Weapons or symbols? On conscript armies and nuclear weapons

Friday, 22. October 2010     0 comment(s)
Photos DefenceImages.mod.uk/flickr/Creative Commons Photos DefenceImages.mod.uk/flickr/Creative Commons

The conscripted citizen-soldier of the Finnish army and the Royal Navy’s Trident inter-continental ballistic missiles with their multiple nuclear warheads may, at first glance, not have much in common with each other. But conscription for Finland and nuclear weapons for the UK both hold a value that goes far beyond their military worth. They are political symbols as much as they are military tools.

The recently published Siilasmaa report on Finnish conscription makes no radical suggestions; it centrally argues that conscription is the only affordable way in which to provide Finland with the form of defence that it currently wants. The report looks at the benefits that conscription brings to Finland more widely and how the experience could be made better and more useful for the conscripted young men; it doesn’t ask if the type of defence policy that Finland has is the correct one for the future. In the UK the Government is pushing through massive cuts to the public sector that are likely to cost half a million jobs. The defence sector has not been excluded from the pain. Nevertheless the decision on whether to replace Trident, likely to cost around £20bn, has been put off until after the next general election. The British Army will be greatly reducing its presence in Germany where it has been since entering as an occupier in 1945. The cuts will also halve the numbers of main battle tanks and artillery pieces that the Army has. This looks likes a 20-years late acceptance that the Cold War is over, but if so – why not also give up the Trident nukes as well?

In Finland, the editor-in-chief of the leading newspaper has asked how will a reserve of 350,000 minimally trained men protect Finland from a cyber attack? This is not an unfair question – Britain’s brand new Strategic Defence and Security Review, released on Monday in the run up to the budget announcement, puts cyber attacks in the top tier of security threats facing the UK alongside terrorism, a military conflict elsewhere in the world drawing in the UK and large scale accidents or environmental disasters. The British review does not explain how any of those threats might be deterred (let alone responded to) with nuclear weapons.

In both of these cases, symbolism and identity play central roles in the ‘stickiness’ of British nukes and a Finnish mass conscript army. For the UK, an independent nuclear deterrent has been the entry ticket to the top table of states – the United Nations Security Council Permanent Five. Along with France, it keeps Britain at the head of Europe when neither are able to compete with German economic power. It is a legacy of Britain’s time as world power and a flag to wave in the hope that those times are not completely gone. During the Cold War, conscription to produce a mass army was the only tool legally and politically available to Finland for signalling to the Soviet Union that it could and would resist attempts to exert hegemony; that even if it could not win a war, it could extract a terrible cost on an aggressor. Conscription is designed to evokes memories of the Second World War, when the sacrifices of Finnish society helped to keep the Finnish state from falling to totalitarianism. And progressively, conscription has come to represent the social democratic bargain – that the welfare state is a balance between rights and responsibilities between the citizen and state.

Within the British government, some Liberal Democrats might well countenance unilateral disarmament but for many Conservatives that is unthinkable. The Tory leadership has preferred to put off the decision rather than fight it out either with their coalition partners in government or with their own back bench MPs. Within Finland 72 percent of the population support maintaining conscription as it currently is. This makes it very hard for any political leader to even ask not whether conscription is the only method for producing Finland’s chosen defence policy but rather whether that chosen defence policy is the correct one for the world we live in. Whilst these issues remain questions of national identity as much as military strategy, they will continue to be questions for democratically elected politicians and not military professionals.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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