Military Conscription Is Returning To Europe, But Is It Really A More Equal Way Of Mobilising? What History Tells Us

(MENAFN- The Conversation) The idea that conscription, defined as the compulsory enlistment of citizens for military service, can increase equality and instil a sense of solidarity that transcends traditional societal divides has echoed throughout history.

Several NATO member countries including Latvia have reintroduced conscription, and others such as Sweden and Estonia have recently extended it to reach more people, as the threat of a possible Russian advance increases.

But what does history show us about how conscription is perceived by the wider public, and its influence on greater equality? The UK, for example, introduced democratic reforms in 1917 in the form of extensions of the vote. This was motivated by the sacrifices of conscripts during the first world war .

The home secretary, George Cave, stated that:“War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men's eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides.”

Conscription as an institution is often associated with the arguably most influential early example of this practice, generally referred to as the levée en masse, implemented by the French revolutionary government to bolster its ranks in the 1790s.

During that desperate time, when the fledgling republic struggled to defend itself against the coalition of countries seeking to end the revolution and restore the Bourbon monarchy, many French citizens not only accepted the necessity of conscription, but in many cases greeted it with enthusiasm .

In revolutionary France, conscription gradually came to replace older systems of compulsory recruitment, where the wealthy could easily purchase“replacements” by paying someone to take another's place.

This possibility was abolished in 1798, in order to make conscription more equitable, but corruption and favouritism still posed a challenge to the legitimacy of the institution . Medical exemptions and discretion in selection at the local level continued to provide opportunities for, in particular, the wealthy to evade compulsory service.

Read more: Ukraine war: why many Nato countries are thinking of introducing conscription and the issues that involves

Deferments and exemptions have remained longstanding challenges to the legitimacy of the institution of conscription. Typical examples of exemptions include attending higher education, having dependent children, or medical issues rendering the would-be draftee unfit to serve.

During the Vietnam war, the appeal of the higher education deferment prompted a significant increase in the college enrolment rate in the US between 1965 and 1975. As a result of a deferment for fathers, the fertility rate similarly saw a hike , followed by a dip when it was abolished in 1970.

In order to secure medical exemptions, self-inflicted wounds have been a last resort for some, from the early days in revolutionary France to today's Russia .

A military exercise is led by the Finnish Navy for the first time since joining Nato. Troops from the Finnish Army and Air Force, the Swedish Navy and several allies all participated. Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva/Sipa/Alamy

In an attempt to enlarge the pool of eligible men, the US Department of Defense in 1966 initiated what has become known as Project 100,000 . This represented a lowering of medical and IQ standards for acceptance of draftees , allowing recruitment of a large number of men who would previously have been disqualified.

Thus, the Vietnam war saw the creation of a programme that specifically targeted the poor and underprivileged for recruitment. Record numbers of mostly middle- and upper-class men, including future presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, evaded the draft by going to college and then finding ways to obtain medical exemptions.

Recruiting a 'disposable infantry'

Today, we see a similar pattern playing out in the Ukraine war. Many Russian men with marketable skills and enough financial resources to leave, fled their country in 2022 in response to its partial mobilisation .

At the same time, the shadowy Wagner Group, a state-funded private military corps, started to expand its recruitment base by enlisting prisoners to fight in Ukraine. Not long after, the practice was copied by the regular Russian forces .

These recruits have been cynically used in the war in Ukraine as “disposable infantry” to probe Ukrainian positions for weaknesses rather than committing more valuable assault troops. By using prisoners and ethnic minorities, the political cost of mobilising young, urban Russians can be avoided.

There are also countries in which conscription is widely accepted and seen as legitimate. In Sweden, conscription was temporarily suspended in 2010, but was reinstated in 2017 in response to the deteriorating regional security situation.

The year before, 72% of Swedes asked in a poll were in favour of conscription. Even Prince Carl Philip Bernadotte, son of Sweden's king, was drafted and fulfilled his service obligation.

In Finland, another country with a long tradition of conscription, 73% are in favour of compulsory service.

These examples illustrate that conscription can be viewed in different ways. Its legitimacy is closely associated with the legitimacy of the state that is using it, in the eyes of its citizens.

While the appeal of conscription as a tool for providing states with military manpower has waxed and waned many times over the centuries, the current European security situation and the war in Ukraine has shown that it is not likely to disappear. Whether at the end of any war it is seen as having created greater equality, however, is down to how each country implements it.

The Conversation


The Conversation

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