National Service in Other Countries

This page is dedicated to capturing the "lessons learned" of how service programs are administered in other countries.  The international community provides numerous examples of the "good, the bad, and the ugly" that we can reflect upon as we consider the best possible program of National Service for the Untied States.

Greece                                                                                                                contributed by Shelly Burgoyne

The idea of the full and proven citizen that is rooted in the democracies and republics of Ancient Greece remains a very integral part of the modern Greek mindset.  For both rural regions and urban areas throughout Greece, national service has been historically perceived as a rite of passage.  There is a Greek proverb that supports this: “Women have birth, men have the army”, meaning that both genders serve Greece, women by giving birth and men by helping defend it.  Avoiding service is potentially embarrassing.  One risks being seen as unfit and useless to society.  Mandatory military service is often justified on the grounds that the Helenic army is the "natural" way to go, and is a final 'school' of socialization and maturation for young Greek men before their full graduation into society. 

In 2009, national military conscription and service in modern Greece will reach its 100th year of existence.  Today, the Greek military numbers approximately four million men and women.  Greek men between the ages of 18-45 are required to serve approximately 12 months.  Greek women, while allowed in the military on a voluntary basis, are not obligated to serve.  Like many contemporary armies, the Greek military is currently in the process of transitioning from a draft or conscription system to a voluntary, professional military.  Greek society and structure greatly respects and admires the military and Greek planners hope to use this support to drive the new system.  Additionally, the military is generally regarded as one of the most trustworthy institutions in the country.  Last, the current conscription is associated with the Cyprus crisis in 1974 (this mobilization of the military officially ended on December 18, 2002). 

Evidence of the Greek empasis on service to one's nation can also be viewed in a 1998 piece of legislation.  The Greek Parliament passed a law stating that all Greek citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 must enroll in the Civil Defence Organization (Palaiki Amina or ΠΑΜ).  PAM was envisioned as a force of citizens that could respond to foreign threats, natural disasters, and emergencies.  Despite the high-minded intent of the PAM law, it has not yet been enforced.  As indicated above, Greece is at the crossroads between proactive citizenship and wanting more professional security services.  So far, professionalizing Greek security forces has been hampered by economic limitations and the inability of the volunteer system to provide sufficient manpower.  The Greek government is not yet able to offer competitive wages, housing, and healthcare, so a lack of volunteers is perpetuating the need for conscription.  As part of this, if a male Greek citizen possesses the equivalent of a bachelors degree he is given military Reserve Officer (RO) status.  If he is called to active service he will undergo physical and athletic tests.  While the length of an officer tour is longer than enlisted service, the privileges given to a RO are superior (better housing, increased pay, and residence off-camp).  Service deferments are allowed and include reasons such as a male being the sole income source for his family, being engaged in important scientific research, or being the only man in a household.

Sources:                                                                                                                                                                                                         [1] Wikipedia  “Conscription in Greece” in Greece                                                         [2] Wikipedia  “Military of Greece” of Greece                                                                                             [3] CIA World Factbook  “Greece”

Mexico                                                                                                                                                                                      contributed by Jay Blindauer

The United Mexican States uses a lottery draft system to maintain its military of over 200,000 active, and over 400,000 reservist (total force 600,000+), soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines.  Within 12 months of their 18th birthday, all Mexican males must report to a military recruiting center to begin a minimum of 12 months of military service.  Roughly 1 million Mexican males come of age each year.  Each young man is processed into the SEDENA (Secretariat of National Defense) system and receives a Precartilla (a service ID card the he will keep until he fulfills his national service obligation).  Before computers, groups of candidates at each recruiting center would stand at attention and a child would pull a colored ball out of a bag to determine the fate of each candidate.  The lottery results were as follows: blue ball (Navy & Marines), white ball (Army & Air Division), or black ball (military exemption).  Computers now provide the randomized results for the lottery draft.  Black ball candidates become “disponiblity reservists” for the 12-month period and provide no further service.  After completion of the 12-months, all candidates receive a Cartilla del Servicio Militar Nacional (ID card that proves completion of National Service).  The Cartilla is a crucial document for Mexican citizens and is typically requested by potential employers.

Candidates who elect to stay in the military upon completion of their service obligation form the professional ranks of the Mexican Armed Forces.  Like most countries that practice some type of military draft system, females may volunteer for service but it is in no way obligatory.  And like the US, the Mexican military is mostly comprised of people from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum who are seeking social mobility.

Mexico’s 350,000+ police are volunteers.  In general, Mexican police are no strangers to corruption.  Studies show that over 90% of Mexicans will pay a police bribe at some point in their lives.  Most of these are mordidas, “little bribes” that are paid when a police officer stops a person.  In fairness to Mexican police, survival in some places is impossible without embracing the corruption.  Drug cartels routinely target police who demonstrate too much integrity.  In June 2005, the Nuevo Laredo police chief was gunned down just 9 hours after taking the job.  He became the 7th police commander to be killed in Nuevo Laredo that year.

The situation for Mexican teachers has become increasingly more difficult over the past 2 decades.  Proponents of free trade seek to privatize Mexican schools, citing inadequacies with the teachers’ union-dominated public schools.  They believe that company-run private schools with standardized testing and performance-based evaluations will provide better results (very similar to the education debate in the US).  The teachers’ union points to slashed education budgets as evidence of a corrupt Mexican government forcing the public schools to fail in order to help secure private education contracts for major corporations.  Additionally, in the past (mostly the ‘80s and early ‘90s) Mexican teachers were often targeted by military and police for harassment, arbitrary detention, and sometimes torture.  This resulted from the teachers’ union being one of the loudest advocates of government reform and social justice.  To date, the buying power for Mexican teachers’ wages has fallen by almost 50% in the last 2 decades. 

