Part 2: National Service – Around the Globe

In an earlier post I explored the idea of national service in the U.S. and abroad. Today I want to dig a little deeper. We need to think seriously about deploying the incredible powers of youth and enthusiasm to deal with our collective problems—imagine if we could have drafted people to fight the coronavirus the way we would a war! 

While the American tradition of national non-military service goes back over a century, any thoughtful examination of this topic would be remiss without considering what other countries are doing. At KDAlive we strongly believe in global learning. Therefore, we’ve taken a look at the ways different nations are implementing national service, and curated a few noteworthy examples. 

Finland

This progressive nation was just named the happiest country in the world for the fourth year running. Would you be surprised to learn they have conscription? In other words, every male Finnish citizen aged 18-60 is obligated to perform military service. Well guess what: they’re happy about that too. Most citizens view their 6-12 months in the Finnish Defense Forces as a natural part of life, perhaps even an enjoyable rite of passage, according to Dialogue & Discourse. But for conscientious objectors, there is an option to complete alternative civil service instead. Pacifist conscripts are given basic training that may include first aid, non-violent resistance, and even anti-oil leak protocols, after which they perform a set period of civic labor. 

Israel

Israel is famous for conscripting both men and women into 2-3 years of universal military service. This is often seen as a great equalizing force in society, bringing together villagers and urbanites, Orthodox and seculars, natives and immigrants in the great melting pot of the Israeli Defense Forces. But is it really as unifying as people think? 

Two significant groups are exempted from the draft: the Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, and Arab Israelis. An op-ed piece in the Jerusalem Post claims universal service is more of a myth than a reality, citing statistics that these two groups combined account for 30% and rising of the Israeli population. At the same time, eligible youths who dodge the draft typically aren’t prosecuted, so that in practice only 35% of Israelis actually serve the “compulsory” term. This paradox has caused a lot of political controversy and is feared to become more of a dividing force than a unifier. 

What can we learn from this? Well, that things are never that simple. And if we are going to do something to bring folks together, we need to be sure it’s actually fair. 

China 

This global powerhouse folds military training—both physical and ideological—into its education system with mandatory, intensive 2-week programs for high school and university students. Called Junxun, the program requires kids to work out, learn combat skills, do team-building exercises, sing anthems, and take exams on theory, all while being subjected to the rigors of basic training. Junxun is touted as instilling self-discipline, organization, obedience and ability to bear hardship in young people. At the same time, it promotes feelings of patriotism, political awareness and appreciation for national defense. 

Of course, Junxun also contains healthy doses of propaganda. (The program was beefed up after the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy students in Tianamen Square, and expanded again this year as some say China prepares to invade Taiwan.) But while most youths emerge nostalgic for the summer camp-like experience, others maintain that they have a mind of their own and will not remain obedient. An even more alarming aspect of Junxun was exposed in an L.A. Times article that reported incidents of the training gone awry, including brawls, deaths, and a suicide. Yet according to China Daily, over 20 million students participate every year, making for a hot topic on social media where Gen Zers share tips and hacks, as well as gossip about celebrities like Liu Haoran who are not exempt from the rite of passage.  

Although we certainly don’t want to emulate China’s aggressive nationalism and repression of political dissent, which does seem to be part of the indoctrination, would it be wise to have some kind of mandatory stint to toughen American kids up? An article in USA Today cited Pentagon data showing that 71% of Americans between ages 17 and 24 were ineligible to serve in the military due to issues like obesity, criminal record, or lack of high school diploma. That is scary and sad! Perhaps we should consider establishing our own version of Junxun.

Iceland

Unlike the countries we’ve covered so far, Iceland does not have conscription. In fact, it doesn’t have a military at all! What it does have is the Iceland Crisis Response Unit, which contributes personnel to peacekeeping missions in places like Afghanistan, Palestine, and Africa. Although Iceland has been deploying peacekeepers through the UN and NATO as far back as 1950, the formation of the ICRU did not come about until 2001. According to their annual report, “Work to promote peace and the peaceful resolution of conflicts is one of the main foreign-policy priorities set forth in the Government of Iceland’s policy statement…the country’s peacekeeping organization has been, and will remain, a source of pride to its citizens.” How cool is that!?

Ghana

In the wake of colonialism, newly independent African nations needed a way to become unified across tribal lines and rebuild a collective identity. A popular approach has been to implement national service schemes. For example, Ghana is home to one of the oldest and largest. (Nigeria boasts another well-established program, though lately it has come under scrutiny for sending university students to high-risk areas in a potentially dangerous attempt to foster cultural understanding by placing young people in communities far from their homes.) 

According to a government website, Ghana’s National Service Scheme (NSS) is “mandated to deploy a pool of skilled manpower drawn primarily from tertiary institutions to support development efforts of both the public and private sectors in Ghana.” Core objectives include building a sense of national unity and service, developing a skilled workforce, and combating societal problems like hunger, disease, illiteracy and unemployment. All university graduates under the age of 40 are required to devote a year to service. There are typically around 80,000 participants each year. One study analyzing the relevance and impact of Ghana’s NSS concluded that both policymakers and students alike supported the program and felt it had a positive impact on Ghanaian society. 

In places like Ghana and Nigeria where service and skills-training have become intertwined, it is often impossible to get a job or enter graduate school without having completed the national service term. NSS initiatives include programs to train youth in agri-business, financial literacy, construction, real estate, mapping and surveying, entrepreneurship and mobile app development. In some cases, the one-year term has even been utilized to start businesses with loans provided by partnering banks. 

What I take away from this is that service doesn’t just put people to work—it helps them become proficient in their chosen career, which benefits their lives and society as a whole. 

Let’s make sure our youths are set up for success by empowering them with skills, resources, and the feeling of confidence that comes from making a positive contribution to society! 

 

Stay tuned for my next post about the two most inspiring countries I uncovered during this research! You might be surprised to learn which ones they are! 

 

 

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