A CHERISHED institution of the radical European left appears to be on its way out: the draftee army. Before the French Revolution, the old regimes maintained professional armies. Recruiters with a quota to fill showed up in local areas asking for volunteers; if not enough men showed up, they conscripted the shortfall. The term of ``service'': 20 or 25 years. This long stretch allowed the noble officer corps to condition the troops and to transform unruly peasants into loyal defenders of the regime.
In 1793 all this changed. No longer subjects of a king, the Jacobin citizens of a democratic France demanded the privilege of protecting their revolutionary gains. The result: the lev'ee-en-masse. The draft transformed warfare by replacing professional armies that fought without conviction with mass armies committed to their cause.
Military realities forced conservatives to adapt to the new conditions, although they remained uneasy with the ``people's army.'' While the professionals followed orders in Vietnam, for example, large numbers of draftees unhappy with their country's rationale for being in Asia created political pressure that eventually forced the Americans out. In the United States, President Richard Nixon, a conservative, established the modern professional army.
Now technology has replaced politics as the major rationale for a professional army. The complexity of modern weapons necessitates more training and longer terms of service. Unlike the old regime army, which drafted unemployed men unable to perform useful functions in society, the modern army demands a high level of technical training.
Modern Western society, however, no longer countenances terms of even two or three years. In recent times the NATO countries have reduced the term of service. In Western Europe, the draft averages 15 months, with longer terms reserved for more specialized air forces and navies. In 1987, Spain will cut its term of army service from 15 to 12 months.
Four NATO countries now possess professional armies - the US, Great Britain, Luxembourg, and Canada. The other members have responded to the dilemma of greater specialization and shorter service by drastically increasing the volunteer components of their armed forces. For example, volunteers account for one-third of the Italian armed forces and two-thirds of the Belgian.
Reflecting more-docile societies and the need for more-thorough training, the Warsaw Pact nations have kept their terms relatively long - two to three years.
In the West, the conscript army is in crisis, while career soldiers have proved more capable of dealing with modern military conditions because of their motivation and training. In the past, German draftees have objected to their treatment, while in Italy the elevated number of suicides among conscripts and public complaints about the conditions in which they live and work have led to an official investigation.
In addition to this conflict between the values of democratic high-tech societies and the indispensability of greater specialization within modern armed forces, demographics may deal the draftee army a death blow. Europe's declining population will dictate a lengthening term of service if adequate troop levels are to be maintained through the draft. By 1989, for example, the German service term will have to rise from 12 to 18 months.
While the NATO command has not expressed a preference, such considerations have produced a widening discussion on the merits of professional armies which is destined to increase.
The debate has proceeded furthest in Italy, where the draft has scant popular support, where the performance contrast between conscript troops and professional soldiers is glaring, and where the unsettled Mediterranean has produced its first major strategic alteration.
Once primarily preoccupied with their Northern Gorizia sector, the Italians now believe that trouble will more likely originate in the Mediterranean theater. The Italians are thus deemphasizing the masses of troops and heavy armor most useful against a Warsaw Pact invasion and emphasizing rapid intervention forces capable of detecting and neutralizing an attack from the South. In other words, opting for quality over quantity.
One of Prime Minister Bettino Craxi's Socialists initiated the debate on a professional army, while last August, Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini decreased the army's conscript component and increased its volunteer contingent.
Italian Communists and radicals say Mr. Spadolini's actions amounted to a Trojan horse introducing the professional army. Fearing the volunteer army as a threat to democracy, these groups demand better conditions for conscripts and maintenance of the ``people's army.'' But in recent years draftee armies have not prevented coups, and the question remains: Can they survive modern times?
Spencer Di Scala is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.