Conscription is a form of slavery: what do we do with our boys and girls who don’t want it? | Opinion

Because of the war in Ukraine, the debate about reinstatement in the military is growing. According to Casper van den Broek, one aspect is always carefully avoided: What do we do with our boys and girls who don’t want it?

At the barracks roll call, the chief of the cavalry shouted: “Which one of you plays a musical instrument?” There were always some excited recruits who put their hands up. “Then you can sweep the Land Rover parking area later.” Confused faces. The junior officer immediately explained his trick. He did not want to recruit the soldiers himself. This would cause resentment. By the way, it was someone’s assignment for the so-called “American Volunteer” assignment in the Army.

Voluntarily, of your own free will? involuntary? semi-voluntary? Half is obligatory? Recruitment as education for our “pampered” boys and girls? Or to defend the country? Community Service? In recent years, youth vocation has been spoken of in various ways. It’s a thorny topic, especially because of the war in Ukraine. The main problem with all of these definitions is that no one yet knows what re-introduction actually means. It is a landscape in the mist.

Personal note: I have personally experienced my military service as one of the most beautiful and valuable periods of my life. Like many other boys, in what Pim Fortuyn once called an “orphan community,” I was placed under the leadership of big men. With both external and internal discipline. And by putting “I” at the service of the group. This is of course a bonus. But herein lies the insidious element. As early as the 19th century, the armed forces were portrayed as the educational institution of the nation, where all social classes had to work together.


But is the army for that? In the discussion about conscription, ends and means are always confused. An army exists to wage war, not to educate the youth.

To put it sharper. Conscription is a form of slavery. Making people do forced labor, for free or for a pittance, with the threat of penalties in the background. This definition is not just an invention, but is described in various UN conventions. The only exception to those declarations, which almost all states have signed, is the national defence. This element of national defense, for example, played an important role in the suspension of Dutch conscription in the 1990s. During peacekeeping missions in faraway countries, recruits could still shout “I’d rather not” into the flight steps.

Nowadays, conscription is no longer called conscription in many Western countries. It is a combination of semi-mandatory and semi-optional. Indeed, this was already the case in the Netherlands at the end of the seventies, during the Cold War. At that time, conscientious objection law became more accessible. Furthermore, “crippled” soldiers were no longer sent to the central barracks, but recruit company commanders were given the freedom to send these types of boys home immediately. The result was that highly educated people who criticized were kept out of the army. On the other hand, the atmosphere within the armed forces has become open and unified. “You choose the army, then we’ll make something out of it,” exclaimed a professional sergeant in a Vrij Nederland special, “The Backbone of the Army.”

Normally neutral countries such as Switzerland, Sweden and Finland already have conscription. They are left to their own devices and count on the mobilization of the entire population. It is also referred to as “total defense”. For example, they have an extensive system of air raid shelters and can call up reservists for the fire brigade or the army.

Bellmer Prison

In other European countries, there is a fierce debate about reintroduction. This was shown in Germany last December, for example, with the comprehensive TV documentary “Ein Jahr für Deutschland”; die Streit um die Dienstpflicht’. Former Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer also talks about how good your character’s compulsory service period is. She was asked, “But what do we do with young people who don’t want that?” The conversation fell silent. She said she had actually never thought about it before.

This is exactly what we must include in the conscription debate. For every young man who finds his conscription useful, there are those who will be traumatized. In the late 1980s, the holdouts spent eighteen months in prisons such as Bijlmerbajes. Buying conscription is not a solution, because then only children of wealthy parents can escape. So a mature debate about reintroduction cannot avoid the argument that conscription is essentially a form of slavery.

Casper van den Broek is an editor at Noordhollands Dagblad and military historian

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