Germany’s voluntary military service is a soldier’s taster course for young men and women. Almost 30 percent of those who take part abandon the training early. The army doesn’t seem to mind – it has other priorities.
Homesickness, a career, false expectations: Those are the main reasons why young men and women decide to end their voluntary service with the German army after only a brief time. Some realize that they don’t like to be so far from home after all, others get another job offer, or a place at university.
Then there are those who had thought barracks life would be easier – they don’t like the early starts, or sleeping in dormitories, let alone the military drill.
But it isn’t just the soldiers themselves who make the decision to break off training within the first six months, as Bundeswehr spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Michael Backhaus explains: “If the Bundeswehr breaks it off, it is usually for health reasons, or a lack of physical capability.”
The high dropout rate is no surprise for critics of the Bundeswehr’s voluntary service. Back when Germany had compulsory national service, when young German men had the choice between military and civilian service, only those who really wanted it chose a military career.
They knew what they were letting themselves in for, which is why the dropout rate was so low, says Harald Kujat, a former Bundeswehr inspector general. “The second point is: we had a longer time to observe the young men and see whether they really were suited to it,” he told DW. “That is a little different when you only have a few hours. That should have been taken into account – then we would’ve seen that this new concept would never work.”
But Backhaus has another point to counter this argument. Yes, he admits that there is a dropout rate, but that, he argues, is a well-known phenomenon in other civilian further training programs, and the reasons are similar everywhere. Moreover, the Bundeswehr is much more interested in another figure: “Around 30 percent of those who come to us commit themselves more permanently – across all training tracks.”
That puts the Bundeswehr in a good position. The army doesn’t simply look at the situation in the voluntary service – it’s about the bigger picture, says Backhaus. Altogether, the Bundeswehr is planning to swell its ranks to 170,000 men and women, including between 5,000 and 12,500 volunteers. And of the 16,000 new soldiers that were needed to reach the quota this year, 80 percent have already been recruited.
Backhaus also dismisses the charge that the army offers a place for “losers” who can’t make it elsewhere. Of those recruited in April, he says that 43 percent were basic high school graduates, while in July almost half of new recruits had achieved Germany’s advanced high school level.
The Bundeswehr has become smaller and smaller in the past few years. The reduction of Germany’s standing army from 250,000 to 170,000 also meant the closure of some bases, and so a smaller presence in certain parts of the country.
For that reason, argues Kujat, the Bundeswehr is no longer just fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and for peace and security in the Horn of Africa, but also for its reputation. “The reduction of the Bundeswehr raises the impression that opportunities and prospects are also limited,” he says. “And the missions abroad – spending months separated from your family, risking your life. This situation isn’t positive for the Bundeswehr. It is not as attractive as having an employer close to home.”
Kujat also believes that in other countries, like France, Britain, or the US, the military enjoys much more respect among the population. But in Germany, there is a danger that the army will lose its place “in the middle of society” if ever fewer people come into contact with those serving in uniform.
Even if time in the Bundeswehr is not always seen as a positive experience, the former inspector general is convinced that most people look back and see it as something they profited from. “This is where people from different places, jobs, and social circumstances come together,” he says. “That can have a major effect on later life. The smaller and less attractive the Bundeswehr is, the less that multiplication effect kicks in.”
On the new discussion on the dropout rate, Kujat notes that the drive to reform the military should not just be about reducing the number of troops and cutting their budget for equipment. The decisive factor should be the question of what tasks the armed forces can fulfil. “Of course you have to take financial things into account, but that shouldn’t be a limiting factor,” he says. “Otherwise I would be sending soldiers on missions knowing that they are not in a state to fulfil those mission. That wouldn’t be a policy, that would be a game of chance.”