Story by Hannah Doyle
Following the carnage and heavy American casualties of the Vietnam War, President Gerald Ford suspended portions of the 1940 Selective Training and Service Act that required most American men between the ages of 18 and 25 to register with the Selective Service System. This was the agency responsible for operating the military draft. Since 1973, no active draft had been in place, but men still had to register.
Ford’s action had seemingly put to an end a system that had sent tens of thousands of Americans to die in a war for which they never volunteered. But just five years later, fear of an impending conflict with the Soviet Union, following that nation’s 1980 invasion of Afghanistan, was cause for President Jimmy Carter’s administration to reinstate the Act. To this day, most healthy American men still must register for a term of military conscription that may never materialize.
Globally, sixty-four countries have a mandatory military service requirement. All but eight require service exclusively for males. The age of eligibility ranges between eighteen and thirty-five, with a service duration of a maximum of three years. For some countries, not reporting for duty can earn a penalty of up to ten years in prison.
In the United States, the thought of being forced to drop all priorities for a long duration of service goes against the very premise of the country: freedom. But for most young adults outside the US, it’s a part of life. Many nations place a priority on conscription as a safeguard against what their governments view as direct and immediate threats.
Gang In Her, a native of South Korea, had to leave the University of Oregon after his freshman year to serve twenty-two months in the South Korean military. “I had no choice. I had to do it. All Korean [males] have to do it,” Gang says. “Nobody really likes it.”
Making the transition from student to soldier proved difficult for Gang. “They take your freedom,” Gang says. “I was not ready for that; that was a big problem for me.”
For Gang, this time was less than a happy homecoming. During the two years he spent in service driving military vehicles, Gang had to adjust to a different lifestyle. He was often subject to pushing and yelling from his superiors, and was forced to live in cramped spaces with nothing more than a bunk and a few cubbies to his name.
But despite a punishing routine, Gang treasured the three hours he had to himself before bedtime, which he used to reflect on his life and what he would change once he was out of the military. He is appreciative of the life lessons he learned while in the service.
“After I went to [the] army, I learned how to speak with people. I learned how to work with people. I learned how to be responsible.” Gang served in the military when he was twenty-two—not an uncommon age even for a US soldier; however, the compensation given to South Korean soldiers is not comparable. He served a two-year stint and was only paid the equivalent of 70 or 80 dollars a month.
Gang experienced the ramifications of being two years older but no further in his studies when he returned to the University this past fall. Gang dislikes being a twenty-four-year-old sophomore. Now that he has returned, Gang’s friends, who didn’t have the burden of conscription, are graduating.
“They’re looking for a job, and I’m still studying,” Gang laments with a sigh.
Trading in school I.D. cards for dog tags has more implications than just falling behind in school. Gang’s military service in South Korea required memorizing specialized jargon used in the army. After twenty-two months of not speaking English, Gang forgot some of what he mastered in the States.
“It was so hard because in two years I couldn’t practice any English,” Gang says. “I couldn’t hear anything at all. I had no idea what people were talking about. I stressed out a lot.”
As serving in the army is undesirable to most South Koreans, many young Korean men go to great lengths to avoid military service. In the past, a popular method was to get large tattoos. South Korean military law states that men with “excessively large” tattoos are exempt from conscription and are instead assigned to public service. This practice sprouted from the idea that the appearance of a tattoo is “abominable” to fellow soldiers.
Though South Korea only subjects males to conscription, Israel and seven other countries
requires females to serve. passport However, Gang says that the military has caught on to males intentionally getting tattoos to avoid conscription. Gang was among fellow soldiers who had large tattoos on their backs.
“They had no problems being in the army. I’m pretty sure [the military] doesn’t really care about it by now,” Gang says.
Though South Korea only subjects males to conscription, Israel and seven other countries also require females to serve. Shiran Stern was born and raised in Haifa, Israel, and like her mother, was forced to serve in the military.
“I think it is a great honor to serve your country. I think more countries should adopt this approach, giving women equal opportunities,” Stern says.
In Israel, a draftee must be at least eighteen years old and in proper health. Most are drafted immediately after high school, although some serve after their university studies. Men are required to serve for three years, women two. Exemption is used only for those who fail the physical exam, are mentally impaired, have a moral obligation, or for women who are married or pregnant.
Stern was drafted December 14, 2005, when she was eighteen years old and was released approximately two years later. As an artillery instructor, Stern’s role and involvement was not menial. Her specialty involved teaching soldiers about different kinds of shells and how to load and fire canons.
“I learned how to use a weapon, how to navigate, and how to survive in the terrain. Being an instructor taught me how to stand in front of [a] group of people with confidence and control,” Stern says. “Being in the military makes you appreciate civil life, your home, and family.”
However, like any country that requires mandatory military service, there are always people trying to find a way out.
“Some don’t like the idea of wasting two to three years of their life serving their country,” Stern says. “They make up excuses, which release them from the military such as faking a mental or health disorder, or pretending to be a peaceful person who morally cannot fight people, [or] women marrying at an early age.”
The penalty for refusing service isn’t cheap.
“If you are in the military and refuse to continue, you are considered to be a deserter,” Stern says. “If you avoid it from the beginning, you are looked at [in] a disrespectful way.”
While nations like Israel and South Korea hold military service in high esteem and as a social responsibility for their young people, other countries with a history of conscription have begun to rethink the policy. Thomas Frank has lived in the US since 2009, and is currently a graduate student at the University. He grew up in Austria where, at the time, military service was required for eight months. Luckily for Frank, Austria offers an alternative option to serving in the military: a year of compulsory civil service called Zivildienst.
Zivildienst allowed Frank to serve a non-government organization of his choice for a year and receive a small stipend once completed. Most Austrians serve immediately after high school, but if too much time passes, they have no say in their assignment.
“You never know when [you’re going to] get the call. They can call you anytime and say ‘It’s happening now, you have to do this,’” Frank says. “It can disrupt your life.”
Frank was fortunate enough to serve on this own accord. After his undergraduate studies, he served as a press officer for the Vienna Integration Fund for one year. Frank wanted to get a job that would benefit his career so he took the chance of delaying his service.
Frank might be part of the last Austrian generation to experience conscription. Its Trans-Alpine neighbor, Germany, began phasing out mandatory military service in 2010 with plans to fully suspend the practice this July. Because of their close historical relationship, Germany’s policies often trickle down to its language-sharing southern neighbor, and currently there is a debate in Austria on whether or not to follow Germany’s lead on this most recent issue.
Austria’s military is different from the United States’ in more than one way; there’s also the issue of public perception. When Frank moved to the US in 2009, he was surprised by America’s view of its armed forces.
“People are being asked as veterans to stand up. There are ROTC programs. All kinds of bumper stickers, you know?” Frank says.
According to Frank, Austria’s military isn’t admired.
“The societal support for the military is not very big,” Frank says. “In Austria you’re being ridiculed if you’re in the military. It’s something that losers do.”
Frank’s experience with military service was easily avoided compared to nations like South Korea and Israel where compulsory military service is heavily enforced.
So long as countries see themselves under constant war or threat of war, they will likely maintain conscription as a means to support large standing armies. And so despite an increasing number of European countries phasing out the practice, for many young people around the world, reaching the age of legal adulthood continues to mark access to both new freedoms and new responsibilities.