Military Service: Civic Deed or Uncomfortable Burden

In recent history, the pressure on the job market has surged for young students finishing secondary or higher education. How can this increasingly competitive, global and expectation-driven work environment be reconciled with a compulsory military service in the prime years of young citizens? Taking into consideration the need for a defence force and the potential decrease in youth unemployment, I will propose certain conditions under which it is beneficial to have a system of compulsory conscription.

For numerous teenagers in countries like Austria or Singapore where a compulsory military stint still prevails, the time spent in service feels obstructive. Some Austrians, for instance, describe their 6-month long training as a complete waste of time while many prospective students in Singapore regard their two years of National Service as not enjoyable but necessary. Mohd Shaff, a student attending Yale-NUS College who has completed National Service, says that “it prevents an effective transition from [pre-university] to college and many people struggle as a result of this.” But what makes compulsory military service a sound policy and when can it be abolished so as to clear the hurdles for young individuals in their academic pursuits? Every male citizen in countries with compulsory conscription is sooner or later confronted with this issue. It is, therefore, important to ask whether or not this lengthy break from learning at the height of one’s education is indeed necessary or merely a remnant of history.

From a government’s point of view, military service for young graduates can be a useful tool to brush up labor participation statistics. Youth unemployment decreases due to a longer period during which jobs or placements for higher education can be found–arguably, this also increases the chances of employment. As attorney Thabo Masombuka stated in 2012 regarding the situation in South Africa, “this type of compulsory militarisation […] will focus on real and meaningful training, on a positive lifestyle, industrial skills as well as job-relevant and entrepreneurial training.” Masombuka views conscription as a way to teach young citizens skills that they will need on the job market and would not otherwise gain. But South Africa is reluctant to adopt this model. According to Masombuka himself, the country is persistently seeing a growing level “of anger and violent conduct by young people who find themselves resorting to crime as a means of survival.” So what about countries where the situation for youths is less tense?

Sweden abolished compulsory conscription in 2010, yet the minister of defence Peter Hultqvist revealed government plans to reintroduce it by 2018. In Austria, the situation is a little bit more controversial. Gerald Karner, for instance, advocates a professional army on the basis of increased flexibility in their use and lower costs in the long run. He admits, however, that transitioning to conscription would temporarily increase spending and is thus unpalatable for governments trying to save face amidst increasingly tight budgets. A January 2013 referendum saw 59.7% of voters for keeping Austria’s established conscription law. However, many who oppose the status quo voiced complaints that women were included in the voting body even though conscription only applies the male population.

It can thus be observed that this issue cannot be resolved easily through direct democracy either. While the need and desire of countries for compulsory conscription is relative to their situation, the objective of almost every country is to increase their GDP and have a reliable native workforce. To suspend every male’s education for two years means that they are at a severe disadvantage in comparison to foreign workers. This, in turn, makes the domestic economy more dependent on workforce from abroad and potentially raises criticism of the structure of companies as natives advocate in favour of high quotas for domestic workers. Countries with numerous bilateral military agreements have therefore been considering the abolishment of compulsory conscription.

One claim that has been made by many experts in the field is that compulsory conscription is crucial to defend the country against terrorism, a word widely used synonymously with war. This view is shared by the journalist  Seah Chin Siong who mentions Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as enemies who are meant to be warded off by the Singaporean army. Similarly, according to reporter Ruth Bender in a Wall Street Journal article, “[German] conservative politicians say […] the military should be able to step in when police need backup or expertise.” However, terrorism’s modern incarnation is amorphous and lacks clear battlefronts; often, the danger is mostly unnoticed until it is too late. This touches on an important aspect of today’s need for an army: military technology. Chin Siong acknowledges this by stating that “[t]he [National Service] of the future will be one where there is a strong focus on harnessing […] individual talents, skills, and qualifications.” To put it in the words of Horatio Ho, a fellow student from Singapore: Administrators want to “make [military forces] more high-tech to reduce the physical manpower needed.”

It seems plausible that countries’ leadership can combine education in fields such as technology with a compulsory military service. On the other hand, governments such as the one in Austria, where peace is not threatened by the abolishment of compulsory conscription, have to realize that the trade-off regarding lost potential in their domestic workforce is high. Six months of military service also make no difference in the amount of support the police gains from the army because recruits are simply not trained well enough to deal with real missions. Abolishing conscription or focusing on the educational aspect of the military would spare teenagers the burden of losing valuable years of their prime age. This idea merges Masombuka’s proposal for South Africa with Chin Siong’s vision for Singapore. To provide students with an opportunity to develop their knowledge and gain skills in technology would even set them apart from some of their peers at university after National Service. It is clear that not everyone wants to pursue a career in this sector, but the army needs much more than only engineers. However, as long as administrators rely on manpower to form the domestic army, the time they spend for their training won’t be used very efficiently. Wars are not solely fought by men anymore and are most importantly not prevented by armed men. It is the minds behind foreign policy and the level of advancement in technology that prevent and if needed wage wars in today’s world.