Germany “Suspends” the Draft

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By Michael Liebig


As of July 1, 2011 mandatory military service is “suspended” in Germany. Now almost all European countries have all-volunteer armies. Was the German move a sensible and overdue adaption to the international security environment? Serious doubts come to mind.

Conscription was not formally abolished because this would have necessitated a change in the German constitution. That might imply that a back door is being kept open for re-enacting the draft at some future point of time. But, for all practical purposes conscription is abolished – with almost no political debate at all. This is the more astonishing as conscription wasn’t really a controversial issue in the German population – according to a SOWI poll 72% support the draft. And, conscription has a strong tradition in Germany as it was “invented” by the great Prussian reformers Scharnhorst and Clausewitz. Until a year ago, the draft was strongly endorsed by the majority of Germany’s political class, notably the CDU/CSU and the Socialdemocrats. In July 2009, Chancellor Merkel had said: “I’m committed to the draft”, which “is a trademark of our armed forces for which we are envied internationally.”

The Liberals opposed the draft, probably because they view it as a burden to private business – notwithstanding other arguments put forward by them. The Greens and the Left Party opposed conscription because of their traditional, fervent “anti-militaristic” stance. But these parties lacked the political clout and the popular support to end the draft.

An Eerie Turnaround

Enter Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg – the Defense Minister from October 2009 till March 2011, when he had to resign due to his “copy & paste” doctoral dissertation. In the Summer of 2010, zu Guttenberg surprisingly proclaimed that conscription had been rendered unnecessary by the security situation and was no longer justified. At first, his turnaround created general astonishment. Most observers assumed that zu Guttenberg’s own party, the Bavarian CSU, would block his drive to eliminate one of the party’s erstwhile sacrosanct political positions. The opposite occurred. Without any debate, the CSU waved through the termination of the draft. And the Christian Democrats did so likewise.

What had happened? In the Summer of last year, smart and glamorous zu Guttenberg was the “rising star” of German politics. A media hype had been orchestrated around him: At last, there was a young, “charismatic” political Macher who turned things upside down, fired mercilessly high officials and provided – together with his attractive wife – “high value” political entertainment. In fact, zu Guttenberg was seen by many as the next German Chancellor. Many leaders in the CDU/CSU didn’t like what he did, but they felt overwhelmed by the way how he was doing things. Consequently, no one in the CDU/CSU dared to challenge the content of his policy shift and there was no debate about the pros and cons in respect to the draft.

Is the Draft Unjust?

In Germany, no young man was forced to do military service. He was offered the choice of military service or an alternative, civilian service in hospitals, old age homes, fire brigade, ambulance etc. True, only 15-20% of an male age group were drafted to the military and 30-35% went to civilian services – the other half pursued their job careers. Is the regrettable (but correctable) fact that not every able-bodied young person has done a service for the general good, sufficient reason to eliminate both the military and civilian service?

Almost at the same time that Germany “suspended” the draft, the Swiss parliament rejected a motion to that effect. The Swiss are known to be cool, calm and collected. They carefully consider the pros and cons before they make a political decision. So, they must have good reasons to stick to their “militia model”: Mandatory military or civilian service for every able-bodied, male Swiss citizen. After a basic military training of (currently) 4-5 months, Swiss militia soldiers do every year a 3-week refreshment course up to the age of 34 (NCOs and officers up to the age of 50). The Swiss soldier retains his personal military equipment at home, including the assault rifle (until 2007 also the ammunition). The Swiss civilian service is organized similarly and lasts only slightly longer. It seems, the Swiss do not see their militia system as burden to society and their economy but as indispensable guarantee of their national security – and social cohesiveness.

Modern society is highly individualized and socially competitive. The small family has become predominant. Religious communities are losing traction in society, political parties and trade unions are shrinking – and with them their youth organizations. Schools and universities are increasingly compartmentalized and competitively structured – typified by the “Bologna reforms”. The digitalisation of life has further intensified the individualization – particularly among young people.

The spreading of “online communities” – facebook, twitter, StudiVZ, etc. – are the paradoxical proof of endemic isolation among young people. And, the rising tendency of young people, notably young women, of voluntarily spending a year or so in social services in particularly developing countries demonstrates the latent desire for a genuine “social network”.

Sport clubs and other associations – the German Vereine – are still popular but can’t really withstand the trend towards social fragmentation. The consequence is a rising deficit in “social competence” of young people. Universal military or civilian service is a key antidote to the eroding “social competence”. Through military or civilian service young people of diverse social and educational backgrounds are mixed together and have to learn real team work (as opposed to “team work” in the sense of business socialization). And, “public goods” are being produced – national security and non-commercial social services in a demographically aging society with ever-expanding health costs.

Is the Draft Too Costly?

In the (rare) argumentation on the pros and cons of the draft it was asserted that its elimination could “save money” – shrink the defense budget and public debt. There is no proof whatsoever for this claim. Even if the Bundeswehr’s manpower is, as planned, reduced from 220.000 to 175.000, the costs of all-volunteer armed forces will almost certainly be higher than before. In order to recruit sufficient numbers of professional soldiers, the Bundeswehr will have to offer a pay that’s comparable to that of private businesses. And, the army will have to pay for vocational training so that soldiers may get civilian jobs after retiring from service (10 or 20 years in they case of soldiers and NCOs).

When it comes to economic efficiency in the Bundeswehr, conscripts are surely not the problem. It’s an oversized, expensive – mostly civilian – bureaucracy. Currently, the Bundeswehr has 220.000 soldiers and officers and 77.000 civilian employees. The Defense Ministry has staff on 3.200 and is based both in Berlin and in Bonn, guaranteeing duplication and bureaucratic frictions. And the number of generals and senior officers is almost the same as in 1989 when the Bundeswehr’s manpower stood at 500.000.

