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Europe

Europe Gradually Abandons the Draft

Facing a certain death, Germany’s military draft received a last minute reprieve last week. But if the rest of Europe is any indication, it won’t be long before a German conscription army is a thing of the past.

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Professional soldiers are better-equipped for modern conflicts

As the nature of military conflict changes, so do the armies that wage it.

It is a theory Portugal, Italy, France and Spain have used as the basis for ending the military drafts that called up hundreds of thousands of sometimes reluctant young men into their armies each year. Shrinking military budgets and a desire to craft a more modern, highly technological army were among the main reasons the four countries decided recently to do away with the draft.

German government officials share similar desires, but nevertheless backed a constitutional court ruling this week that kept military draft. They, along with Scandinavian countries like Norway and Sweden, remain the last of Europe’s conscription armies.

Supporters argue the draft provides a good pipeline from which to lure potential recruits. Opponents say it is a relic of a bygone era in which European countries were regularly at war with one another.

Their argument is increasingly winning approval as the European Union struggles to forge a uniform military identity and policy.

"Conscription ensures a massive army," said Ralf Siemens of the Berlin-based Campaign Against Military Service, Conscription and the Military. That, Siemens said, is exactly what most European nations don’t want.

France

France, for example, discovered during the 1990 Persian Gulf War that large military deployments were extremely difficult to undertake, spurring the movement towards the smaller, professional army, Siemens said. The last conscripts in the French army finished their military service at the end of last year. France’s army is now made up of 92,500 professionals, with another 27,000 taking part as national service volunteers.

Spain

Spain has followed suit. The beginning of this year marked the advent of Spain’s first fully professional army. The decision was spurred by a grass-roots campaign waged by conscientious objectors. The campaign drew on the anti-military feeling among many Spanish youngsters, said Siemens, and transformed it into a country-wide protest.

The decision hasn’t been without problems. After doing away with conscription in 2000, Spain's government discovered it had recruit shortfalls in its army. As a result, government officials hastened thousands of letters to people of Spanish descent in South America, asking them to come join. Only 300 responded.

Smaller, more qualified

Better small than an army made up of reluctant and unhappy recruits, say professional army advocates. The argument is especially poignant considering the new military technology recruits are having to master.

"The army is becoming so technologically advanced that only long-term, trained soldiers are able to operate in it," Siemens said.

The most recent war in Afghanistan is a perfect example, Siemens said. The allies deployed more than 500,000 soldiers in Iraq in 1990-1991. The number of soldiers, including anti-Taliban forces, taking on al Qaeda in the mountainous terrain in the southwest of the country numbers no more than a few thousand.

It appears Germany’s draft, which enlists 90,000 young men each year, is safe, at least until elections come this September. Politicians of every stripe have promised to make it an election-year issue and opposition politicians have already made the introduction of a professional army a priority should they unseat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder come September 22.

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