Media debate conscription

Wednesday, August 21, 1991

By Will Firth

BERLIN — Debate has flared in the German media about compulsory military service. The weekly Der Spiegel reported last month that the Ministry of Defence was planning to abolish conscription. This was promptly denied by a ministry speaker.

As in most European countries, military service has been a fact of life in Germany for decades. Young men are currently called up for 18 months, and the period for those who seek exemption and the permission to do "alternative" social service is made several months longer as a disincentive.

The government plans to bring troop strength down to 370,000 by 1994. But the Ministry of Defence has done its maths and realises that even reducing the length of military service from 18 to 12 months by 1994 would still leave it with a big surplus of recruits.

Prominent parliamentarians from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU — the main party in the governing coalition), have not ruled out a reduction of military service even to nine months. MP Hans-Joachim Otto from the coalition Free Democrats (FDP) stated that it would be unfair if troop reductions resulted in only one-third of eligible young men being called up, suggesting that military service should be dropped.

The Social Democratic SPD and the Greens are both in favour of abolishing military service.

The number of young men refusing to do military service rose between July 1990 and July 1991 by a massive 146%. To a large extent this is due to anti-militarist sentiment in the wake of the Gulf War. Another big factor is the breakdown of East-West confrontation and the old argument that it justifies strong armed forces.

When even the right wing of the political spectrum is shrouding itself in "pacifist" rhetoric, it seems a safe bet that compulsory military service in Germany will be greatly shortened or even abolished altogether in the foreseeable future.

Germany would then have a paid, "professional" army like that in Australia. Some conservatives complain that this would "break the unity of the army with the population" and pave the way for coups or other army-backed abuses of power. There are historical examples enough to illustrate the case.

It remains to be seen, however, if the abolition of military service will bring with it a questioning of the holy cow of compulsory service in general. The mainstream political parties are

convinced that compulsory service is in the best interests of state and society. Therefore military service could end up being replaced by compulsory social service for all men — a scarce improvement for those who would prefer to get on with their lives in a self-determined way.

Another facet is the issue of gender inequality — why is it that only men have to do compulsory service? One solution would be to extend compulsory service to women (and that spectre is already haunting the media debate), but the other, more in the interests of a free society, would be to abolish it for men.

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