On Sunday 20th January 2013 around 6.5 million Austrians will have the opportunity to vote in a referendum on switching from the current system of Conscription (six months military service or nine months civic service – working in hospitals, charities and other ‘social’ work) to a professional army. If the polls are right, the majority of the 30% to 40% who will go out to vote will support retaining compulsory military service. Given the arguments put forward this is a little puzzling.
Now I have to admit as an English liberal the idea of conscription is not something I have ever supported. However, Austria has had the system for over 50 years and I have tried to follow the debate with an open mind.
Here are some of the arguments I’ve heard for retaining the system and my personal reaction:
Argument: It will cost more money to have a professional army.
My response: This is disputed but if true this surely isn’t a valid argument in a modern State for press-ganging young men into military service?
Argument: It will cost too much money to replace those doing civic service.
My response: Again surely this isn’t a valid argument in a modern State for press-ganging young men. Wouldn’t you be happier having a paid professional (or enthusiastic volunteer) drive your ambulance or provide other emergency and social services rather than the press-gang?
Argument: It’s good for social cohesion.
My response: Okay, I can see some argument for this but doesn’t military & civic service create a divide and (if I’ve got this right) not all those called up pass the medical, so it not exactly fully inclusive. More importantly, what’s wrong with Austrian men? Why do they need to benefit from this social cohesion exercise while Austrian women are exempt?
Argument: Young men get to learn how to use a gun.
My response: Now I may have misunderstood this point but that’s what I believe the leader of the (conservative) ÖVP suggested (if I’m wrong I apologies). Seriously, more people able to use a gun is somehow a good idea!
Argument: A professional army will be full of foreigners.
My response: This comes from the leader of the Far-Right FPÖ. Let’s put aside all the things I might say about racism implied or actual. Britain has had for many a long year the Royal Gurkha Rifles (RGR) a regiment of the British Army who have an illustrious record – foreigners, were they actually to be recruited to a professional Austrian Army, are likely to be as committed as the next man or women.
A few interesting points from the polls:
Majorities for or against conscription amongst supporters of specific parties tend to favour the stance of the party.
Based on a poll published this weekend, Vienna (second largest State in Austria) has a clear majority in favour of a professional army. Lower Austria (largest State in Austria) has a majority in favour of conscription.
Many of those who support a professional army believe that the referendum will show a majority for conscription.
Women and young urbanites tend to be pro-professional army supporters.
A final thought from me – if military/civic service is such a good idea why not suggest that everyone (male & female) does one or the other for a year at the ages of 20yrs, 30yrs, & 40yrs. I’m sure that would be a referendum winner given how popular and good for everyone conscription appears to be 🙂