That’s why many countries bring back mandatory military service

by Giuseppe Terranova - 2017.09.18
That’s why many countries bring back mandatory military service
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According to a study of the social effects of conscription in Israel by Ori Swed, an Israeli-born professor of sociology at the University of Texas, and his colleague John Sibley Butler, service in the Israel Defense Forces “cultivates new skills (human capital), new social networks (social capital), and new social norms and codes of behaviour (cultural capital)”. West interviewed the Professor Ori Swed

1) In the last years many European states decided to abolish the circonscription, but now we start to register some step back. For example, since next month Sweden has decided to introduce again the circonscription. How do you explain this change of mind about military service?
This is an interesting question. I attribute this change to geopolitical shifts; the increase of the Russian threat and the decline of the American support. For a period of time now, Russia has been investing more and more resources in military buildup. The potential Russian threat became more pronounced with the annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine. Russian activities in the Middle East, and involvement in some level of cyber warfare, contributed to this perception of threat. Simultaneously, Trump's unpredictable foreign policy and America First agenda indicated to EU members that American support is not a guarantee.
For a long period of time, military threats on European soil (not terrorist threats) were hypothetical. Consequently, EU members decreased their military expenses and armed forces, allowing the US to take most of the burden of defending the continent. The new situation, where there is a real threat, and more uncertainty of American aid, convinced policy makers to change their tunes and to act. In the debate what is the reason for this policy move there are three potential explanations: security and strategic need, economic benefits, or social benefits. I see conscription as part of a security strategy that may have economic and social implications, rather than a novel social or economic policy. Security need brought conscription and not radical social or economic reform.

2) According to your study, the stereotype on circonscription (waste of time; postpone the entry to world of the work etc.) are true or false?
I believe that it depends on profession of the individual within the armed forces and of course the armed forces themselves:after all, not armed forces are equal. There are some bad models and some good ones. Generally, we can argue that armies became more specialized and professional. This corresponds with developments in warfare, as war became more complex and more and interconnected. Soldiers are required to master various skills and technologies in order to be effective in operating elaborate systems. They also need to be able to operate in a team, communicate and coordinate efforts among units. Later on, after military services,those skills and experience can prove valuable when trying to enter the  workforce. Professionalization was accelerated, especially within the combat service support and combat support elements of the armed forces. Those elements represent about 90% of soldiers, and many of them include units where the stereotype of service is a waste of time are more common. Many armies today emphasize the skills and experience gained in service, along with access to new technologies in their recruitment brochures or promotion commercials. In Israel, for example, the demand for technological units increased dramatically, given recruits view how service in those units pay off later in the job market, especially in the hi-tech industry. In fact, the preference for the technological units became so high that the Israeli Defense Forces recently issued a new set of benefits for combat units to increase the motivation and long term gain for those soldiers. Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize an important point. The transferability of those skills and experience into the job market is contingent on the market's acceptance and recognition of those skills. In Israel it happened organically, yet a country that will make a switch from professional to mandatory conscription will have to help businesses with this translation, at least in the beginning.

3) For State like Italy that became from nation of emigrants to a target for mass immigration, do you think circonscription could be a way to integrate the son of immigrants, the so-called second generation?
Yes it can, but only with relevant reforms within the military and in the political system. The military is an organization designed to train civilians into soldiers, and not to train civilians into becoming better, or more informed, civilians. In order to do so, the armed forces will have to go through a significant change. It is not enough to recruit and hope for the best. The system has to adapt. First, in order to promote the integration of second generations, or any other social group, the armed forces will have to create tailored socialization programs that target the needs and challenges of each group. Second, the Italian armed forces are very big, but with conscription they will become significantly bigger. They will have to find a way to utilize those people in a way that will be efficient and meaningful both for the armed forces and the conscripts themselves. Given that, at their current capacities, the armed forces don't need many more people, the moment the military has so many new recruits it will be very easy for it to treat them as surplus and cheap labor. This will be inefficient and promote the stereotypes of service as a waste of time. Proper planning can help avoid this pitfall. Third, using military service to provide individuals not only socialization but also skills that they can later use as civilians will help both integration and the appeal of service. Finally, not only will the military have to adjust, but also the political system. It will have to help re-brand this policy and military service in general. Moreover, they will have to promote supportive legislation to make it work.

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