Why modern militaries are offering cushy perks to recruits and the Thai military’s surprising new mascot.
It may seem that joining the army and complaining that one misses the comforts of home is akin to joining the fire brigade and complaining about having to ride towards burning buildings in a big red truck. But Belgium’s military has decided to heed such grievances from new recruits by allowing them to go home in the evenings to sleep in their own beds.
Against a chorus of mockery from veterans, Belgium’s Ministry of Defence is pleading difficulties with recruitment. More than 4,000 recruits have quit in the past decade, many citing a longing for the lives they left behind.
“For an organisation such as a military this is ridiculous,” says Elisabeth Braw, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “A military’s organisation rests on its ability to deter and nobody will be deterred by soldiers who have to go home because they miss their mums.”
There are, however, reasons for the desperation underpinning this quaint concession. Militaries across Europe are struggling to attract and retain people. Germany’s armed forces are short 21,000 officers and ncos, and Sweden has reintroduced conscription to get the numbers back up. Belgium’s decision to let its soldiers go home is not necessarily a signifier of decadence so much as a response to a seller’s market where talented young people are concerned.
“You can show lots of advertisements of soldiers jumping out of planes,” says Braw. “But the reality is that the job is hard and often boring. Recruiting is always going to be a challenge in free societies when the economy is strong.”
The US Army offers a bonus of up to $16,000 (€12,900) to recruits willing to report for basic training within 30 days of enlistment.
The Australian Defence Force offers a gap-year programme for 17 to 24-year-olds – 12 months of paid training.
The French Foreign Legion allows recruits to apply for French citizenship after three years of service.
Military iconography has largely stuck to convention during the course of history. Swords, tridents and birds of prey are all illustrative of destructive force and sovereign might. Thailand’s military, however, takes a different tack, with a big-eyed anime schoolgirl in a pink dress. Nong Kiew Koi, or Little Sister Pinky Promise, takes the shape of a cartoon in promotional pamphlets and in real life is portrayed by an actor in a costume complete with oversized plastic head. During the launch event for the character’s recent redesign, the big-eyed apparition was featured alongside beaming colonels at the Victory Monument in Bangkok.
“Thailand’s army is a political as well as a military organisation,” says Ewan Lawson, senior research fellow for Military Influence at the Royal United Services Institute. “This is about creating a narrative of one Thai nation focused on youth.”
Why buy when you can rent? That appears to be Greek deputy defence minister Fotis Kouvelis’s approach to updating the Hellenic Navy. Kouvelis recently signed a five-year deal to hire two of France’s new Aquitaine-class frigates.
It appears Greece is taking steps to bolster its naval capacity in the wake of rising tensions with neighbouring Turkey. However, the deal was met with bemusement by analysts. Greece, with its ongoing economic woes does not have the cash to splash out on new military equipment, bought or leased. Nor is Greece ready to operate France’s frigates properly – none of the ships’ weapons, sensors or systems are in Greek service.
Not long after Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping each extended their terms in office earlier this year, their nations’ respective military chiefs announced that the two countries will be strengthening their military and political ties. Russia will once again join China for a Joint Sea exercise later this year in the Yellow Sea. The reason behind the increasingly showy military friendship? To “show Americans”, Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe put it at the Moscow International Security Conference, that Russia and China’s combined might can match that of the US.