Is national service the answer to disaffected youths?

Prince Harry recently thanked the army for keeping him out of trouble and called for a return to national service in Britain, which raises the question: is there a place for compulsory army training in Australia? Especially in light of recent events?

For a country whose national identity holds soldiers in great esteem, you’d think we’d be all for a stint of military training for young men. But since federation, we’ve collectively rejected the idea.

The hstory of national service in Australia has revolved around wars that were too close to home (or our allies) to ignore.

From 1911, all Australian males between 12 and 26 were required to complete some compulsory military training, and around 175,000 did so before the first Great War.

During WWI, however, the issue of conscription split both the public and parliament. In 1916, Australians were asked by referendum: “Are you in favour of the Government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military services, for the term of this War, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?”

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The results were 49 per cent for and 51 per cent against.

After a second failed referendum, Prime Minister Billy Hughes crossed the floor and formed the National Labor Party. Out in the streets, anti-conscriptionists were arrested, their publications destroyed. There were mass demonstrations and stop-work meetings organised by unions who feared for their workers being sent to war and replaced by foreigners.

Despite the failure of compulsory service, 416,809 Australian men voluntarily joined the armed forces throughout the WWI, representing almost 40 per cent of the eligible male population.

At start of World War II, the Government decided all unmarried men aged 21 were to be called up for three months training but could only serve in Australian or its territories. The National Services Act was then amended in 1942, and all men aged 18 to 35 were to join the Citizens’ Military Forces. These men were known as chockos (chocolate soldiers) by the army because it was believed they would melt in the heat of battle. The chockos, however, proved them wrong by holding back the Japanese on the Kokoda track.

During the Korean War in the 1950s, all males aged 18 had to register for 99 days full-time training, and two years service in the CMF, this policy ended in 1959, but the issue would rise again just a few years later with the American war in Vietnam.

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From 1964, Australia implemented compulsory national service for 20-year-old males who were chosen by birth-date lottery and required to give two years service, plus three years on active reserve. In 1966, the Government sent National Servicemen overseas to Vietnam; around 20,000 “nashos” did a tour to the south-east Asian country.

In light of growing opposition to the war, the anti-conscription movement rose again, only this time it was more radical and took place under the spotlight of television. Gough Whitlam eventually ended conscription in 1972.

Since then, Australia has relied on recruitment for the army and its volunteer counterpart, the army reserve. The Australian Army Reserve currently has around 17,ooo recruit in active reserve, and 13,000 in standby. In recent years, the AAR has been deployed to East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The idea of conscription is clearly not one that’s ever going to fly with the Australian public for fear of sending “our boys” unwillingly off to fight yet another country’s war. But in light of shocking revelations that young boys are taking up arms, be it playing stupid games with their friends, like the boy fighting for his life after a game of Russian roulette, or joining militant groups and turning against us, is it time to start a conversation about channelling the energy, drive and need to be “part of something” that plagues young men, in particular, into something productive like national service?

Germany phased out conscription in 2011, but in the 50 years prior to that young men were required to complete six months military service or civilian service if they objected to the army. In Israel, all young men over 18 are required to serve three years in the military, two years for young women. In practice, only half of all young people end up serving in the military due to exemptions.

Reflecting on the role the army had on his life after 10 years’ service, Prince Harry told the Sunday Times, “Definitely, without a doubt, it does keep you out of trouble. I dread to think where I’d be without the army.”

What do you think? Would you welcome compulsory national service in Australia?