I read a worrying article on the BBC News web site yesterday. It made me seriously rethink my views on professional versus conscription based armies.
Until yesterday, and the actually scary article, I was firmly in the camp supporting professional only armies. The reasons for this position of mine were numerous. For one, a professional army, training day in and day out, year after year, as a career choice, seemed to offer better prepared soldiers, who would also be highly motivated - not least because they'd be doing it of their own free will. At the same time, expecting half of the population - or even the whole, as is the case in e.g. Israel - to put their otherwise civilian lives on hold for a considerable amount of time while they learn soldiery (which they'd quickly forget anyway) seemed like a rather wasteful, even oppressive, activity. In such an army you'd also need greater numbers to make up for what's probably a below average training and readiness level.
So, a case for professional army seemed to have been open and shut, the professionals winning hands down. Then I saw the article about professional soldiers who seem to be itching all over for some action, and it got me thinking. Could it be that sometimes - and it only ever need be sometimes, even one war is a war too many - the governments are talked into military action for no better reason that itchy fingers of military establishment? I know you'll now say that this happens even when you don't have a fully professional army, all the way down to ordinary soldier level, but I think it's different if you do have one. Or rather, if you don't the military establishment may not feel so cocky, knowing they have to deal with a bunch of civilians instead of regiments of well trained, and apparently combat - if not blood - thirsty soldiers. Plus, they'd also know they have support of the troops, something emphatically not present in an army of conscripts.
After all this, do I now believe that a return of good old days of national service for all (or at least all men) would be a good idea? Well, yes - and no. Yes, because I now believe that an all-professional army may be too dangerous a weapon to keep in one's cupboard (here, I am reminded of an old army wisdom: an empty rifle fires once a year!). No, because I am acutely aware that modern warfare requires skill that may not be possible to acquire in a short time - and then have to re-learn, or even augment, in time of need. What I'd like to see is standing armies composed of just enough professionals, on all levels, to be able to quickly train, re-train, and control conscripts, but also the bulk of the manpower to be provided by those same conscripts. If the ratio is carefully adjusted this may even not be more expensive option.
A final note: yes, I am aware that there are parts of the military - most notably air-force - which will still need to remain all-professional. What I am talking about here are the corps not unlike the ones the BBC article talks about - and they do constitute the bulk of any army. And, just as an ordinary foot soldier reflects the views of his superiors, it is also always the case that the flow of influence exists in the other direction, too - especially in an all-professional army. Therefore, I don't believe that any amount of official army "philosophy" can really cure the itchiness to put to use what you have trained for.