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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

According to the latest statistics available, China had 104,000 women officers and 32,000 women soldiers in 1987. The country has cut the size of its military by nearly 30% since 1985, however, and it is unclear how that has affected the number of women in the service.

A Beijing-based expert on the Chinese military, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that a serious private debate is under way within the top levels of China's military and political leadership about how to address the problem of poor quality recruits. It appears likely, he said, that China will move forward within the next year or so with further manpower cuts, higher pay for service personnel and a shift toward enlisting more long-term volunteers, who serve eight years or more compared to the standard three to five years.

Military analysts say that improving relations may eventually bring reduced terms of mandatory military service on the divided Korean peninsula. Currently, North Korean draftees must serve a staggering five years, while South Korean men are obligated for three years of military service.

In most countries of black Africa not involved in ongoing civil or other conflict, enlistment in the military tends to be voluntary. Often, places in the army are oversubscribed because of the scarcity of jobs in civilian sectors of the economy.

However, some governments fighting active insurgencies have engaged in wholesale conscription--notably Ethiopia where the drafts were so arbitrary and brutal that they provoked much of the public opposition which eventually drove former President Mengistu Haile Mariam into exile last May.

Among other sub-Saharan nations, Angola drafts young men for two years service, and Chad for three years, while Nigeria, the region's most populous country, does not have conscription.

In South Africa, considered to have the continent's most formidable armed forces, service is mandatory for all white males. But the conscription period was reduced from two years to one in December, 1989. Women, Asian-Africans, Blacks, and mixed-race citizens may volunteer for service, but are subject to review.

In Latin America, conscription is still common, although Nicaragua ended the military draft when Violeta de Barrios Chamorro defeated the Sandinistas at the polls in 1990. She demobilized draftees on active duty and called for similar disarmament programs elsewhere in Latin America.

Mexico, with an armed force of 148,500, inducts 60,000 militia conscripts a year through a national lottery system. And the Chilean army is required to use a portion of its draft quota to induct and educate illiterate members of impoverished communities.

Cuba, while still conscripting men into its 180,000-strong army, cut the mandatory military obligation last February from three to two years. It is currently withdrawing overseas troops from Angola, the Congo, Nicaragua and South Yemen.

Women may volunteer to serve a two-year term in the Cuban armed forces, but are rarely used elsewhere in Latin America.

In the Middle East, where several nations remain technically at war with Israel, there is perhaps the least sign of change.

Israel has a tough conscription policy and drafts women, though they are kept out of the kind of combat roles their predecessors once played during pre-statehood fighting. "In every place and every unit where women are to be found," says military commentator Zeev Schiff, "they contribute to improved operations and morale."

Major Arab military nations such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Algeria, all have conscription with periods ranging to three years. But none accept women soldiers in the armed forces.

Despite the general mood of detente around much of the world, there are those among politicians, particularly, who argue conscription has important non-military advantages.

It's much cheaper to enlist and maintain a conscript army than a professional one, for example. Recruiting officers don't have to compete on the open market for manpower, for example--they can pay their conscripts a minimum wage for the one or two years they remain in the armed forces.

Col. Andrew Duncan of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies cites another factor long applicable in such European countries as France and Germany: "Continental nations fighting large land battles have traditionally maintained large armies, and needed conscription to fill the ranks," he said.

Socialist and Social Democratic political parties in Europe--as well as in Israel--have traditionally seen conscription as a way of democratizing the society and insuring that a professional military caste never threatens the nation.

As a German senior officer put it: "There is a feeling here that young people should all participate in the basic duties of the country."

In the case of Israel, service in the military is a way of introducing and assimilating immigrants into society and giving them a deeper stake in their new homeland.

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