The military draft is making a comeback
HIS ARM and a leg wrapped in bandages, Artyom Uymanen stood outside a St Petersburg voyenkomat, or military recruitment centre, in 2019 to protest against Russia’s mandatory military draft. The bandages symbolised the lengths young Russian men go to exaggerate medical conditions that might grant them an exemption from “conscript slavery”, as Artyom calls it. Now, two years later, aged 20, he is anxiously awaiting the results of his visits to psychiatric healthcare facilities. He hopes for a diagnosis of depressive-anxiety disorder, a surefire way to dodge military service.
Yoni, an 18-year-old student in Jerusalem, is also awaiting conscription, by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). He shows no sign of anxiety. “I’m looking forward to serving my country,” he says. “It’s something special that our age group can do.” Yoni has joined clubs which help Israeli teenagers prepare for the army’s physical and intellectual tests. He and his friends voluntarily travel to beaches to practise running on sand.
In Norway, Oscar Federl, a consultant, remembers his own military service, a decade ago, with fondness. “It was a great experience,” he says. His time in uniform did not turn him into a crack soldier—as a radio operator, he recalls using 1950s-vintage technology—but it helped him grow into the man he is. “I matured a lot,” he says, “even though I hated a lot of the things we did, especially in the cold.”
Artyom, Yoni and Oscar are in a global minority. The conscription of young men is now relatively rare. (The conscription of young women has never been common.) Most forms of military service dwindled after the cold war. A study by ETH Zurich, a Swiss university, notes that 24 countries abandoned conscription between 1990 and 2013, when it looked to many as though serious wars were a thing of the past. France, whose mass conscription of 1793, the levée en masse, revolutionised modern European warfare, ended the practice in 1996. Spain spared its teenagers from the barracks in 2000, Italy in 2004 and Germany in 2011. War Resisters’ International, an anti-war outfit which supports conscientious objectors, had to rethink its purpose.
Yet conscription seems to be making a modest comeback. After Russia invaded and annexed parts of its territory in 2014, Ukraine hurriedly reversed its own abandonment of conscription the previous year. Nearby Lithuania followed suit in 2015 and Sweden—which fends for itself outside of the NATO alliance—in 2017. In the Persian Gulf, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) introduced conscription in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Kuwait reintroduced the practice in 2017 after a 16-year hiatus. Meanwhile, other countries that had never stopped conscripting youngsters began signing up more of them. Norway extended military service to women in 2013; Estonia is expanding the number of annual conscripts by a quarter. And in Germany, among other countries, debates over whether to reinstitute some form of conscription, or expand it, have grown louder.
This renewed interest has many causes. One is the return of a gloomier world in which hard power, rather than diplomacy, can shape national destinies: witness Armenia’s devastating defeat at the hands of Azerbaijan last year, and the ensuing loss of much of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory. For countries that want large armies, conscripting soldiers is often the only affordable way to fill out the ranks; volunteers paid at market rates would generate a huge wage bill. Alexander Golts, a pundit on the Russian armed forces, says that his country’s draft exists “because of an irrational perception…that the numbers of Russian armed forces have to reach one million”.
Yet less martial explanations are often also at work. In America, contemporary advocates for the draft’s reinstatement often argue that compulsory service might actually reduce the country’s urge to go to war, by forcing people to reckon, personally, with its consequences. Max Margulies of the Modern War Institute at West Point, America’s military academy, is sceptical of this. He points out that the Vietnam war was unpopular by late 1967, but the war raged for another six years, killing thousands of draftees. “It doesn’t really seem like it’s much of a constraining effect.”
Many politicians also see it as a way to drum discipline into unruly young men who might otherwise cause trouble, or to instil values the government deems desirable. Last year Germany’s parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces suggested that a return of conscription would inoculate the armed forces against far-right extremism. Qatar, the UAE and Turkey all force conscripts to sit through lectures on national history, security and citizenship. But there is little evidence that conscription fosters better citizens. A study of Sweden by Randi Hjalmarsson and Matthew Lindquist in the Economic Journal published in Oxford found that conscription “significantly” increased post-service crime rates by those aged 23 to 30.
Like boarding school, with guns
What is modern conscript life like? In most countries, conscription is either tedious or miserable. “You’re stuck in this place with other 18- and 19-year-olds and you’re forced to be there,” says Victor Naziris, a 33-year-old who served in the Cypriot National Guard, a force that has not had a sniff of real combat for decades. His experience as a conscript was defined by a combination of exhaustion, boredom and a general sense of pointlessness. “It’s like a vegan working at McDonalds,” says Mr Naziris, who is now an accountant.
