Who Actually Serves?

The net result of selection processes, exemptions and evasion is a very low rate of performance of obligatory military service. A comparison between the approximate annual male population in the relevant age cohort, and the number of conscripts indicated in The Military Balance 2004/5, produces the figures shown in Table 7. Even in Switzerland, which on paper has the most comprehensive recruitment system, recent reforms have been directed towards reducing the drop-out rate from military service, and the consequent costs. In 2003, the year during which the new system was introduced, the proportion of those called up who were rejected as unsuitable for recruitment soared to 30% from 19% two years earlier. Subsequent anecdotal evidence indicated that recruitment had become effectively voluntary, with those who were willing instead to pay the military tax (see page 35, above) experiencing no difficulty in being turned down.[1]

So, after everything that has been reported in the previous pages, who is it that ends up performing military service? 

The first thing which is evident is that it is rarely the best educated proportion of the population. In most States, those who proceed to higher or tertiary education can postpone military service until after they graduate. But then they typically have to serve for half as long as their countrymen who went into their military service younger - even if they are not able to avail themselves of a convenient scheme which enables them to perform their service for their country without ever warming their hands on the barrel of a rifle, or to count training performed as part of the school curriculum. Moreover, the more complicated the system of exemptions (and the rules for claiming them) the more this puts a premium on the education which will - at the one extreme - enable an unwilling recruit to ferret out an excuse for avoiding military service, and - at the other - enable a genuine conscientious objector to plead with sufficient eloquence as to convince a cynical tribunal of the genuineness of his convictions.

Nor - by definition - is it the most influential. If an Asian village is asked to provide its quota for the national recruitment drive, will the headman's son be chosen? If some form of lottery is held, but there is any chance of slanting the results - who will benefit? First and foremost the local dignitaries. If you are leading a press-gang and realise that your net has caught a senator's son, does it not suddenly become more porous?

Nor is it the wealthiest. The rich, after all, have more chance of sending their sons abroad to avoid military service. They have access to medical and psychological expertise which cannot be tapped by the poor, and which is also more predisposed to take account of the wishes of the client in certifying unfitness. And again, if it comes down to the press gang, it will be the crowded alleys of the poor, not the leafy avenues of the rich, which are targetted. Even when there is a visible concentration of the wealthy young, it is likely to be avoided for fear that it will include the children of the influential - for of course the whole process is reinforced by the tendency of the three categories of wealth, influence and education to overlap. Finally, if all else fails, money may change hands, illicitly, in bribing a recruiter, or buying false documentation, or legally, through one of the means of buying-out already documented - the sums involved, needless to say, usually being far beyond the means of the poorer section of society.

The result therefore seems to be that it matters little whether the system is one of supposedly universal conscription or of voluntary service; it is the same disadvantaged sections of society who produce the overwhelming majority of the military rank and file.

  • [1] Stroebel, J., Le nouveau recrutement fait chuter les demandes de service civil, Le Civiliste (Journal of the Swiss Permanence Service Civil), Number 24, June 2005