Several times a year, back in the early 2000s, I lectured at Oberammergau, a small village nestling in southern Bavaria. It looks like nothing less than a candy-box illustration. Straight out of Hans Christian Andersen, its many old buildings are adorned with pretty murals, often mediaeval in origin. They are a riot of steep-pitched roofs, chequered curtains, window boxes and elaborately carved woodwork. The setting is bucolic, with woodcutters arranging their handiwork into elaborate piles of Lego-like design. Contented cows roll up their sleeves for a hard day’s munching of alpine grass; there is probably a chocolate fountain nearby.
It was NATO business that took me there, teaching strategic communications and information operations to our European allies — basically, developing print media and broadcast strategies to strengthen our own side and intimidate our opponents. These were the days before a revanchist Russia. My East European comrades at the NATO School, housed in a former Wehrmacht barracks, were attentive, though often as interested in the cut of my tweeds as in propaganda techniques.
The aim of my friend, the Bundeswehr commander, was to stay in post at Oberammergau long enough to qualify as a resident and take part in the town’s passion play. Performed every ten years to enormous tourist appeal, they date to 1634. The inhabitants made a vow that if the Almighty spared them from the Plague then sweeping the region, they would perform a religious drama every ten years. After the oath, local tradition has it that no one died. Today’s plays are performed every decade, in years ending with a zero. The last extravaganza I witnessed involved 2,000 actors, singers, musicians and technicians, all locals and an extreme example of volunteerism.
My favourite driver was Obergefreiter Gerhard. Each time I flew over, he used to collect me from Franz Josef Strauss airport in Munich and whisk me 80 miles south to Oberammergau. As we had a couple of hours to negotiate our way through the hills, Senior Corporal Gerhard told me about his time in the German Army. In his year of obligatory service, he received basic pay of about 300 Euros a month, free health care, housing, food and railway travel, with no obligation to deploy on operations abroad.
Whilst undoubtedly bonding a state, national service can be wasteful
He didn’t mind military life, but he was impatient to get on with university studies and settle into a career. Bright and talented, with perfect English, I could see he was wasted in his army job. Gerhard understood why Jewish citizens, for obvious historic reasons, were exempt, but he was annoyed that the draft was only for men. Although many women volunteered, they weren’t obliged to serve. Yes, he had made friends from other parts of Germany, which was one of the points of original German conscription back in the 1870s. To create a sense of identity for the Kaiser’s new Reich, Chancellor Bismark mixed conscripts from all regions, using their time with the colours to educate them further and inculcate a sense of patriotism.
My friend observed how scores of huge barracks across the Fatherland were maintained for his generation of year-long soldiers. There were vast stockpiles of clothing and equipment gathering dust in warehouses, from boots and combat jackets to helmets and flashlights, for issue to each cohort. Some friends opted for alternative Zivildienst, civic service — training as medics for disaster relief, ambulance drivers, border guards and firefighters, but all for the same low wage. About a third were screened out for medical reasons, and a few registered as conscientious objectors. I asked him about pride and patriotism. He figured he might feel uniformed service worthwhile when looking back in older age, but, with great insight, he currently felt “fashionably rebellious” to the obligation, as did his generation.
Gerhard considered there was a financial loss to the economy. He felt if he had gone into computer science before university instead of wearing uniform, he’d be paying the state more in tax alone than his conscript’s pay. Gerhard talked freely because I was an outsider, though a NATO ally: conscription was an absurdly expensive way to build 21st century German identity, he thought. Regular troops had to nursemaid disinterested conscripts, rather than develop their own military careers. There was talk of shortening draft service to six months, which is what happened. Gerhard thought it would be worthless. “What can we learn of value in such a time?”
“Take you,” he ventured. “You’re not a general or a politician, but I still have to fetch and carry you, which costs Germany far more than if you’d driven yourself or taken a train.” He might have ruffled my pride, but he had a point. I’ve lectured in 58 countries around the world on defence matters and military history. Only in those which have conscription am I met at an airport and chauffeured around. In other words, whilst undoubtedly bonding a state, national service can be wasteful. Draftees should be developing leadership and life skills, not acting as taxi drivers. Professional armies train personnel to perform a range of sophisticated tasks, and they hire contract staff to drive, cook meals and answer the telephone. Conscript forces usually oblige their people to undertake the menial tasks, and neither party gains much. Britain’s post-war national servicemen tell tales of cleaning out lavatories, mowing lawns, peeling cookhouse potatoes and whitewashing kerbstones.
On 5 September, Gavin Rice, writing in The Critic, made his case for a reintroduction of National Service. Citing John F. Kennedy’s famous speech delivered in his 1961 presidential inauguration, when he urged his fellow Americans to ask themselves not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country, Rice lamented the decline of volunteerism in the UK. He and several public figures argue that patriotism and a sense of self-worth need a boost in the form of a return to compulsory civic or military service.
With a general election looming, there are several political supporters of the idea who are playing to a specific demographic. Even discounting opportunism, though, there are numerous reasons why this would be a bad idea, some of which my friendly Obergefreiter outlined. Mr Rice, perhaps fearing an instant reaction to the seemingly military aspects of a generation serving their country, chose to stress the civilian possibilities instead. He talks of family breakdowns, widespread lack of trust in institutions, how young people have a transactional view of their relationship to the state and are less likely to be patriotic. If true, we have certainly been here before. In 1933, the Oxford Union debated whether “This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and country”.
