Although military conscription is often associated with “tough neighborhood” countries such as Israel, some peaceful countries in Europe still rely on the draft to fill their army ranks. While the media has focused on Austria’s recent election of Sebastian Kurz who is the world’s youngest national leader, it has neglected to mention another surprising fact about the country– military conscription. Kurz’s party, the ÖVP, backed maintaining conscription in a referendum four years ago and this does not seem likely to change any time soon.
In the United States less than 0.5 percent of the population serves in the military. In terms of sheer force, this places the US as one of the most powerful militaries in the world with 1.3 million active troops making up the voluntary military. But as recent remarks by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly have shown, the divide between civilians and a proportionally small American military is growing. This is a problem. How will two increasingly separate groups be able to understand and cooperate with each other? Some have suggested conscription as a solution to the problem. But conscription in the US today is both unlikely and unnecessary. Nevertheless, European countries such as Austria show that conscription is not obsolete and may have certain benefits.
Training in the Alps
At age 18, Austrian men just out of high school must choose between six months of military service (Bundesheer) or nine months of civil service. Tobias Birsak, an International policy Studies (IPS) student at Stanford, spoke casually about his military service, “I did 10 weeks of basic training and then mainly office work.”
Austria is not the only country to have a conscription army in Europe. Young men are drafted in Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Greece and Norway. Although many countries in Europe had mandatory conscription during the Cold War and in the 1990s, most have since decided to transition to a professional volunteer army.
However it seems that the trend is reversing. A 2015 paper by the Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich, notes that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have prompted the reintroduction of conscription by Lithuania and Ukraine. Sweden, which ended conscription in 2010, decided to reintroduce it in 2017 due to difficulties in finding enough volunteer recruits and rising Russian aggression in the region. Austria voted to keep the draft in a 2013 referendum. Interestingly, women voted despite the fact that they cannot be conscripted.
There are different reasons why certain European countries opt for the draft. Conscription in countries in Eastern and Northern Europe is driven by proximity to Russia. Non-aligned countries such as Austria, Finland and Switzerland are likely to conscript since no country is obliged to come to their aid at a time of need. The amount of time that young men are required to serve in the military varies as well. While men in Greece must serve for nine months, Russians serve for one year and Turks serve between six and 15 months.
But what do Austrian soldiers actually do? Unlike countries with conscription such as Israel, Austria is both neutral and landlocked. So instead of training for war, it is active in peacekeeping missions and deals with natural disaster relief. Recently the army has been dealing with the influx of refugees on the border. During his service, Birsak was deployed to the Austrian-Hungarian border to assist the Austrian police in its border protection capacity, although he admits he mostly did office work.
But not everyone thinks this should be the military’s job. “They should be more oriented towards emergency relief help like in the case of floods or avalanches.” said one female Stanford student from Austria who also supported military reform including conscription of both men and women.
The 14,000 Austrians who opt for the civil service route have many volunteering options ranging from elderly care to development projects abroad. Lenny Bronner, a recent Stanford graduate spent his nine months working at an institute that tracks anti-Semitism in Austria. Although he admitted that much of his time felt wasted, he did say, “On a personal level, I am very very happy that I did it.” His work included advising people on what to do after they had been attacked, filing incidents, and making sure that graffiti got removed.
Public opinion on conscription remains divided. While many young Austrians voted to end the draft in 2013, some people that I spoke with felt that they were overruled by the older generation. However, since any additional referendum seems unlikely in the near future following the recent elections, it looks like the Bundesheer is here to stay. This is not necessarily entirely bad. “I see advantages of a citizen army”, said Birsak. “It gives the public a greater stake in military deployments and thus a greater need for responsible political decision-making.”
When thinking about our own civil-military relations we should remember that there are other possible models along the spectrum between the extreme of mandatory conscription (Israel) and the other extreme of a voluntary military force (US). Naturally this will depend on the context and the geographical and political situation in the country at hand. And yet, Austria is interesting because of its neutral and peaceful status. The Bundesheer’s purpose is to preserve the very neutrality of the nation. Service is short and there is a healthy internal debate about the need and purpose of the military.
The Austrian case challenges our accepted definitions of the term soldier (perhaps as a violent killer) and civilian (who is perhaps repulsed and disgusted by the barbaric concept of war). At the very least, this should encourage us to strike up a conversation with a veteran or soldier. Try it. You might be surprised by what you hear.
Anat Peled, a sophomore studying history, is a member of the European Security Undergraduate Network (ESUN). Read ESUN’s column, Cardinal Richelieu, every week in Stanford Politics.