Does Germany still need conscription?

BERLIN, Germany — Germany's military has long struggled with a contradiction at the core of its identity: It is asked by the country's political class to serve in far-off countries alongside the professional soldiers of allied nations, but its institutional core is that of a conscripted infantry designed to protect the homeland from Soviet attacks.

Now the German government has taken a step toward bridging the gap between country's old military structures and new international responsibilities. Starting this fall, the duration of mandatory conscription will be reduced from nine months to six months. Many Germans are hoping that change will serve as a way station on the path toward eliminating conscription altogether, and finally modernizing the military into a capable, professional force.

Germany's parliamentary commissioner for the military, Reinhold Robbe, has accused the government of neglecting the transition required of the military's identity. The Defense Ministry still largely thinks in terms of obsolete Cold War-era strategy, he told parliament in early March. That has left the military under-resourced and under-prepared for its current missions. "The military leadership hasn't yet arrived at the realities of an army in combat," Robbe told lawmakers, "and continues to fail the troops in providing everything that's needed for them to fulfill their missions."

Mandatory military conscription, he implied, is one of the military's obsolete structures. When the Bundeswehr, Germany's post-war military, was first formed in 1955, its foremost mission was to protect the homeland from a possible land invasion by the Soviet Red Army. That's why Germany's military strategists wanted to have hundreds of thousands of conscripted infantry on hand.

Today, of course, Germany is surrounded by allied countries: All of its neighbors, aside from Switzerland, are members of NATO. A land invasion is unimaginable.

But Germany's military forces are more active than ever before. Currently, German soldiers are serving in Afghanistan, off the coasts of Lebanon and Somalia, in Sudan, in Kosovo and in Bosnia.

What the military needs for those missions isn't countless low-skilled infantry (who are, in any case, prohibited from serving abroad during their mandatory service), but specialized military professionals — soldiers who have studied counterinsurgency, who have put in the time to become experts in other cultures, or who have mastered complex technological weaponry. Not only does conscription fail to advance those aims, government studies have shown that the training programs for the 40,000 military conscripts every year use up resources that are desperately needed in the Bundeswehr's foreign missions.

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.

But that argument has also lost force over time. Germany's military culture has by now fully absorbed the norm of equal citizenship. And the draft has not prevented the German military from gaining an informal political affiliation: 70 percent of soldiers identify with Germany's conservative Christian Democratic parties, according to a survey recently published by a military institute.

Perhaps the strongest case to be made for continuing conscription is hardly ever spoken aloud by politicians. The German government allows those who are eligible for military conscription to perform non-military social service instead. Were conscription to be abolished, the sudden absence of those young, poorly paid Germans from hospitals and retirement homes would leave an enormous gap in Germany's social services.

Mirko Schwarzer chose to volunteer at a Berlin retirement home rather than pursue military training. “This place would fall apart without us,” he said of his fellow military-age volunteers. “The residents would have no one to talk to, no one would be cleaning up after meals.”

As it is, Germany's arguments against moving toward a professional army seem particularly disingenuous given that none of its allies have suffered any of the ill effects Berlin is fond of citing. Belgium abolished conscription in the 1990s, and has since learned that a professional service was significantly more efficient at recruiting officers. France's government pushed through a law creating a fully professional service in 2001, as did Italy's in 2004. Poland, encouraged by those experiences, has committed to abolishing its draft by 2012. And, of course, the United States only institutes military conscription in exceptional circumstances.

Germany's parliamentary opposition, led by the Social Democrats, is hoping that the reduction in the duration of conscription will be interpreted by the public as a concession that the draft serves little purpose and that the military's resources are being used poorly.

But zu Guttenberg is busy arguing that the shortened service will prove more tempting to the young men who are enlisted. “My goal is to design an attractive military service,” Guttenberg told Deutschlandfunk. “It's the young people who will enjoy the advantages of the six-month term. It will be easier and quicker for them to start with the rest of their careers.” He also said the revised format will provide more concentrated and efficient training for recruits.

At least some new recruits aren't buying that last explanation. “If they want better training, they shouldn't be reducing it to six months,” said Claro, the new recruit. “They should be extending it to 12.”