Compulsory Military Service—The Tiger in the Room [Radio Interview]

May 25th, 2011 | By | Category: Cultural, Europe, Historical, Military/LE, Psychological, Sociological, Strategies

Bring up the idea of compulsory service in the United States and you bring up a maelstrom. Some are vehement that we never have required military service, except during actual wartime. Others say we should have not only a draft, but we should be using that standing military to lay down the law in every nation of the world.

“It’s too much of an imposition in this modern world, where all the military does is go off to foreign lands to ineffectively stop genocides and defend dictators!”

Others say, “I’ve got to get my MBA by the time I’m 25, or I won’t be able to get a good job—how am I going to do that if I have to spend a year or two of my life in the military?”

“Why have a standing army if we’ve got enough volunteers who want to go into the military and defend democracy in other countries?” others ask.

That’s the crux of it, how to justify a military that’s already supported by volunteers, such as presently done by the US in the troops it sends to Afghanistan and Iraq? But that is the problem: we don’t have enough volunteers to fight a war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Libya; or wherever, that makes the US seem more like the Roman Empire just before it fell, in debt and spread too thin.

The question is why should we have compulsory service in the US? To really understand why we must, we need to look at the only democracy in Europe to have had a compulsory service since its adoption of a federal constitution in 1848: Switzerland. By looking at Switzerland, we see how a military is best supported and implemented, both in the actual fighting of war, how military service modifies and strengthens the best qualities of a society, and how compulsory service, a citizen army, actually prevents war.

Like the United States, Switzerland is made up of a collection of people from different cultures, from nations that have been historical enemies. Basically, it’s a group of people who sought to have independence from France, Germany, Austria, and Italy, people who sought independence against barons from these countries who laid claim to sections of what would become the independent nation of Switzerland in 1291. The story of William Tell is very indicative not only of Swiss earnestness towards independence, but also their sense of private ownership of deadly weapons and expert use in those weapons, i.e. in Tell’s time, the crossbow.

These stories of independence are told all Swiss girls and boys. Though I’m generations removed from my Great-great-grandfather Aebischer, who brought his daughter and my great-grandfather to the US in the later part of the 1800s to escape famine in his hometown of Guggisberg; and my lastname is Scottish, I still got the William Tell tale as a child. You’d think that this indoctrination since childhood would turn all Swiss into a bunch of flag-waiving, rowdy bunch of soccer hellions. In contrast, the Swiss carry their patriotism in a dignified manner, which neither rubs other nations wrong, nor lets others think that Switzerland is a pushover. A major reason for this is the fact that every Swiss male between the ages of 19 and 34 must complete service with one of the branches of the military, or do some type of civil service. Most opt for the military, as it’s shorter term.

When you get a number of people together, and put them through the same kind of serious training required to defend a nation, you get a group of people who learn how to make things work, instead of what happens in societies where everyone is out to get what they can, and to hell with everyone else. Doesn’t make the position of drill instructor an enviable position, but in the end what they churn out are people who learn how to overcome differences in order to achieve mutually beneficial goals. In war, that means destroying an enemy, and if you do it right, you keep from killing yourself in the process. These are skills that call on a mass of people to forget their immediate differences for the longevity of their nation. There’s a trust that results. Ask a Swiss national whether they can trust their fellow citizen to come to the call of action when the nation is in danger, and there’s an overwhelming positive response. It resulted in the Swiss culture, society, and even in why the Swiss Red Cross was formed.

Group for a Switzerland Without an Army (GSwA), on the other hand, is an organization that has been trying to shrink the Swiss military and remove conscription since 1982. It’s not a new idea; in the past there have been many such movements. Often they were funded by outside influences, in an effort to weaken the ability of Switzerland to defend itself, such as the Nazis and the Communists during WWII. GSwA’s suggests that men do civil service instead of military service, much like in the US entering the AmeriCorps instead of serving on active duty, in the reserves, or the National Guard. Being confronted with your own sense of mortality is one of the most maturing experiences a human being can have. And civil service doesn’t provide this experience. A personal realization of mortality is one of the major reasons that people grow up.

It’s considered one of the major reasons that those who came back from serving in WWII graduated in three to four years from college on the GI Bill, in contrast to those who now take five, and seven years to graduate with a bachelors. The excuse is often that the students have to take on a number of jobs to pay for school and that cuts into study, but when our grandparents and parents were interviewed about their own experience after returning from the military, they said the same thing. The difference was that they were so glad to be alive; they just wanted to get on with their lives, and that meant being the best they could be.

It’s because of this professional attitude instilled in the military that companies in the US search out veterans in the public sector—there’s no five and seven years messing around trying to meditate on your belly button when you know your number could be up at any moment. This is especially the case in Switzerland. According to Romeo Durscher, project manager at Stanford on a NASA project, who experienced Swiss military service as 19-year-old, banking firms expect a Swiss national to have gone through his initial service and training. It makes everything run much more smoothly at the office. According to the Swiss Defense, Military, Naval and Air Force Attaché in Washington D.C., Major General Peter Egger, service in the military can create interesting dynamics: an officer in command of recruits in the field, who back in the office, could be that officer’s superior.