Volunteer organisations would be dented by the loss of younger membership
Far more influential than now, undergraduates passed the motion by a wide margin, causing shock waves around the world. This was in the context of lack of trust in democratic government after the Great War, seeing the rise of the pacifist Peace Pledge Union with 150,000 members. Scepticism was reinforced by the Abdication Crisis of December 1936, which threatened to topple the monarchy itself. Adolf Hitler came to the rescue of Britain’s establishments, with Churchill’s adroit handling of government, George VI’s role as monarch, and the nation’s servicemen and women winning the war. Rice observes there is far less allegiance to clubs than ever. I am puzzled. Yesterday’s recognition of regimental badges and colours has surely been replaced by today’s recognition of football strips across the nation. Everyone I know supports a club, far exceeding youth organisation memberships of 1900–50.
As there is a limit to what technically advanced skills can be learned in a few months of compulsion, peacetime service can only concentrate on a few. Leadership and confidence skills, adventure training, first aid, drill, orienteering by map and compass, wider sports, advanced catering, and driving are those that spring to mind. There are limited opportunities for firing guided missiles, throwing hand grenades and operating machine-guns in civilian life. Much less would you want to train society, with all its tensions, to do this outside a war.
Britain already has a thriving volunteer sector, overlooked by Mr Rice. Some 420,000 young people take part in the Scout movement across the UK, numbers that reflect their highest membership growth for 80 years. Many have ethnic backgrounds, and thirty per cent are female. The idea of roving bands of uniformed youngsters may sound sinister, but the Squirrels (aged four to six); Beavers and female Rainbows (six to eight); Cubs and Brownies (eight to 10); Scouts and Girl Guides (10–14); Explorer Scouts and Ranger Guides (14–18) and Leaders (over 18s) add much to our community at every level. They teach a wide range of domestic and social skills, from road, water and online safety to hill climbing and camping. These numbers exclude the 140,000 adults, all appropriately vetted and trained, volunteering to run the groups.
Then there are the 130,000 youngsters of the military cadet movements, with their 25,000 adult leaders offering 10 to 18-year-olds a broad range of challenging, exciting and adventurous activities. They comprise Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army and Royal Air Force cadets, Air Training Corps, and the schools-based Combined Cadet Force, in addition to the wider Sea Cadets and Volunteer Cadet Force. Mr Rice claims that volunteerism is declining, but all these organisations find their numbers climbing, particularly amongst adult leaders. There are also the non-military Police cadets, Fire Service Cadets, and those of the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance forces. Collectively, they involve around 400,000 young people and their instructors, as well as countless others who since 1956 have received coveted Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards for their achievements.
Across the land, nearly one million young people are already gaining citizenship and community-giving skills before entering adult working age. Along the way, most learn the basics of basic fitness, financial management, government and civic studies, qualities Mr Rice feels are overlooked by the youth of today. Crucially, this extra-curricular education would be interrupted if their instructors were lost to national service.
Additionally, we have the 50,000 trained reservists of what used to be the Territorial Army and their naval, marine and air force counterparts. (I was one for over 30 years and so, please note, do not speak with the voice of a woolly anti-militarist.) These dedicated individuals are coached to a far higher degree of skill than could a conscript. Many are specialists, taking the expertise of their civilian job into uniform. Yes, their numbers are stumbling, but only slightly, and that is usually dictated by the arrival of children or change of job, not lack of interest. Evidence suggests they will eventually join another organisation when the time is right for them. Other adult volunteers work for the RNLI, or Royal Voluntary Service (formerly WRVS), Red Cross and a host of medical support groups. Society is glued together by such people. Apart from conscription duplicating at public expense those skills imparted by trained enthusiasts, volunteer organisations would be dented by the loss of its younger membership.
Unlike other European armies, due to a deeply-ingrained sense of Victorian social liberalism, the UK has only twice flirted with conscription in each world war, generally for men aged 18 to 41, later 51, and in World War II unmarried females between 20 and 30. Attlee’s post-war Labour administration continued the requirement, but as with its predecessors, it could not bear to acknowledge the notion of peacetime conscription, dubbing it “national service” instead. Some served in Korea in 1950, others in Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya and Suez in 1956. The unpopularity of the last adventure and its sheer expense caused compulsory service to wind down from 1957, with the last conscripted servicemen leaving the armed forces 60 years ago in 1963.
Most developed countries abolished conscription after the Cold War. Some, such as Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, all have some form of compulsory service, but with many exemptions and alternate civic employment instead. France introduced a bizarre month-long Service national universel in 2021. In few cases is this service embraced with passion and enthusiasm; loathing is more likely the order of the day.
Mr Rice concludes that a form of national service “could be transformative, instilling selflessness and self-respect whilst forming a rite-of-passage into responsible adulthood” and thinks, “It’s worth a shot.” The counter argument is that it would be a wasteful and expensive policy, using grumpy compulsion to do what many volunteers freely undertake already. Just like the good Bavarian folk of Oberammergau, we should pat ourselves on the back for the selfless dedication of our huge and inexpensive volunteer movements.
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