Germany considers another step toward normalcy: dropping the draft

The minister of defense in Germany proposes ending the draft, a cold-war legacy but also an antidote to its past. The time for such a change seems right. But will it create a better Army, or just save the federal government some euros?

A conscript in the German Bundeswehr, dressed in camouflage, takes aim with his G36 rifle at a field exercise as part of his basic military training at the Knuell Barracks in Schwarzenborn, Germany, in April 2005.

To the list of “normal” things that Germans now feel comfortable doing (waving flags, jubilantly singing the national anthem), this may soon be added: creating an all-volunteer, professional military.

Yes, after 54 years, the Germans are considering abandoning the draft.

When World War II ended, it didn’t look like there would ever be another German Army. But being on the front lines of the cold war against the Soviet empire, West Germany had to do something. Its answer was to institute conscription in 1956, a year after it joined NATO. That would create a military so broad in its ties to society that it could never again become a state-within-a-state.

Last week, German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg proposed revamping the Bundeswehr, or armed forces. He wants to reduce its size (to about 163,000 soldiers from about 250,000), close military bases, and eliminate conscription. A big motivator is the need to cut the federal budget.

In practice, the draft is not much of a draft. The length of service has been whittled over time to a mere six months. More young men choose civil service than the military (you may opt for that for conscientious objector reasons). In 2009, 90,955 young men served in health facilities, while only 68,304 chose boot camp.

Even 20 years ago, when I reported from Germany for the Monitor, typical family discussions were about which hospital or nursing home a son would be working in.

Politicians and media commentators are debating the proposal on several fronts. They wonder if the military will lose its broad connection with society. They wonder how the social sector will get on without cheap, conscripted labor. They question whether the new military will be too small and ineffective.

I’m not worried about abandoning conscription for fear it might someday lead to the revival of a rogue military or one that will disconnect from society. The Germans have proven, time and again, that those tendencies are truly in the past.

And Germans can find a way to adjust to the disappearance of an "army" of inexpensive hospital aides. They can create a national volunteer service that is also open to women – an idea proposed by the German family minister.

The real concern is not about whether Germans have gotten over their past, it’s how they think about their future. If Germany is normal enough to be in NATO and deploy troops to Afghanistan, it is normal enough to have a professional, competent, volunteer Army. But one wonders whether a military that has 35 percent fewer soldiers will be up for the job, and whether it will still be restricted by combat caveats.

Is the defense minister building a better Army? Or is he just trying to save some euros?

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