Russian conscripts have a particularly bleak experience. They receive a meagre monthly stipend of just 2,000 rubles ($30), for which they suffer not only exhaustion but also an endemic hazing, or dedovshchina. In November 2019 a Russian conscript gunned down eight other soldiers after alleging prolonged abuse by his superiors, including threats of rape. Like Mr Uymanen, the young Russian protester, many young men try to dodge the draft through medical exemptions. Others apply to PhD programmes, preferring the indignity of graduate school to military service. Some parents bribe voyenkomat to secure Military IDs for their sons.
Russia’s defence ministry says that hazing has fallen dramatically in recent years. But the government did little to dispel the idea that conscription was tantamount to punishment when it used the draft to silence Ruslan Shaveddinov, an anti-corruption activist and protegé of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s main opposition leader (who was later poisoned and jailed). In December 2019 Mr Shaveddinov was pressed into military service and immediately sent to a base in Novaya Zemlya, an arctic archipelago, and put to work on menial tasks.
Yet military service need not always be an exercise in sadism. In a few small countries, a less wretched sort of conscript is emerging. In Norway, large cohorts are eligible for the draft but only a small number of youths are chosen. Whereas Russian parents press officials to exempt their children, Norwegian ones lobby to get them admitted, notes Elisabeth Braw of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think-tank in Washington. Alex Aalberg, a former Norwegian conscript who served in Afghanistan, says that when he applied to medical school, his military experience dominated the conversation. “I believe without [service] my way into medicine would have been much longer,” he says.
In the same way that American schools may boast about the proportion of their students who have wound up at Ivy League universities, Israeli ones show off the number who have been placed in combat units. Yoni, the teenager from Jerusalem, is bound for an elite combat unit. Traditionally such units, along with the air force, were seen as incubators of political and professional talent, says Richard Pater, the Jerusalem-based director of the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), a research and advocacy group. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s prime minister, and Binyamin Netanyahu, his long-serving predecessor, both had successful careers in Sayeret Matkal, a prestigious commando force.
A particular mythology has built up around Unit 8200, a signals-intelligence unit whose alumni have filled the ranks of Israeli tech companies. Whereas many forces struggle to recruit tech-literate soldiers who can command higher wages elsewhere, Israel’s has turned itself into a magnet for such talent. “Today there is a growing competition for getting accepted into the technological units that provide you with a lucrative profession immediately after you get released,” observes Yohanan Plesner, a former politician and now president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a think-tank. He served in Sayeret Matkal, where he remains a reserve officer.
Copies in khaki
Yet if conscription is supposed to change society, more often than not it reflects it. Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Centre, Russia’s leading independent pollster, says that some families from the poorest regions still see the military as a means of social mobility. But they are also less able to dodge it. “In poorer areas, a family won’t have the money to scrape up a bribe,” says Mr Gudkov. Oksana Paramonova, director of Soldiers’ Mothers, a non-profit in St Petersburg, says that young Russian men from the rural reaches of the country are less informed about the legal tricks to avoid conscription.
Even in Israel, where the conscript experience is so different, the draft is still shaped by social fissures. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are 12% of the population, and Israeli-Arabs, who make up another fifth, are typically exempt from military service. In practice, that means that only half of Israeli 18-year-olds do military service. The unequal treatment for the ultra-Orthodox has long provoked resentment and political debate. In August the country’s coalition government approved a plan to force more of them into the army, albeit for shorter periods. Middle-class Israelis are better placed to manoeuvre their children into elite units; those from poorer backgrounds often end up in less glamorous branches, such as transport and logistics. The military, rather than “bringing Israelis together… accentuates and pronounces the differences between different social structures”, says Mr Plesner.
Modern conscription was invented for an age of mass armies. It worked spectacularly for Napoleon, but it often failed thereafter. The Red Army killed 158,000 of its own soldiers for desertion during the second world war. During the Iraq war in 2003, tens of thousands of Iraqi conscripts fled the field. Even where conscripts have the will to fight, armed forces’ increasing reliance on precision munitions and other advanced technologies makes them less useful on the battlefield. Yet what a handful of small democracies have shown is that an institution associated with hardship and coercion can be turned into a popular and effective tool for recruitment. ■
This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Call on me”
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.