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World View : Are Nations Set to Dodge the Draft? : The Cold War is over and conscription may be going the way of the Berlin Wall. The role of women in the military is also being reviewed.

August 13, 1991|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — In the aftermath of the Cold War and the Persian Gulf conflict, many nations are revising their attitudes toward compulsory military service and combat roles for women soldiers.

Some Western nations are weighing an end to compulsory military service, or at least reducing the number of draftees, and turning toward all-volunteer armies such as those of the United States and Britain.

Around the world, 83 of the 140 sovereign nations with military forces employ some form of conscription, which means, according to defense sources here, that at any given time about 10 million draftees are lost to the work force in order to serve in the military.

But among many Western and East European nations as well, the length of service for conscripts is being reduced, much to the dismay of professional officers who believe that training soldiers for short military stints is a waste of time.

Further, many countries report a growing trend, as in the U.S. Army, toward the use of women in expanding roles in the army, air and naval services.

The performance of American women soldiers in the Gulf was highly praised by military experts--five women were killed in action and two taken prisoner--and the U.S. Senate recently voted to permit women pilots to fly combat missions.

Ironically, Israel, the only major military nation that drafts women into the army, has refused to give them combat roles--and the Gulf War has not changed the mind of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. Nor is Israel reducing the length of service of conscripts: four years for officers, three years for men, two years for women.

As a senior Israeli officer put it: "Unfortunately, the military threat in our area still exists, so we won't be reducing the period of service for Israel Defense Forces conscripts."

The pressure for limiting conscription service is impelled by the reduced defense budgets on both sides of the old Cold War divide. Moreover, population trends in some of the industrialized countries have already so reduced the number of young men coming of military age that these nations have been hard-pressed to fill their draft quotas.

In Germany, for instance, the Bundeswehr only two years ago was still planning to raise the length of service for draftees from 15 to 18 months to maintain armed strength. But last October, on the eve of unification, Bonn announced a cut for conscript service to 12 months.

The Dutch, too, have reduced conscription time to 12 months, and are planning to reduce the total number of draftees by almost 50% by 1995.

Some military experts argue that a smaller, all-volunteer, professional standing army will be better able to cope with emergencies than one heavily reliant on conscripts.

In the Gulf War, for instance, France, with one of the largest armies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, decided for political reasons not to send conscripts into the battle zone. But it was then hard-pressed to quickly find a well-balanced, all-volunteer force that could play a serious role in the coalition effort against Iraq.

In July, the French government decided to reduce compulsory military service from 12 to 10 months. Former Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement complained: "I am against this reduction. It is the first step toward a professional army." But former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing countered: "I am for an army of volunteers and professionals for two reasons. One is the end of the Cold War, and the second is the Gulf War, which has shown that only the scientific arms used by men very well prepared are efficient."

Among the Eastern European nations, the former Communist defense ministries are also reducing the length of service for draftees. Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland all have cut service time to between 12 and 18 months from the former two to three years. Even in the Soviet Union, where compulsory service has long been viewed as one of the most sacred patriotic obligations, a vigorous debate is now under way.

In East Asia, Japan has an all-volunteer Self-Defense Force, including women, while the huge armies of China, North Korea, South Korea and Vietnam generally conscript for longer periods than Western services and use women volunteers.

"We are using more women in the military," said a South Korean officer. And a Japanese diplomat added: "We may have a lady general one day."

While China technically has universal conscription of men at age 18, in most parts of the country the number of those who want to be drafted exceeds the quota. Some young men have even used bribery or personal connections to make sure they're taken, and the main problem faced by the military seems not to be forcing people into the service, but keeping out those who aren't qualified.

Chinese women are also subject to the draft "according to the need of military units," but under the circumstances, the vast majority of those serving are volunteers.

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