IN 2012, Matthew Harwood, writing for the Guardian, began an article about National Service with the words: ‘The corpse of long-dead idea is beginning to stir.’
Then, in 2015, Prince Harry put his oar in, suggesting a return to conscription would be great for the UK. I let out a whoop of delight when a fella responded thus on Twitter: ‘Tell you what, Prince Harry: we’ll do National Service if you and your family do proper jobs (for life), and live only off the wages.’
The issue surfaced again when, in a recent edition of EWN, columnist Leapy Lee wrote that a return to the draft in the UK would instill in youngsters ‘discipline and a respect for their fellow human beings; rescue them from the gang-infested streets and give them the opportunity to learn a trade and engage in wider life experiences.’
With all due respect to Lee, may I suggest that mandatory conscription will do nothing to solve the UK’s burgeoning social problems, and may even exacerbate them.
Take Greece for example. Yiannis Baboulias, writing for The New Statesman this summer, pointed out that his home country – one of the last states in Europe to retain nine months’ mandatory conscription ‘suffers from exactly the same issues as other Western countries that don’t have conscription. It is divided; political polarisation has now reached extreme levels and mutual suspicion abounds.’ He added that the Greek draft ‘doesn’t seem to have the desired effect.’
Now let’s remind ourselves of what life was like for conscripts after National Service was introduced in 1947, mainly at the behest of Field Marshal Montgomery, ‘the posturing bully who was in a permanent panic of denial about his repressed homosexuality.’ He hoped ‘to use military service to mould national character towards chaste combative virility.’
These words were written by Richard Davenport-Hines in 2014. He was reviewing a book by Richard Vinen entitled National Service: Conscription in Britain 1945-1963, which revealed that, for many conscripts, their experience of life boiled down to mind-numbing square-bashing and physical and mental abuse.
Vinen wrote of the ‘hellish chaos’ of basic training: its violence, verbal savagery, the dumb misery of military drills and the horrors of bayonet practice.
‘Several young men killed themselves during training – usually by hanging from a lavatory cistern, because ‘the s**thouse’ was the only place that gave a moment’s privacy ‘ but suicide statistics seem to have been doctored by officials.’
Davenport-Hines reminded his readers that national service was disliked not only by anti-militarists and left-wingers, but by middle-of-the-road people.
‘It disrupted the lives of their sons in a period when there was full employment for the working classes. And regular army officers resented National Service, especially during its early years, because the need to train a constantly renewed stream of conscripts was dull, repetitive and diminished ‘real soldiering’.’
I, for one, am dead against conscription and its attendant brutality, and would point out a significant fact: those who are the most enthusiastic supporters of the draft were never themselves conscripted.
For the record, Spain abolished conscription in 2001 after 230 years of obligatory military service. Did this unleash waves of antisocial behaviour and cause a spike in violent crime? No, it did not.