Talented Dutch Army -- vital to NATO -- marches to its own beat

At the heart of NATO's northern Europe defense are the scraggly - but highly skilled - troops of the Dutch Army. They are 65,000 strong, soldiers who dress as they wish, refuse to salute officers, sometimes vocally support nuclear disarmament, and champion ''soldiers' rights'' through influential unions.

These troops - famous in the '70s for sporting long hair and headbands, and more recently for the cropped head and earring look - are considered by qualified observers to be some of the best soldiers in the Atlantic alliance.

While the United States, Britain, and Canada struggle with undermanned and undereducated volunteer forces, and other allies, such as France, wrestle with unpopular draft laws, the Netherlands has a popularly supported, drafted army. Its unsaluted career officers proudly boast of their scraggly troops' reputation for good training, initiative, and top performance in NATO maneuvers.

This drafted army is the mainstay of the Dutch military. All Dutchmen are required to serve 14 months of active duty, usually as army enlisted men. The draft age is 19, but it is often postponed until the completion of education. The result is a military of somewhat older enlisted men who often are better educated than the noncommissioned officers.

The Dutch believe in the fairness of the draft. In this period of growing unemployment, they could probably switch to a largely volunteer army.

But the National Defense Ministry opposes this, worrying that it would create an army of the economically disadvantaged, as some say has happened in the US since the draft ended in 1973.

''It would not be a mirror of the population,'' says a Defense Ministry spokesman.

The draftees' unions agree. Kees De Kort, a draftee leader of the Union of Conscript Soldiers (VVDM), says that a volunteer army would be ''a state within the state of all poor people.''

It was this belief that a citizen army should mirror civilian society that radically changed the Dutch military in the mid-1960s. Dutch society was experiencing some turmoil. Long-haired Amsterdam youth were being drafted into an army that at that time resembled that of the US and other NATO countries.

A loosely organized union was formed to support individuals who deliberately underwent courts-martial to test such rules as the dress code. Within one month thousands of draftees joined the union. By 1971 the VVDM was claiming a membership of half of the draftees. Unions were legalized by 1973.

Today the VVDM, together with a smaller breakaway group, General Union of Dutch Soldiers, claims a membership of one-third of the drafted soldiers.

These unions try to combat what they see as excessive abuse by the military. ''Defending our country is all right,'' says Mr. De Kort, ''but [we] try to see a soldier as an employee in uniform.''

Ab Damen, another VVDM leader, explains why they sought to end the practice of saluting. ''It was ridiculous - the greeting and saluting of someone you don't know. (Now) you can greet your superior. You say, 'hello.' ''

The Dutch enlisted men's new cause is to change the practice of parade duty for the Queen. ''Dutch soldiers don't like to dress up and stand for parades,'' explains Mr. Damen, who admits having had very little contact with the grumbling enlisted men of the other, less liberal, NATO armies.

The parade issue, like most previous ones, is meeting with resistance from career officers. But it is the Defense Ministry - not the generals - that makes the final decisions in a slow deliberating process that has approved every dress fad from beards to earrings, though usually after the fashion had passed.

The unions also are working on more traditional labor problems such as a possible wage cut under the austerity program of the new center-right government.

Since some draftees are members of the Interchurch Peace Council, an influential nuclear disarmament group, the union is also discussing whether requiring a draftee to work with or guard nuclear weapons is an abuse of power that the union should oppose.

Morale is said to be high in the Dutch Army. This is as much due to the proximity of duty stations - in the Dutch and German lowlands - as to liberal policies. Most Dutch soldiers are stationed close enough to go home at night.

An exception is the 800 Army troops in Lebanon and 300 Army, Air Force, and Navy personnel in the Sinai. Draftees are sent to the potentially hazardous duty in the Mideast only if they volunteer for it; this practice comes as a result of union actions.

The Defense Ministry estimates that 40 percent of draftees will not quickly find jobs when their service tours end. Although an elaborate social security system guarantees all Dutch a minimum income, De Kort said that many soldiers now have the attitude, ''The Army is not fun, it's not good, but it's better than sitting home.''

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