One of the sharp ironies of Germany's decades-old draft is the benefit the country receives from those who avoid it.
What was created as alternative service for young men who reject serving in the military for reasons of conscience has become a steady source of cheap labor for German social services, ranging from meals-on-wheels to night nursing for the mentally handicapped. Some 95,000 men work 40 hours a week for less than $300 a month.
This week the country's defense minister announced plans to modernize the military, a move that may ultimately end conscription. But because German social services are so dependent on conscientious objectors, alternative service could prove a significant obstacle to scrapping the draft.
"This would result in a deep cut in social services, and in some cases costs would explode," warns Maria Böhmer, a member of parliament for the Christian Democrats.
With the threat of a Soviet invasion a thing of the past, Germany is beginning to adapt its military to facing such new threats as global terrorism or providing soldiers for UN-sponsored peacekeeping missions. Some say these new challenges require a professional volunteer Army, and a discussion is now unfolding that could result in a decision as early as next year to end the draft and alternative service.
There are now some 272,000 German troops, of which 131,000 are conscripts. Men ages 18 to 45 are eligible for the draft, and basic service lasts nine months. Because of the short duration of military service, conscripts are generally not allowed to participate in combat missions overseas.
Defense Minister Peter Struck's reform seeks to reduce the number of soldiers by around 35,000. The new Army will include a rapid-deployment force of 35,000 troops to be available for multinational missions. Another 70,000 troops will be trained for missions aimed at restoring stability, such as the role German troops are now playing in Afghanistan and the Balkans. The remaining 137,500 troops will be a reservoir for support functions.
Renate Schmidt, the federal minister for families, who is in charge of the alternative-service program, has said that social services would need a transition period of at least five years to replace conscientious objectors with a combination of new jobs and volunteer programs. Ms. Schmidt was expected to present recommendations Thursday.
Social-service organizations are already planning for the end of alternative service and are lobbying the government to create a program to encourage young people to spend a year volunteering before they begin university studies.
"I think we can assume that in the medium term, conscription will be done away with," says Christel Buschke, an expert for alternative service at the Diakonisches Werk, a service organization of the Protestant Church, in Berlin. "So what we need to do is use this time to put the burden on other shoulders, to set up a volunteer program and establish some jobs in this area."
The potential to create jobs in the healthcare sector is a strong argument for getting rid of alternative service. For decades, German politicians have argued that alternative service did not have a negative impact on the labor market. But even social-service institutions say that if alternative service ended, at least half the positions would be replaced by paying jobs.
Marcel Humar, a 19-year-old who works at the Shiloh home for the mentally handicapped, says he decided to become a conscientious objector last summer. He'd never really given it much thought and says he's not really a pacifist.
"I'm not in favor of war, but I don't think it's always fundamentally wrong," he says. "Iraq is the best example. The moment that war broke out it seemed wrong, but the result is that people are better off."
In September, after receiving his draft notice, Mr. Humar began a 10-month stint as an aide here, assisting the duty nurse.
Past generations of German conscripts never had to think much about issues of war and peace. Humar's father, for example, served in the Army. But back then, German soldiers were forbidden by law from fighting overseas. That changed in the 1990s, and now Germany has some 10,000 soldiers on peace missions abroad. Last summer, when Humar got his notice from the draft board, his recalls a discussion with his father.
"He said I should really think it over. The political situation in the world has changed, he said, and it's more dangerous than when he served," he explains. "Until that point, I wasn't even interested in the issue."
Germany's political parties have yet to take a clear position on conscription. When Mr. Struck presented his plan, he also stated his opposition to ending the draft. But at the same time, he stressed that his reform of troop structure would make it possible to scrap conscription without requiring major changes to the Armed Forces. Some have taken that as a sign that the days of the draft are numbered.
"Despite his emphasis on maintaining the draft, he is pursuing a very pragmatic policy, which in reality is moving step by step away from the draft and toward a volunteer army," says Winfried Nachtwei, a defense expert for the Green Party.