Some countries require their citizens to join the military or perform some other kind of service. Should countries have mandatory national service? What are the pros and cons? Let’s discuss it on today’s episode of Thinking in English!!
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Mandatory (adj) – something that is mandatory must be done, or is demanded by law
In 1991, it became mandatory to wear seat belts in British cars
Armed forces (n) – a country’s military forces, usually an army, navy, and air force
The government is considering using the armed forces to help vaccinate citizens
Conscription (n) – the act or process of forcing people by law to join the armed services
The United States abolished conscription in 1973
To obligate (v) – to require or compel (someone) to undertake a legal or moral duty
Employers are legally obligated to inform employees about benefits
To undergo (v) – to experience something that is unpleasant or something that involved a change
She underwent surgery on her injury yesterday
Cohesion (n) – the situation when the members of a group or society are united
The lack of cohesion in the team caused them to lose the game
To mature (v) – to become more developed mentally and emotionally and behave in a responsible way
He matured a lot while he was in college
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Mandatory national service is a requirement that citizens of a country serve in the military or complete some other kind of service. By service, we mean helping or doing work for the country: most commonly this is serving in the armed forces, but can also include other forms of voluntary work.
Conscription and mandatory national service is actually quite popular across the world and plays a significant role in the lives of many young people. Friends of mine from Taiwan and South Korea had to spend months in their late teens or twenties training and serving in the military. Many years ago in an Irish pub in the Japanese city of Hiroshima I met two Israeli travellers who had decided to visit Asia between finishing their service and starting university.
As someone from the UK, I was relatively unaware about how widespread mandatory service actually is. In fact, about seventy-five countries currently require their citizens to serve in some way. Of course there are big variations in the kind of service: especially in terms of the age of recruits, gender, number of people obligated to do it each year, and how long they need to serve for.
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What is National Service?
The most famous form of national service is military conscription. Also known as the “draft” in some countries, conscription is the compulsory enrolment in a country’s national armed forces. Countries including Switzerland, South Korea, and Israel require all men (and in Israel’s case women too) to undergo military training and spend some time serving. Often countries have alternative service options – for example in Austria every male citizen is supposed to complete a six-month long basic military training, but if they refuse to undergo training they must instead complete a nine-month long community service project.
Other countries, including Russia, China and Brazil have conscription systems but not for every citizen – China and Brazil usually have enough volunteers joining the armed forces each year that mandatory conscription is unnecessary. While conscription may be the most well known form of national service, countries including Nigeria, Germany, and Denmark have alternative systems allowing citizens to serve by assisting with civilian projects. For example, helping the elderly, teaching in low income areas, or working in environmental projects.
Growing up, I always assumed national service and conscription was a war time phenomena – I remember reading about UK conscription during the two world wars, and Mohammed Ali’s rejection of the “draft” during the Vietnam war. In peacetime, when a country doesn’t require an incredibly large military, surely there is no need to force your citizens to join the military or serve in some way.
Despite this, a number of countries have actually introduced national service in recent years. Lithuania introduced a selective national service in 2015; in 2017 Sweden began selecting 5000 19 year-old men and women to serve each year; Norway has made their national service gender-neutral; Morocco reinstated compulsory military service for all men and women between the ages of 19 and 25; and since 2019 France requires all 16 years to spend one month learning service skills and highly encourages them to spend up to a year in volunteer service.
Should Countries Have Mandatory National Service?
Mandatory national service can be a controversial topic – especially if a country uses a system of military conscription. Although European countries are reconsidering their positions, most of the continent abandoned conscription and national service in the 20th century as it was seen as inefficient, unfair, and unmodern. And it is also a topic that has often formed the basis of questions in IELTS, TOEFL, and other English proficiency tests. So, should countries still have mandatory national service? What are the pros and cons of such a system?
I want you to listen to the arguments I make about this topic, think about the issue in English, and then decide for yourself what you think! Over the weekend I did a poll on my Instagram page (make sure you follow thinkinginenglishpodcast) and about 70% of my followers thought mandatory national service was a bad idea. I’ll put polls on Spotify and the Thinking in English blog as well – so after you listen to the rest of the episode let me know your ideas! And make sure to listen to other debate episodes I’ve previously recorded – you can find them all on the blog too!!