This carries on to one of the most important parts of societal cohesion, in a true democracy, where you can’t buy your way out of service, or get a college deferment. No matter if you come from a wealthy and upper-class family, or a family with barely enough money to purchase the clothes you needed to leave home, you all arrive in the same type of boot camp in Switzerland. That’s a very unifying experience. Also, it says that you really believe in your country. What’s better, a country that seeks out mercenaries, like France with its Foreign Legion, and Ancient Rome with its Visigoths and such, to fight its wars? Or a nation like Switzerland, whose people feel so strongly about how lucky they happen to be living in a democracy that they show up rain or shine at the point of embarkation on their date of entry into the military.

How often in the US have we seen celebrity after celebrity talk about how proud they are to be an American? And how proud they are that Americans are fighting the good fight in other countries in the defense of the US, but then it later comes out that these very same celebrities, who went to college in order to soon take over the family fortunes, or were working hard at making their rock careers to explode, were doing so when those their age were volunteering, fighting, and dying against Communism in Vietnam? Perhaps it wouldn’t seem so bad if these same people who had benefited by working the system to dodge the draft weren’t now so gung-ho about the military, much less stating they were going to run for president.

Working the system is an old practice in the US. During WWI, men avoided the draft by moving and not offering a forwarding address. In Hollywood during WWII, while men like Jimmy Stewart, John Ford, Clark Gable and Glenn Ford actually went to war, John Wayne stayed home and sought deferments until he made a name for himself in film: This fact forever tarnished the relationship between Wayne and Director John Ford–wounded during the Battle of Midway as a US Navy commander in an OSS photographic unit, and the one who had previously given Wayne his big break in Stagecoach.

Avoiding military service is a tradition that goes as far back as the American Revolution. My ancestor David Graham, who arrived in Chester County, South Carolina, with his three sons from County Antrim, Ireland in 1774, like so many Scots-Irish, wasn’t interested in getting into a fight, like the Boston and Philadelphia Yankees up north. Not until the British made it so unbearable did the southern Colonials take up arms and fight, as David and his sons did successfully at the Battle of Kings Mountain in North Carolina.

Agreed, there’s a big difference between Switzerland and United States: though Swiss soldiers have been well-regarded since the 15th Century by a number of nations that used them; aside from Swiss Guard at the Vatican, Swiss nationals have been completely prohibited from serving in the military of another nation since 1927. Unlike in the US, Switzerland’s military’s sole role is that of the defense of Switzerland’s borders. Considering how much fighting occurred to create Switzerland’s independence from France, Germany and Austria between 1298 and end of the 19th Century, is it any wonder that Switzerland would seek a neutral stance when other nations get into conflict?

One impetus to keeping that peace is the knowledge that not just the unlucky, or the poor, will go to defend the country, but everyone, man and woman, will be required to pick up arms and defend that country during a time of war. Something to think about as we get more and more political leaders vying for the office of the President, without any prior military experience. The United States hasn’t been involved in so many conflicts around the world since WWII, and no time before has the United States been involved in so many different types of conflicts. Would we be involved in so many if every congresswoman and congressman knew they personally, and their offspring, were going into harms way, too, as members of the US military? Swiss political leadership is aware of this everyday.

Another aspect of voluntary conscription is that it shows a clear sense of resolve against any potential aggressor. Aside from the amazing natural fortifications of the Swiss landscape, the knowledge that every man, woman and child will fight to defend their country, with at least every man with the knowledge of how to effectively do it, is a great deterrent. While other nations have been at the mercy of terrorist attacks, Switzerland hasn’t been hit by one. The reason for this is like the security that used to be available in neighborhoods before the tech boom that changed the face of a neighborhood every year, and especially a time before the 1970s, when everyone pretty much knew everyone on the block, where if any threat occurred, the neighborhood responded immediately, and the government came by to officiate and put someone in jail. Switzerland has a strong sense of community, greatly instilled by national history and military service.

The final question that comes up is how to financially support such an endeavor. In Switzerland, uniforms, food, equipment, lodging and training are provided by the government. In Switzerland gun control means that you are required to take home your issued weapon and re-qualify every year. During military service, the three months a year, the business where the recruit is employed, pays part of the recruit’s pay, an investment in the country, by making sure the soldier loses no pay while serving. As you can see Switzerland has something between a militia and standing army, or as has been said, Switzerland doesn’t have an army, it is an army. As a result, aside from conflicts with the Hapsburgs, they’ve not been at war for more than 500 years. Wouldn’t an all encompassing, required military service right out of high school make sense, when young men and women are at the peak of physical endurance and often not yet clear of where they want to be professionally in 10 or 20 years?

© Rigel Media 2010

For your daily commute on your MP3 player – Download and Enjoy Swiss Military Attaché Major General Peter Egger’s interview on GCT Radio:

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