On Conscription and Charity Collecting

Fredag, 3. September 2010     0 kommentti(a)
Anyone who has been in downtown Helsinki in recent days has almost certainly noticed a number of armoured personnel carriers and many soldiers in uniform out on the city streets. But for those away from Helsinki: have no fear, revolution is not in the air. The troops are carrying collecting tins not assault rifles. Visitors to the city might be confused, but the conscripts are out collecting money for the veterans charity. Coming from a country with a professional military (the UK only implemented conscription during the two world wars and it was ended sometime after them in both instances), the tradition of uniformed troops and military hardware being used for charity collecting was one of the strangest and even a little uncomfortable sights on moving to Finland. Since the IRA killings of British servicemen and women in the UK and Germany in the 1980s, it has been rare to see uniformed military in mainland Britain, unlike for people of my age from Northern Ireland who grew up surrounded by armed and often nervous British soldiers.

In Germany, which like Finland has maintained military conscription unlike many other European countries, avoiding that sense of unease between civilian life and a separate professional military has been one of the abiding arguments for conscription. Finland does not have the historical baggage that Germany does, but both countries believe that 'citizen-soldiers' keep the military as part of the wider society; reflecting the positive, democratic values of that wider society. But during the past summer conscription has been a big topic of debate in German politics. Minister of Defence Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg suggested that it might be time to move to a fully professional military but then walked back from this when Chancellor Angela Merkel signalled her support for the status quo. Nevertheless the defence minister's original position has been supported by German minister for Foreign Affairs, Guido Westerwelle, who wants to see a fully professional force.

Much of the debate in Germany is within the twin conservative parties that form the centrepiece of the current government. Tradition and the social value of conscription on the one hand is being weighed against fiscal reality and the stresses of overseas, high intensity operations on the other. Westerwelle is from the Free Democats, a liberal, pro-business party for whom the budgetary issue could be expected to loom large. But also as a foreign minister, rather than defence minister, he is perhaps more likely to see the military as a potential tool of foreign policy – much more the British or American model – than as only the final guarantee against existential threats to the homeland, and/or an institution of social cohesion. But the former head of the German armed forces, General Klaus Naumann, has warned that if politicians try to squeeze conscription too far; maintaining it because they wish to support it politically but without spending much money on it, the system becomes militarily pointless. He argues that for the Bundewehr this already happened when the conscription period went from nine to only six months.

Here in Finland it looks as if conscription will again be a topic of debate this autumn. The Green Party has already put forward a proposal for a significantly slimmed down reserve and their position has been criticized by other politicians. All will await the recommendations of the report on the future of the conscription system being prepared under the chairmanship of Risto Siilasmaa. The armed forces of democratic countries reflect the priorities of those countries. In Finland, the normalcy of soldiers on the streets with charity collecting tins is representative of the intimate bonds between the civilian and military dimensions of Finland. This clearly has much value; indeed this year I noticed a number of the young soldiers were from African backgrounds, but were out doing their bit as Finnish citizen-soldiers – a newer way in which the army can help to build the nation. But there is, of course, an opportunity cost to that role in terms of military performance. At the simplest level: APCs and soldiers collecting for charity are not out on training manoeuvres. The debate this autumn will surely be about how Finland wants to balance these different roles for its future military.

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