March 9 marked the 10th anniversary of a Royal Decree abolishing the military service which had been compulsory in Spain since 1800, Annie Maples reports. AT a official commemoration presided by Defence minister Carme Chacon at the Anti-aircraft Artillery Barracks in Fuencarral (Madrid), public figures as well as regular soldiers recounted their experiences during the militari service or ‘mili.’
Sergeant Ivan Valader Santos belonged to the last group to be called up in 1999 and soon realised that a military career was the one for him, he told last week’s gathering.
For many the harshness of their 12-month stint had dulled over the years and trade union leader Camilo Mendez confessed that he still reminisces about the ‘mili’ during get-togethers with friends.
His memories of that time were good although it had been “very hard”, said Mendez, who was assigned to teaching. “Many boys were practically illiterate and for them it was an opportunity to learn to read and write.”
Former Real Madrid striker Emilio Butragueño, now on the club’s board, produced laughter with memories of fitting in training sessions and match appearances “even though one sergeant with a horrendous reputation was an Atletico de Madrid supporter.”
But it was right to abolish the mili, Butragueño continued. This opinion is now widespread, particularly amongst the men, now in their forties, who rocked the military establishment by becoming conscientious objectors.
Thanks to a 1984 law, growing numbers of conscientious objectors were allowed to substitute the “mili” with 18 months of community work although objectors spurning this compromise still faced prison.
The mili could be postponed but it was impossible to elude except on medical grounds or, for families with the right connections, through string-pulling.
By the 80s conditions had improved, but the ‘mili’ still meant shorn hair, uncomfortable uniforms, inflexible discipline and a rigid timetable.
It was also dangerous, although most of the 1,960 conscripts killed between 1986 and 2001 died in accidents between the barracks and their homes.
The “mili” also meant loss of earnings for those finishing studies or already working and although the community work allowed more freedom, this too was an unwelcome interruption.
By 1988, 24,000 young men liable to be called up had registered as conscientious objectors, many of them Basques or Catalans whose nationalist leanings made them reluctant to join the Spanish army.
Ten years later the 144,823 objectors outnumbered conscripts and 1999 saw 1,000,000 postponement applications. In 2001, the recruits – just 5,000 out of an eligible 90,000 – left their barracks for the last time.
Jose Maria Aznar’s government might have axed military service, but in reality it was the achievement of hundreds of thousands of young Spaniards.
And they did it literally without firing a shot.