National Service May Boost National Unity
Back in 2018, when announcing France’s new system of national civic service, President Emmanuel Macron argued that it would increase social cohesion and inspire patriotism. It would encourage young people to take more responsibility for the country and work together with a diverse group of people.
In fact, one of the key components of France’s scheme, as well as other systems around the world, is national education – in France participants learn about the country’s republican values and about what it means to be French.
Conscription as a way of promoting national unity is not a new idea – the Greek philosopher Plutarch famously described Ancient Rome’s tactics during political struggles…
“when they were all gathered together, rich and poor, patrician and plebeian alike, to share in the common dangers of a camp, they might learn to regard one another with less hatred and ill-will”.Plutarch
Essentially, proponents of national service argue that it is a great way for members of society (especially diverse societies) to work together regardless of race, class, income, or even language. Switzerland is an excellent example – the European country has three major ethnic groups and four official languages, but uses national service as a way of keeping the country united!
Better Public Understanding of the Military
In many countries, there is a divide between the armed forces and the civilian population. Unless you serve in the military, you can not truly understand the training, lives, and responsibilities of members of the armed forces. Armed forces around the world struggle to recruit enough personnel, and the right kind of personnel: oftentimes the people volunteering to join the military are not necessarily the best candidates.
National service would not only ensure the military has enough recruits to protect the country, it would also make sure that every citizen understands the role of the armed forces. In some countries, especially those with violent histories or large immigrant populations, the military can often be viewed negatively by large numbers of citizens. Moreover, in peacetime it can be difficult to communicate why the armed forces are an important institution – national service may change this!
Education and Skills
One of the most common arguments in favour of national service is that it is an opportunity for education and skills. Scandinavian countries including Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland have benefited from national service schemes that are highly selective and competitive. France reintroduced national service with a promise of first-aid training, self defence skills, and republican education.
It is often argued that national service can give young people purpose, motivation, and discipline. It would allow young people to take time developing personally and maturing before entering the workforce or higher education. And it is an opportunity to learn real world skills in a variety of different areas: including communication, team work, and leadership.
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Volunteering is Better Than National Service?
On the other hand, in countries including the UK and USA, it is often argued that volunteering schemes are a better option than national service. Already existing volunteer schemes such as the National Citizens’ Service in the UK or AmeriCorps in the US are popular, successful, and voluntary.
Moving from voluntary service to mandatory service would increase the number of participants, but perhaps also decrease the quality of the programmes. Voluntary schemes ensure that participants are eager, motivated, and interested in service. Making every one participate would introduce the negative attitudes of young people who do not want to be there.
Nationalism (not to be confused with patriotism) is often highlighted as a concern. While singing the national anthem under the flag, learning a positive version of your country’s history, and lining up in uniform might be a usual thing in some countries, in many other countries such scenes would be uncomfortable. I think the only time I’ve ever sung the UK national anthem is when I attended an international rugby game and drank a few too many beers. Nationalism makes me feel uncomfortable.
Moreover, people should be free to live where they want, work where they want, and choose their own path in life. Mandatory or compulsory systems of national service go against the principle of freedom. If you don’t want to serve, you actively resist, but are forced by your country, surely this is a form of modern slavery?
Burden to the army
And finally, national service or conscription would not necessarily be a good thing for the armed forces. The UK had national military service of some kind until 1963 – more than two million British men between the ages of 18 and 30 had to spend 18 months in the Armed Forces. Why did they end the system? Well…. The Army complained about the system.
The number of participants, and the quality of participants, was causing problems for the military who could not deal with national service. In the US and China, although conscription has been used before, they have realised that volunteers are more motivated and willing to serve than conscripts. Rather than force people to serve in the military or perform some alternative service, perhaps it is better to make service more appealing so the quality and number of volunteers is enough each year.
On today’s episode of Thinking in English, we have looked at forms of mandatory national service. Around 75 countries have a form of compulsory military and civic service, but should countries still have such systems in the 21st century? On the one hand, service is seen as an opportunity for education, boosting national unity, and increasing understanding and quality of the military. On the other hand, voluntary systems are often more effective, the military can struggle with so many new recruits, and it can promote a form of nationalism perhaps undesirable in our modern international world.
What do you think? Should countries have mandatory national service? Let me know in the comments of the blog, on Spotify, or on Instagram!!
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