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The Problem with Young Blood

The German armed forces have seen a sharp decline in the number of young people joining, as Lisa Marie Duhm looks into, the past experiences of some young recruits could be at the root of the problem. 

It might be the opening scene of a brutal war movie. During night patrol, the comrades are lured into an ambush, attacked by strangers, handcuffed and blindfolded and then brought to a detention centre. There they get interrogated for hours by people they cannot see nor give the right answers to. To make them speak anyway, they are forced to lie down on their back, then a hose is pushed into their mouths. They have to swallow the water that runs through it, because their noses are covered and only in this way they get a comforting breath of fresh air every once in a while.

Only three years ago, this scene was a reality for young recruits during their basic military training in the barracks of Coesfeld, Germany. Their instructors put them through this torture, only to say later in court that they did not know how all of this happened. “The situation just escalated at some point”.

Since then, big changes have occurred in the German armed forces’ structure. In order to reduce costs and make the system more efficient, reforms were put into action and, as a consequence, the number or people working for the military dropped from 250,000 in 2009 to 176,000 in 2013. The largest loss occurred in the group of the 18 to 24-year-olds. This is mostly due to the abolition of the compulsory military service, which gives young Germans the free choice to join the military after their eighteenth birthday. Subsequently, in 2013 only there were only 8800 persons in the voluntary military service. Compared to the 37.000 who still had to do the compulsory military service in 2009, this is a negligible number. It seems that, given the choice, young Germans do not greatly approve of the idea to give their workforce to the army.

What is the motivation of those who do join the army, though? Why are there still young people today who think it is worth it to join the institution? Although Franz Spannberger, 27 years old, joined the military service when it was still compulsory, he would not make a different choice today. The medical student was in service for 14 months. “To me personally, it was important to give my workforce to the state. I think, though, that for most young people who join the army today, it is the safe and well-paid job that makes them go.” Confronted with the cases of violence against recruits, he cannot – fortunately – give an example himself. He says, however, that most people join the army with the wrong expectation. “Of course, it is hard to be in the military and you have to do things you do not want to do.” In the end, Franz’s prognosis is that if the army wants to win enough new blood to keep up the military as it exists today, they have to render their methods and manners toward the recruits.

So far, this seems not to have come true, however. In December 2013 one of the leading German newspapers, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, reported the case of a young recruit who had been abused by his superiors. After they had gagged him with duck tape, he told the police, he was insulted and beaten by three soldiers of higher rank. As long as there are cases like this it will be hard – probably impossible – for the army to make a lot of young Germans join the institution. As the dropping numbers of the voluntary military service show, many think it more valuable to spend their time otherwise. They want to use their workforce purposefully. More than 50.000 Germans join the federal volunteer service every year – the number has proven to stay steady over the years.

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