Should we force it? - Issue 27 - Magazine | Monocle

thumbnail text

Talk to most people in uniform on the frontlines of Afghanistan’s more violent provinces and they’ll tell you their equipment woes are the result of people who’ve never been in uniform making critical procurement decisions. As front pages in Canada, UK and other countries in the conflict have been splashed with reports of equipment shortages, it raises the question whether supply chains would be quite so stretched if the men and women back at HQ might have done a little time on the parade ground (and beyond) themselves.

As one of the UK’s most respected commanders recently told Monocle, “you have a raft of life and death decisions being made by people who might as well be procuring lettuce for a grocery store chain – they’ve never felt the heat.” With many European countries grappling with manpower shortages in their ranks and others dealing with a spike in violent youth crime, many more are struggling with both worrying unemployment figures and entire job sectors that lack the talent to fill the posts. Could it be time for some to reconsider universal conscription? A scan across the continent sees some nations quite literally sticking to their guns (Switzerland, Finland and Norway for example), while Sweden is about to move into the professional leagues and phase out its national service from next year. In this issue’s Expo (see page 179) we meet conscripts in Sweden, Switzerland and Finland, but first, we ask a Finnish think tank to examine the role conscription plays and how it could be adapted. We also look at how two countries without conscription – Australia and Spain – are getting (or not) the fighting forces they need. And my editor’s letter picks up on the theme on page 194.

The view from Finland
The Finnish Defence Forces face a great challenge: how to justify universal (well, male) conscription while the rest of Europe is moving away from it. Legends from the Winter War (when the country fought off Russia’s Red Army in 1939-1940) are still imprinted on today’s conscripts from day one, and long days in the forests are enlivened with tales of the enemy. The army symbolises independence, democracy and brotherhood.

But should national service be the backbone of a modern social democracy? Other Nordic states have shifted towards selective conscription and only 12 to 30 per cent of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian men complete military service, compared to the 65 per cent call-up rate in Finland. Now the Swedes have decided to phase out conscription altogether.

There has been one long traditional reason for Finland not to follow: the eastern border with Russia. Yet, according to the Defence Command, there is no threat from an individual nation, but rather from the dangers of technical warfare, wmds and terrorism. So why does a conscript’s end–of-bootcamp test emphasise lurking in the woods, shooting a rifle and disassembling landmines?

Compulsory conscription historically enhances patriotism by creating a common storyline shared and cherished. Close to 74 per cent of Finns support it. Another consensus is that Finland does not need to conscript females, who have only been allowed to serve voluntarily since 1995 (before then women could not join the army, but a minister of defence, Elisabeth Rehn, pushed through the change). Just like the system, outdated attitudes have not developed with the times.

While women’s conscription and non-military service were the talk of the 1990s, the new hot potato is “the fat fight”. Russia and terrorism aside, the newly appointed chief of defence, Ari Puheloinen, recently gave a statement saying that, increasingly, it’s chubby Finns who pose a huge threat to the military system. Perhaps the answer is selection through body mass index.

Oddly, in Finland and other Nordic ­nations with conscription, there is often very little debate about the way forward – any discussion often just concentrates on “for” or “against”. Army officials do not judge the system that is in their blood and politicians are careful not to challenge the deeply ingrained status quo.

Puheloinen, meanwhile, claims a downsized and/or professional army would not attract the most capable men. At the other end of the discussion, alternative non-military service already places men in varied public places such as ­libraries, schools and hospitals. (Conscientious objectors, however, are jailed for up to six months.) But surely a modern nation should be able to find a middle-ground solution that copes with current needs but also promotes an all-round knowledge of how society works. The army teaches conscripts to speak when spoken to, to fear the common evil, and to question nothing. At the same time, business organisations are trying to move away from a do-don’t-ask model. As peer production and low-hierarchy models receive praise elsewhere, why couldn’t the army have a little faith in young soldiers?

Instead of juggling between the yes or no of universal conscription, countries could create a modern can do for you – not what you can do for it.” More potently, the ban on tattoos was lifted 18 months ago. But it’s a challenge to achieve a fighting force of around 57,500 – it is currently at around 54,000. While there has been a 30 per cent rise in enquiries in the last year, only 74 per cent of a target intake of 11,000 was reached. Retention is also an issue, particularly with the recent mining boom, which saw many skilled military tradespeople quit to double their salaries.

Traditionally seen as a small to medium power allied to the US, Australia’s overall military strategy is now focused on the idea that the Asia Pacific region will become more uncertain with the rise of China. There has been a raft of naval purchases, and the submarine fleet will be doubled from six to 12. But Mark Thomson, from ASPI, wonders who is going to work on them. “Submarines are where there is the most pressure for personnel,” he says. And the shortage isn’t confined to submariners – anaesthetists, carpenters, psychologists, dental assistants and musicians are also sought. All are now allowed tattoos.


Calling Gen Y

The café-style waiting room at the Defence Force recruiting centre in Parramatta, New South Wales, is upbeat. It represents a new wave of thinking in Australian military recruitment (conscription ended in 1972), which has an annual budget of A$90m.

“Gone are the days of facing a grumpy warrant officer,” says Andrew Davies from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. New measures to bring young people in include “gap years” and Hollywood-style ads. Defence websites are filled with hi-tech games and graphics. As Davies puts it: “It’s very Gen Y – the ads are about leadership and developing your own potential. They are more about what the military.


Gainfully employed

In 2002, Spain’s youth sighed with relief as conscription was abolished. As Spain approached the 30th anniversary of the end of the Franco era, few young people considered a military career and the forces struggled to fill their ranks. Today, there are on average six applications for every position. In a nation with Europe’s highest unemployment rate (18 per cent), the average annual starting salary of €14,000 suddenly seems worth it.

The military is more popular here than in some countries because the main deployment is for national emergencies. Only a small number of recruits will ever see active duty overseas. As part of its UN peacekeeping commitment, Spain has 3,000 troops abroad.

Share on:

X (formerly Twitter)




Go back: Contents



sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • The Atlantic Shift