Germany debates ending the draft

FRANKFURT, Germany - Feeding elderly residents at nursing homes. Corralling children in kindergarten. Packing boxes of food to be sent to the world’s latest scene of natural disaster.

That’s what a force of 60,000 or more young German men will do when they begin a compulsory six-month period of civil service next month — as an alternative to six months of military service. Their paychecks are paltry, and most of their jobs don’t require much brainpower, but their work helps keep the country moving. They are part of the infrastructure that creates a system of cradle-to-grave social services.

Now, a long-simmering debate over whether Germany should continue drafting young men into the military, known as the Bundeswehr, could spell the end of the generous civil service program, too.

Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is trying to convince legislators to get rid of the draft, which pulls the men into six months of combat training, gun-cleaning and errand-running. Military service is required — unless the conscript is a conscientious objector, doesn't pass his physical or qualifies for another of the many exemptions — in which case, civil service is required. At present, 250,000 soldiers serve in the German military, including about 72,000 conscripts.

Guttenberg this week presented five options to Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s federal lawmakers, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense said. The options range from a military force of 150,000 to 210,000 soldiers, including various numbers of drafted men, or scrapping the draft.

Guttenberg favors the option that would end the draft entirely, the spokesman said. The draft would remain part of the country’s Constitution, but it would not be utilized.

Lawmakers are expected to decide sometime this fall on what to do.

Germany is among a small number of West European countries that still has a military draft: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Switzerland all retain some form of conscription.

Guttenberg’s goal is to streamline the German military, the defense ministry spokesman said. The proposed changes would also likely save money spent on defense.

The downside, argues Roland Hartmann, a spokesman for the Office of Civilian Service, is that if the draft were ended, the country could wind up spending more money on social services.

“If there is no duty to go to the Bundeswehr, it all stops,” he said. “I don’t know what the hospitals and kindergartens will do.”

Germany was barred by victorious Allied forces from creating a military force after World War II, but that restriction was loosened during the Cold War, when anti-Soviet leaders worried that an attack from the east would come through Germany. That’s when Germany instituted mandatory military service for young men. Drafted men were trained to defend Germany’s borders. (Women have always been exempted.)

Even during those early years, Germany offered plenty of opportunities for conscientious objectors to choose civil service instead of military service, said Jackson Janes, executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

But what was initially an 18-month commitment for military service was reduced over time. Now, military and civil conscripts serve just six months, a timetable that makes expert-level training difficult.

Plus, conscripted soldiers who choose to serve just the minimum six months can’t be deployed, although technically, drafted men are still charged with protecting their homeland. Very few drafted men — so few that the Defense Ministry doesn't keep an exact number — choose to stay on past six months, making them eligible for deployment, a defense spokesman said, and those who do would likely have volunteered for the military even if the draft didn’t exist.

The German soldiers involved in NATO actions abroad all volunteered for military service. If Germany were to end the draft, thousands of soldiers who now train as conscripts could be free to join units deployed to NATO actions.

This year, about 450,000 men became eligible for the draft, according to German government statistics. About 40 percent of those young men were exempted from service for a slew of reasons. Some didn’t pass a medical exam, others chose to volunteer with a local fire brigade. University students who choose to study certain topics, including theology, are assumed to have a conscientious objection to serving in the military and are therefore exempted from the draft.

Of the remaining 60 percent, tens of thousands of men avoid service by citing a moral objection, or by choosing civil service instead. In the end, only about 16 percent of those 450,000 young men - around 72,000 people - wind up in the military.

Nearly as many young men choose civil service over military service.

“They transport people in hospitals, they move patients from place to place, they stay in a room with patients when they wake up after an operation,” Hartmann said. “They bring old people to the doctor, or buy something to eat for them.”

Civil service jobs have been around for so long that they’re a built-in part of Germany’s economy. It’s possible that an end to the draft could create jobs for other Germans, Hartmann said, but most non-profit organizations that rely on conscripts will struggle if they have to pay people for the same work that’s now subsidized by the government.

The debate among federal lawmakers over the draft is expected to last for months, but non-profits who lean heavily on the civil service alternative program area are already bracing for a depletion in their annual flow of government-subsidized workers.

“We are assuming that will happen,” a spokeswoman for the German Red Cross said.

And when it does, she said, the humanitarian organization could lose 9,000 volunteers. That’s how many would-be soldiers worked for the Red Cross last year.

Hartmann said he hopes that if the required service program ends, the German government will replace it with something else to encourage young people to volunteer.

“This is not just about getting rid of the draft,” Janes said. “It’s about restoring and strengthening the appeal of public service. A lot of these kids sincerely want to do something they think is worthwhile, but it has to be made popular.”

An all-volunteer civil service could attract just as many workers as the current program does, Janes said. Young men who claim a moral objection to the service for fear of getting entangled in the military, might willingly agree to spend a few months volunteering were the threat of a uniform and a gun no longer part of the picture.

Schahin Saket, 19, was eager for a shot at a spot with the European Union, where he could have worked in a mail room or even traveled abroad to work on a foreign development project (it is possible to apply for such a position through Germany’s civil service program). But he wanted to make sure he didn’t wind up in the military. When he went in for medical exam that would determine his fitness for military service, he told the doctor that he suffered from epilepsy as a child. He hasn’t had a seizure in years.

“But I can’t for sure say it won’t ever happen again,” he said. “I didn’t lie.”

The admission did more than get Saket out of military service; it excused him from any obligation to serve his country. Saket escaped not only the military, but also an opportunity to lend a hand to those in need.

“Now I regret my decision,” he said. “I really wish I had done something.”