The first European war between more or less homologous powers for more than 70 years upsets many assumptions. Not the least of these is the belief, or perhaps just the hope, that the brief and pleasant interlude of relative peace between powerful nations is here to stay. Generally speaking, as I have written elsewhere, much of the world is once again on a war footing, increasing military budgets and cementing defensive alliances. But the renewed fears also offer governments fearful of international dangers or simply looking for an excuse to regiment their societies a chance to revive the unfortunate and previously declining practice of conscription.
"The Russian attempt to subjugate Ukraine catapulted the world 30 or 40 years back to the era of the Cold War when heavily armed military blocs clashed in central Europe," Deutsche Welle's Bernd Riegert wrote in March. "Germany and other states may be forced to reintroduce conscription if they want to train enough personnel and reservists to act as an effective deterrent."
International tensions empower politicians seeking to force the unwilling into government service.
Wolfgang Hellmich, a lawmaker and defense committee member of Germany's ruling Social Democratic Party, called for it, as did Johann Wadephul, deputy leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Union in the German parliament. It would be a dramatic change for the country, which abandoned the project a little over a decade ago in favor of a smaller professional force recruited from volunteers.
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But some countries have already made the switch. After Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Lithuania reinstated conscription after just six years without restrictions and plans to expand the practice to make it universal. Sweden did the same in 2018.
"Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea [in 2014], the conflict in Ukraine and increased military activity in our neighborhood are some of the reasons," a Swedish Defense Ministry spokeswoman told the BBC at the time., Marinette Nyh Radebo.
Ukraine gave its own people a brief reprieve, scrapping the project in 2013 only to bring it back after the invasion the following year.
But many politicians yearned for conscription even before the world became a tense place again. They see it as a social engineering project to share the burden and get people from different backgrounds to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya", with arrest and prosecution for those who don't comply.
“The new centre-left military commissioner in the German parliament took several of her colleagues off the wrong foot on Saturday by calling for the reintroduction of conscription,” Deutsche Welle reported in 2020. “It had been a 'huge mistake' to get rid of the service compulsory military service in 2011, Eva Högl, a Social Democrat (SPD), told the Funke Media Group, arguing that reported far-right tendencies within the Bundeswehr stem in part from this decision.
In the United States, some lawmakers are promoting compulsory service for all as a path to fairness, which might be the case if by "fairness" you mean "loss of shared liberty."
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“By reforming the Selective Service to be a gender-neutral registry, we are tapping into the talents of our entire nation in times of national emergency,” Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) insisted last year in language that Fortunately, it was later stripped of the National Defense Authorization Act.
But misleading justifications for forcing people to serve the state are a hard sell. Claims that conscription will break down barriers do not sit well with threats to put those who refuse behind bars. Old-fashioned defenses against predatory neighbors, on the other hand, play on people's fears more effectively. And too many officials, either frightened by cross-border dangers or simply aware of the opportunities they present, are taking advantage of the situation.
"About a third of responding MPs said they were in favor of making compulsory military service mandatory for women," according to YLE in Finland, which has long recruited men. "The debate over whether women should also be required to serve as conscripts reignited last fall, and the debate on the issue became increasingly heated after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February."