Sources:                                                                                                                                                                                                         [1] Wikipedia  "Conscription in Mexico"                                                                       [2] Wikipedia  "Military of Mexico"                                                                                      [3] CIA World Factbook                                                                [4]  

Russian Federation                                                                                               contributed by Jay Blindauer

The Russian Federation practices military conscription for all males ages 18-27.  Roughly 500,000 conscripts are added to the Armed Forces in 2 call-ups every year.  That’s 500,000 out of 1.5 million young men coming of age annually in a country with a population of about 150 million.  Before 1967, draftees served a minimum of 3 years.  From 1967 to 2007, 2 years was required.  As of January 1, 2008, Russian draftees are obligated to only 12 months of service.

Russia’s universal draft is not a popular program, and draft-dodging is rampant and socially acceptable.  Young men can sidestep the draft by going to college, attaining medical certificates saying that they are unfit (and there’s a large black market for forged certificates to facilitate this), bribery, just not showing up (but this makes a person a target for the Russian police), or having more than 2 children.  The Russian government tacitly supports these draft-dodging practices because it can’t afford putting more than a third of the eligible young men in uniform.

Russian aversion to military service is a reaction to poor conditions in the ranks.  This is underscored by strapped resources and poor logistics, a cultural backlash to bad experiences in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and perhaps worst of all, Dedovshchina.

Dedovshchina is Russian slang for “Rule of the Grandfathers.”  It is the pervasive hazing that goes on in the Russian military at all levels of the chain of command.  Officers beat subordinate officers.  Junior officers beat senior soldiers.  Senior soldiers assault junior conscripts.  In 2006, the New York Times reported that 292 Russian soldiers died as a result of Dedovschina during that year.

To curb Dedovschina and increase the amount of training and deployment resources available, the Russian military is now moving toward a smaller, all-volunteer force.  Roughly half of Russia’s 1,037,000 active troops are volunteers, or “kontraktniki (contract soldiers).”  The Russian government plans to have a force of 70% volunteers by 2010.

Despite large segments of the population actively seeking to avoid military service, many Russians still cling to an ethic of nationalism that espouses the virtues of military service.  The first reason for this is the majority of parents of today's Russian youth served themselves (unlike the US).  Russia is also traditionally paternalistic where proving one's masculinity is important.  The most obvious place for a Russian man to do this is in the military.  Additionally, rural Russians are more prone to serve than their urban counterparts (like the US).

For other types of service in Russia (such as the Police and Militia “Militsiya”), enrollment is voluntary and often selective.  The selectiveness of these organizations is often due to their high level of corruption, which makes them more lucrative forms of public service.  To offer a comparison, a Militiaman receives about $100 to $200 a month (not including bribes from his or her wards).  A doctor working for the state receives only $100 a month.  And just like the US, school teachers occupy the lowest wrung of the compensation ladder (as low as $30 a month in Russia).

Sources:                                                                                                                                                                                                         [1] Wikipedia  "Conscription in Russia"                                                                             [2] "Russian Soldiers Fade Away"  by James Dunnigan  March 20, 2008


South Korea                                                                                                         contributed by Jay Blindauer

South Korea is one of the most national service-oriented democracies in the world, perhaps trumped by only Israel.  For decades South Korea has practiced mandatory service for all of its young men, and many older Koreans serve as auxiliaries for civil defense and disaster relief.  National Service is regarded by many older Koreans as a crucial component in transforming South Korea from a country devastated by 35 years of Japanese occupation and a divisive Korean War into a booming first world country and the world’s 12th largest economy.  Additionally, South Koreans have traditionally viewed national service programs as a seed-bed for democratic values and the liberalization of Korean society.

The South Korean perspective must be understood in relation to its environment.  South Korean democracy grew up under the constant threat of invasion from the North.  Though major hostilities in the Korean War end in 1953, no peace treaty was ever signed, and under the technicalities of international law, the two Koreas are still at war.  This condition was highlighted by numerous firefights along DMZ over the past 50 years and the fact that Seoul is in range of North Korean heavy artillery.  South Korea is also a small country rooted in a homogenous and traditional culture.  The emphasis on correct social conduct and young men proving their virtue was always there.  It is common for other Koreans to ask a man who is seen as acting immature as to whether or not he has yet served in the military. [4]  Korean public officials are often asked to present their service records along with those of their children as testament to their patriotism and professionalism.

As the law is currently written, all young men must serve at least 26 months in the military or the combat police division of the National Police at some time between their 18th and 30th birthdays.  Though those who are medically unfit have typically been disqualified or given the alternative of civil service, conscientious objectors (COs) will not be allowed to perform civil service until January 2009 (based on a law passed in September of last year). [4]  In the past COs were treated as anyone else willfully avoiding service and were sent to prison for 3 years.  Women may voluntarily fulfill the national service obligation.

Despite South Korean fidelity to national service in the past, the upcoming generations of Koreans don’t feel the external pressures that their parents and grandparents had to endure.  Keeping with their strong ties to contemporary American culture, many question the need or logic of serving their country.  Draft-dodging is on the rise (getting a large tattoo being a favored method of being disqualified for military service). [1]  Many social justice advocates also point to the children of the wealthy and affluent going to the United States to avoid their national service obligation, or readily being given a desirable position as a KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the US Army). [3]  Given the changing social dynamic, it will be interesting to see how the South Korean national service institution evolves in the 21st century.

Sources:                                                                                                                                                                                                            [1]                                                                                                      [2]                                                                                                 [3]                                                                                                       [4]                                                                                                                                                                                                                [5]