Next month Sweden will begin testing 18-year-olds for its first class of conscripts since the draft was suspended seven years ago. The 4,000 young men and women selected by the Swedish armed forces will report for duty next year.
Conscription brings benefits beyond soldiers’ ability to counter an advancing invader, Sweden’s defence minister Peter Hultqvist says: “In addition to providing personnel to the armed forces . . . the draft will . . . increase our crisis management skills and lead to more engagement and participation in the defence of Sweden.”
With Sweden facing growing military threats — on Monday it begins its biggest military exercise in 23 years — that’s an important advantage. But the draft can benefit the soldiers too. Peter Vesterbacka, a Finnish entrepreneur who was until recently “Mighty Eagle” at Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds, found himself living and working with people he would otherwise never have met. He says that was a good thing: “You learn to work with people from all kinds of backgrounds.”
Today about 80 per cent of all young Finnish men perform military service — about as many who did so during the height of the cold war.
According to a study of the social effects of conscription in Israel by Ori Swed, an Israeli-born professor of sociology at the University of Texas, and his colleague John Sibley Butler, service in the Israel Defense Forces “cultivates new skills (human capital), new social networks (social capital), and new social norms and codes of behaviour (cultural capital)”. That yields what Messrs Swed and Butler call “military capital”.
A Finnish academic, Jukka Määttä, has drawn similar conclusions. He found that while conscripts with defined career plans suffered a professional delay of one to two years, military service develops general skills useful “in any sector, such as adaptation, managing and social skills”.
In Finland and Israel, which have maintained conscription for decades, ex-conscripts’ skills are highly valued in wider society. Especially in elite units, Finnish and Israeli conscripts form networks that they later put to use in the business world. Both countries have produced start-up sectors that are at least partly the result of military skills and networks.
The Swed and Butler study shows that 90 per cent of workers in Israel’s technology sector have performed military service, versus 60 per cent of the country’s adult population. So valuable are Israeli ex-conscripts’ skills that Silicon Valley firms compete to recruit them.
Other countries, too, should take advantage of conscripts’ talents. Imagine the results if, say, Greek companies used the skills learned by the tens of thousands of young men who each year perform military service. More than
47 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds in Greece are unemployed.
Norwegian women, who were drafted for the first time last year, can boast impressive skills on their CVs. So can Lithuanian men, drafted again two years ago after a seven-year hiatus.
But, notes Mr Swed, society has to accept military skills as transferable. “In some countries there’s a stigma attached to military service, whereas in Israel it’s valued,” he says. Other countries are also less willing than Israel to invest in conscription. It is expensive, for one thing. But with the European security situation changing, Sweden and Lithuania have clearly decided that the cost is worth bearing.
To be sure, conscripts have to learn military techniques regardless of whether they will be useful outside the barracks. And there is no doubt that some 19-year-olds view military service as a burden. But what if it helps their careers? The armed forces will benefit from inspired conscripts, and the economy will win too.
The writer is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council
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