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Does Germany still need conscription?

The German military faces increasing demands on its professional soldiers, not short-term drafted troops.

The conscription program — which entails calling-up large number of young men every year and giving them thorough medical examinations, before feeding, clothing, housing and training them — is expensive to administer and seems to provide little return on the investment. Most of the conscripts are poorly motivated.

“Most young people in this country think the military is up to awful things,” said Cristiano Claro, a 19-year-old from northern Germany who is scheduled to begin his service in early April. “I think it's important to serve your country, and help people in other countries, but a lot of my friends don't see it that way.”

With its limited military budget, Germany may have to make a choice between continuing its military draft and becoming a serious specialized professional force that can protect the country in far-flung regions. However, conscription still has some support in the government.

The Christian Democratic party, which has long resisted changes to the conscription program, argues that it is needed as a pool from which to recruit future officers. “Military conscription is an intensive time of learning, which also opens the possibility of recognizing in the military an attractive employer,” said Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a member of the Bavarian sister party of the Christian Democrats, to the German national radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

Critics say that most conscripts know long before they arrive for boot camp whether they have any interest in potentially continuing with the military; few of the poorly motivated conscripts are ever going to consider service beyond the mandatory term.

Claro is a case in point. He has been imagining pursuing a military career for several years already, and has done an extensive amount of research on his professional options. For him — precisely the sort of future military employee who can be identified while a conscript — the change in the terms of conscription is distressing. “Six months is not enough for anyone to really get a feeling for what military life is like,” he said. “The first three months is basic training. That's not representative of real military employment.”

The other major argument in favor of conscription is that the influx of fresh soldiers ensures the military maintains an intimate and organic connection with civilian society. Prior to the second world war, the modern German state had a structural bias toward military adventurism because its military establishment was insulated from civilian branches of government. Military conscription, proponents say, has proven an effective way to prevent that from happening again.