Conscripts and Foreign Wars

It is said that a conscription army is not fit for military interventions outside Germany or the NATO area. That is true. Conscripts lack the in-depth training of professional soldiers. But, the truly neuralgic point is political and psychological. You cannot send conscripts to foreign wars, in particular when the war aims are non-transparent. Some 80% of the German population support the Bundeswehr, but 60% reject its military presence in Afghanistan. Are the German people just ignorant and confused? I wouldn’t think so. The aims and the operational approach in the Afghan war were obscure from the beginning. We have a “non-win” situation in Afghanistan and the “face-saving” pullout of foreign troops has already begun – along with secret talks with the Taliban.

The June 22 speech by President Obama, announcing the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the June 24 majority vote in the American Congress against an US involvement in the Libyan war are a sign of the times. The same goes for the German government’s decision not to get involved in the Libyan war, as demanded by France and Britain. America and Europe are tired of foreign wars, they are fed up with the human and financial costs. The catch words rationalizing military interventions abroad – fighting “terrorism”, “rogue states” or “failed states” – have turned sour in the Western public. Obama’s remarkable June 22 sentence “nation building begins here at home” sums it all up.

In Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya geopolitical and human rights issues are inextricably mixed with ethnic-tribal and religious issues – for which there are no military solutions from the outside. The era of “intervention wars”, fought with professional soldiers, appears to come to an end. So why would the draft be ended just now?

The New Defense Policy Guidlines

Zu Guttenberg’s successor as Defense Minister is Thomas de Maiziere, the son of a Bundeswehr general. He is the antithesis of his predecessor. Probably, in his innermost conviction he is not in favor of dumping the draft. But de Maiziere is loyal and pragmatic and Chancellor Merkel obviously decided that the government, after zu Guttenberg’s political self-vaporization and the nuclear energy turnaround, could not afford another reversal. In respect to the conscription issue, the government’s position seems to be: you cannot put toothpaste back into the tube. And de Maiziere is to make the best out of this situation.

On May 27, 2011, Minister de Maiziere issued the new Defence Policy Guidelines. It’s remarkable for its sublime contradictions. First, it contains is an almost wistful reference to conscription:

The termination of the draft “represents a watershed in the history of the Bundeswehr. For decades, conscription guaranteed high force levels, augmentation capabilities, and high-quality recruitment and helped to integrate the Bundeswehr into society. With the suspension of conscription, an important element of recruitment has ceased to exist. Demographic developments make recruitment difficult for the Bundeswehr.”

Well said. So why was conscription abolished? The only reference to that question in the DPG document is: “A direct territorial threat to Germany involving conventional military means remains an unlikely event.” That statement is certainly true, but provides neither a logical nor a practical reason for shifting to an all-volunteer army – as the case of Switzerland demonstrates. Like Switzerland, Germany is not threatened by any of its immediate or distant neighbors. But unlike Germany, Switzerland has not abandoned the draft. And, a militia-like conscript army is by definition defensive. Therefore, there is no contradiction between having a militia-like conscript army and being surrounded by friendly (or allied) neighbors.

Moreover, all past wars and security crises were “unlikely events”. A few years before WW I and even WWII broke out, they were “unlikely events”. The Cold War and the wars in former Yugoslavia too were “unlikely events”. And the same goes for 9/11. The essence of military strategy is preparedness for the unforeseen and unexpected. I would think that de Maiziere – and not just him – would be well aware of that. So we read in the in DPG document a sentence, in which an underlying uneasiness of its authors is shining through: “In order to deliver an appropriate level of security, the buildup capabilities of the armed forces will be retained and universal conscription will remain enshrined in the German constitution, although the obligation to perform basic military service has been suspended.” Indeed, a puzzling argumentation.

Moreover, in the DPG document national defense is given priority. In its ranking of security missions, international military interventions come third place: “Germany’s security objectives are:

the security and protection of German citizens; the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Germany and its allies; the fulfillment of international responsibilities.” It seems that de Maiziere is quite aware of the strategic shift away from the focus on foreign wars which has dominated the West’s military thinking and practice over the past two decades. If Germany’s security, territorial integrity and sovereignty are the priorities security policy, why should Germany forgo the capacity for territorial defense with a conscript army?

Germany would certainly need a much larger percentage of professional soldiers in their armed forces compared to Switzerland, which has no navy for that matter. The DPG document correctly states that “transport and energy security and related issues will play an increasingly important role for our security”, as “around the globe, changes are taking place in markets, channels of distribution, and the ways in which natural resources are developed, secured andaccessed.” The “scarcity of energy sources and other commodities required for hightechnology products will have implications for the international community. Restricted access can trigger conflicts.” Indeed, these are vital security concerns outside the national territory. However, having naval, air and also ground forces assuring, if necessary, open trade routes and commodity supplies is something very different from the past decade’s foreign wars under an alleged “obligation to intervene”.

Some people argue Germany had to dump the draft because “all the others” have done so: America, Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland – all abandoned the draft long before Germany. Fact is that all these countries have been major colonial powers. The colonial tradition has shaped their strategic thinking, including a preferential role of the professional military. Germany has no such colonial tradition; Bismarck wasn’t fond of colonies and the one good thing about the Versailles treaty is that it disposed of German colonies. The German military tradition goes back Scharnhorst and Clausewitz, who developed the concept that national security is a public good of such existential importance that it should not be exclusively entrusted to military professionals. On this background one wonders whether the hasty decision to suspend the draft was the wrong decision at the wrong time? Lessons are learned when something has gone wrong. And usually it takes some time until there is the realization that a mistake had indeed been made.

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