In general, the idea of a mandatory yearlong military service for all of a country’s male and sometimes female citizens is hardly popular, at least in advanced Western societies. Only a few countries worldwide still enforce conscription and many are in the process of fading it out. Those that maintain a draft do so as a geopolitical precaution against feared belligerence from neighbouring countries, as is the case with Israel and most recently Lithuania.
However, this year, National Service as it is known in the UK, somehow crept back into the political discourse. Echoing former Home Secretary David Blunkett’s words in 2011, Prince Harry two months ago called to reinstate National Service in the UK. His statement coincides with Lithuania’s reintroduction of conscription and Finland explicitly telling its reservists their role in the event of war, with both developments occurring against the backdrop of a muscle-flexing and volatile Russia. Altogether, this has put the question of national service right back on the agenda.
As a proud former conscript, but of a different country, and a London native, I mused over the idea longer than most. National Service in the UK – is it a good idea? Could it work? How would it affect British society and its citizens?
Bearing in mind that what Messieurs Blunkett and Harry propose is a National Service for the sake of instilling civic values and encouraging responsible decision making in life, and which would serve no defensive purpose, it is no surprise that this has raised a few eyebrows. However, reflecting on my own experience I feel there is more to it than meets the eye. Sure, the notion of the state forcing sometimes-reluctant British men and perhaps women to bear arms and toil in the mud for a year for the sake of ‘value’ and civic education, is tricky to justify in today’s world. But instead of a hasty dismissal, which I am sure most draft-age (usually 18-29) UK citizens would dish out when they see the words ‘mandatory military service’, I think we should step back and look at the bigger picture. I think we should also consider the effect that National Service would have on the individual and his/her relation to society. From this perspective, perhaps a small yearlong service could actually alleviate many social and foreign policy problems with which the UK has grappled in recent years.
Military conscription draws in people from all walks of life. On induction, everyone is ascribed equal status and urged to work together. This occurs in an environment where all socio-cultural signifiers are removed – dress, appearance and language – and where politics, creed and money are irrelevant. Enduring friendships are made between people that may not have otherwise met through the prescribed socio-economic trajectories. The experience is eye-opening and memorable: I always pleasantly reminisce about my time in the army, as do my former colleagues. (We have a Facebook group.)
Since every citizen goes through this experience, the effects of it are far-reaching in society. The strong bonds and collaborative ethos breed cohesion and understanding between people and members of different classes, races and creeds. Over time, this would change the social fabric in the UK entirely; it would bring citizens closer together in everyday life, the workplace and even within politics. For a society that is renowned for its rigid class structure, which perpetuates the disconnection between the elite and the working class and which has spawned a plethora of problems – social isolation, questionable policies – National service could do a whole lot of good.
A National Service would also change for the better how the UK behaves internationally. For too long has the British Armed Forces been a mythical force wielded by politicians when they please. Although venerated in ceremonies, to the public and politicians the British Armed Forces is largely an invisible arm, the damage to which often goes unnoticed. On home soil the people who feel this damage the most and empathise with veterans are those who have close relatives or friends serving. However, National Service would broaden the burden. With a mutual link between people across time and space, everybody knows someone who will be affected directly if war is declared.
Think back to the Syrian Civil War. The UK came very close to shipping troops over to fight, right? The question is: would David Cameron et al send their own children and friends to fight in that war? Definitely not. Even knowing someone who would be affected would influence one’s opinion on the matter. By bringing the military closer to the general public, National Service would facilitate a more prudent use of the armed forces which, in view of the rising tensions in the Middle East, is imperative in the future.
I know, I know. The application here is idealistic. Logistics are complicated; problems of nationalism inherent in the military and with conscientious objectors, remain unaccounted for. But, nonetheless, National Service would offer something to the UK that has been absent and much needed of late: greater solidarity in society and diligence in foreign policy interventions.