; but the harsh realities of Germany’s economic woes may give the movement to ban conscription all the momentum it needs. Indeed, the 21st Century could see the disappearance of the European citizen soldier tradition completely.

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