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Waste of money or civic pride? Is compulsory military service a good thing?

Russian soldiers march toward Red Square to attend a Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, May 9, 2023.
Russian soldiers march toward Red Square to attend a Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, May 9, 2023. Copyright Alexander Zemlianichenko/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Alexander Zemlianichenko/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Joshua Askew
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The UK Conservatives have announced they want to bring back mandatory national service if reelected. But is conscription a good thing?

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With elections looming, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has announced plans to bring back compulsory military service if his right-wing Conservatives are reelected. 

Under the plans, 18-year-olds would either do full-time military placements or volunteer one weekend a month in service of the community. 

Yet, the UK is not the only European country to debate conscription, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 jolting the continent to re-evaluate the policy. 

Lithuania in August announced plans to extend its draft - joining Denmark - while German politicians have suggested reviving compulsory military service.

But is conscription the right approach? What impacts could its revival have on Europe?

Sunak said national service would help young people learn "real-world skills, do new things and contribute to their community and our country."

Elsewhere, however, it has been seen as an important part of military defence. 

“Europe’s armed forces, particularly those on the border with Russia, now realise they don't have enough manpower,” Vincenzo Bove, professor of political science at Warwick University, told Euronews in September. 

"They clearly see conscription as a solution to that." 

“Whether this is a good idea in terms of deterring a potential Russian invasion, we’re not really sure,” he continued, suggesting there was a lack of evidence about the effectiveness of conscript armies compared to regular forces.

Owing to the complexity of modern warfare, Bove questioned if conscripts could be properly trained to use the advanced equipment or tactics employed today in the short time available.

FILE - Oleg flies a drone while testing it on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 8, 2022.
FILE - Oleg flies a drone while testing it on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 8, 2022.Natacha Pisarenko/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

"Just look at what is happening now in Russia with conscripts… They're not highly motivated. Young men are being forced to work. The majority of them would rather be doing something else."

A former Wagner mercenary in July told Euronews that while he served in Ukraine one of his main duties was to ensure Russian conscripts - “barely 21-years-old” - would not run away, as they were so reluctant to fight.

Canon fodder?

Besides economic concerns about the inefficiency of compulsory military service – with massive numbers of people prevented from doing something where they could be more productive – Bove raised ethical concerns about sending civilians into battle with little experience.

Having served in the Italian Navy for 15 years, he said: “Three years isn't enough to teach the basics of warfare… even using basic weapons requires a lot of training.”

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“Some countries are talking about three-month programmes… that’s nothing. They won't even learn how to salute,” Bove added in jest.

Tucked on Russia’s border via the small enclave of Kaliningrad, Lithuania recently began drafting reforms to its conscription system, which could see people living and studying abroad called up.

One option in the proposals is to enlist recruits voluntarily for one-month training sessions every summer for three years. They would in theory then be ready for battle.

Along with Lithuania, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Latvia, Austria, Greece and Estonia currently have some form of compulsory military service, alongside warring parties Ukraine and Russia.

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FILE - A Leopard 2 tank is seen in action at the Bundeswehr tank battalion 203 at the Field Marshal Rommel Barracks in Augustdorf, Germany, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.
FILE - A Leopard 2 tank is seen in action at the Bundeswehr tank battalion 203 at the Field Marshal Rommel Barracks in Augustdorf, Germany, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.Martin Meissner/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

Still, others were supportive of conscription - with caveats. 

Critical of “performative acts" where “every man and woman is herded into military service", Elisabeth Braw at the American Enterprise Institute told Euronews selective systems can “work really well". 

The defence analyst pointed to the “incredibly successful” example of Norway, where citizens are called up en masse, but only a certain percentage are chosen for training. 

“The army gets the best and the brightest, and on top of that service is an asset on a conscript's CV," she explained, with passing selection a mark of prestige. 

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In 2015, Norway became the first European country to introduce compulsory military service for both men and women. It still retains a professional military, providing the bedrock of its defence.

Braw offered a note of caution about conscription, however.

“Troops must be equipped with meaningful skills. It has to be time well spent," she said. "The Kremlin isn't going to be frightened by a conscript model that's not thought through, with young men and women sitting idle in barracks."

Some skills often cited by advocates are social and survival skills, functioning under pressure, stress tolerance, functioning in crisis situations and general resilience. 

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Enlisted civilians could be put to use beyond defence, Braw continued.

“Keeping a country safe is about more than the armed forces. It's about public health, infrastructure protection, and healthcare. Young people can be called up when they are needed to help protect the country from crises or disasters."

“There are so many societal problems the government alone cannot solve.” 

France in 2019 launched a form of soft conscription, with young people offered voluntary civic service. Macron billed his pet project as a way of developing patriotism and social cohesion, though opponents say it diverted money for the wider education system.

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Some Studies show conscripts are more likely to face unemployment when their service finishes, while others doubt if acquired skills are transferable to other sectors or learned at all. 

Does military service breed patriotism?

One reason Europe is resorting to conscription - where men and women are typically legally obliged to fight - is that conventional recruitment drives aren't working.

The German army, for example, is failing to attract new soldiers, despite a vast initiative to strengthen itself amid the Ukraine war, the country's Ministry of Defence announced in August. 

Why exactly people don't want to serve is unclear.

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An argument by experts is militaries cannot compete with private sector wages and conditions, with army jobs often difficult and dangerous.

Yet, Bove said this claim cannot explain what is happening in areas of Europe with high unemployment, such as southern Italy or Spain. Here civilians still don't want to join up. 

Another explanation is cultural, with civilians spurning the army because they don't share its “overarching goals and purposes,” he told Euronews.

Devastating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have left “long-lasting” negative attitudes towards the military, with Bove doubting that throwing cash at the problem could improve recruitment. 

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Arguments exist that conscription can boost patriotism and a population's willingness to defend itself against an aggressor. 

“Conscript service has a long history in Finland and has broad support in society,” said Elina Riutta, President of the Finnish Conscripts Union, in a statement sent to Euronews.

As Ukraine shows, "war affects the whole society. The more people are trained in case of a crisis, the better resilience society has," she added.  

Finnish soldiers attends a field training exercise Sapeli 23, led by the Guard Jaeger Regiment, in Porvoo, Finland, Wednesday, May 31, 2023.
Finnish soldiers attends a field training exercise Sapeli 23, led by the Guard Jaeger Regiment, in Porvoo, Finland, Wednesday, May 31, 2023.Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva

“The Russian threat has always been known in Finland, so the war in Ukraine does not in itself change things regarding conscript service, but rather emphasises its purposefulness.”

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“The will to defend the country among conscripts and the entire nation is currently at a record high.”

Finland is in a unique position geographically, sharing a long border with Russia that it has fought in the past. Its example is not necessarily applicable to other countries.

Research by Bove and his colleagues Riccardo Di Leo and Marco Giani found conscription actually can create a gap between people and their government.

“Conscription makes people identify with the armed forces, but his loyalty clashes with that towards other democratic institutions, causing people to trust the authorities less.”

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“If you're worried about the increasing distance between younger generations and the state, then conscription is not the answer. It's actually counterproductive,” he added.

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