David (not his real name) had been looking forward to serving in the German military, the Bundeswehr. He had even thought about signing up as a regular soldier after completing his compulsory military service.
It was on a day in March when David was forced to realize that the military did not, however, share his enthusiasm. He was standing with other recent conscripts in the barrack yard of a logistics battalion in Bavaria. The three dozen young men, most of them 18 years old, were a reasonably motivated group. But the trainers looked discouraged when they saw David and his fellow recruits standing in the yard. "There are so many of them again," one of the superior officers said under his breath. What on earth were they going to do with the young men?
The question of what should be done with them is currently the subject of heated debate in Berlin. If Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has his way, the draft will soon be eliminated. Though a vocal supporter of compulsory military service until recently, Guttenberg, who belongs to the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, has changed his position. Now Guttenberg, who holds the rank of corporal in the reserves, told SPIEGEL in an interview that "in practice (military service) will be gone in 10 years."
With this statement, Guttenberg antagonized members of his own party, especially Volker Kauder, the floor leader of the conservatives' parliamentary group. Kauder says that compulsory military service is a core concern of his party, the CDU, and that it is an "instrument for linking society with the Bundeswehr." CSU leader Horst Seehofer, who characterizes his party as "a party of the Bundeswehr," says: "We say yes to compulsory military service." Chancellor Angela Merkel, who considers compulsory military service a "success story," reined in the defense minister, because she believes that a large proportion of her voters support military service.
These are the old, familiar rituals once again. Compulsory military service has always been one of the great taboos of German politics. Until the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of men were still needed in case a massive army had to be quickly mobilized to face off against the forces of the Warsaw Pact. But with the implosion of the Eastern Bloc and the end of the Cold War, conscription has become outdated.
For Germany, a country surrounded by friendly neighbors, national defense is hardly a concern anymore. Bundeswehr soldiers are now fighting in Afghanistan or overseeing a weapons embargo off the coast of Lebanon as part of the United Nations' UNIFIL force. The army's young conscripts are of no use to anyone. Poorly trained and neglected by the government, they spend much of their military service killing time.
But now there is some hope that things could change, because the government has to tighten its belt. Without the funds to support it, the draft will probably soon cease to exist. Officials at the Defense Ministry have calculated that the Bundeswehr would cost the government almost €500 million ($610 million) less per year if military service were abolished.
Currently, compulsory military service lasts nine months, which consists of three months of basic training and six months spent at a barracks somewhere in Germany. Six months at a barracks doesn't necessarily seem like a long time, but it can feel a lot longer for people who don't know what they are supposed to do with themselves. In fact, no one knows what they are supposed to do. David, the enthusiastic young conscript, didn't know, his fellow members of the logistics battalion don't know and hardly any of the roughly 60,000 German conscripts knows. Not even the Bundeswehr itself knows.
Dawdling Away the Days
This is why many conscripts, after completing basic training, learn how to spend time when there is nothing to do. They learn how to dawdle away hours, days, weeks and months, how to waste time running errands and sitting in office chairs, and they learn how to daydream in their units and offices, in hallways, rooms and barrack yards. Essentially, they learn how to loaf around. In the process, they become lazy, silly or creative, or sometimes all three. They do things like hold sleeping bag races, which they record with their mobile phone cameras. The Internet is full of such videos.
Seen in a positive light, compulsory military service is a gigantic, nine-month-long party for a bunch of young men (women are exempt from conscription in Germany). But what's the point of it all? What was the purpose of the government calling up 63,413 men for military service last year? Why does the state intervene in the lives of so many young people, even though it cannot explain to them what exactly they are supposed to do once they've arrived at their barracks?
Many conscripts believe that the government knows very well why it is drafting them and depriving them of their freedom for nine months. But the truth is more banal than that: It doesn't know. If it did, it would treat the young men differently. Five decades after it was introduced, the German draft has turned into a huge machine that is fed with young men and produces government-organized mass unemployment in the barracks.
The soldiers have come up with a word for the kind of activity that serves the sole purpose of making it seem as if they were busy. They call it Dummfick (loosely translatable as "stupid fucking around").
Cleaning Clean Guns
Shortly after reporting for duty to his logistics battalion, David was ordered to clean some guns. There was only one problem: The guns were already clean. In fact, they had never been used. Some would say it was meant to be practice, but David had already learned how to clean guns in basic training. Nevertheless, he sat down on a chair in front of the weapons room, a clean MG 3 machine gun in front of him, and took apart, polished and reassembled it. Taking things apart, cleaning them, and putting them back together, hour after hour, day after day -- that's how conscripts spend their time.
To make matters worse, says David, the barracks were completely full, with four bunk beds in each room. Some of his fellow soldiers had to store their equipment in the attic because there wasn't any space for additional cupboards in the room.
After graduating from high school, David, who comes from a small town in the western state of Hesse, was tempted by the prospect of getting a university education at the Bundeswehr and pursuing a career as an officer in the air force. His euphoria didn't last long. After two weeks, he was transferred from the weapons room to the company's business office, where there was just as little to do.
At least he didn't suffer the fate of a recruit in a transport battalion in western Germany, who was assigned to guard a telephone and answer official calls coming in to the phone. It was a monotonous task, because the phone never rang -- for weeks on end. It wasn't until a supervisor had the office furniture moved around that the soldier noticed the outlet behind a cupboard. As it turned out, the phone wasn't even plugged in.
But instead of using such accounts as an argument for abolishing military service, the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, last week only approved the shortening of the period of service from nine months to six months, effective July 1. The CDU/CSU and its junior coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), agreed to the six-month period of mandatory service in their coalition negotiations. It was a compromise between the liberal FDP, which wanted to jettison compulsory military service altogether, and the conservatives, who baulked at the idea. The compromise only exacerbates the dilemma, however, because the recruits can be used even less effectively within the shorter time frame.
"The military and personal benefits of basic military service must be at least equal," says Hellmut Königshaus, the parliamentary commissioner for the Bundeswehr. Otherwise, he argues, conscription would come into conflict with Germany's constitution. Königshaus occasionally receives letters from soldiers who feel unchallenged and complain about pointless tasks. However, Königshaus points out, it "can be assumed that 'hanging-around service' among conscripts is more widespread that is reflected in the number of complaints."
Eleven years ago, then-Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping charged a commission with finding ways to make the Bundeswehr more modern, cost-effective and efficient. The commission, headed by former German President Richard von Weizsäcker, discussed the possibility of abolishing compulsory military service, but Scharping was opposed to the idea, and he still favors the draft today. In April, Defense Minister Guttenberg also established a reform commission. The results are expected in September.
Until then, new recruits will continue arriving who are more interested in killing time than anything else. When David was transferred to the administrative office, three other soldiers were already there, busy managing the great void. Because there were now only three desk chairs for the four soldiers, one of them was always on break in his room or leaning up against the counter in the hallway. David says that the high point of the day was making the daily trip from his office to the barracks post office, which was 300 meters away. He also spent his time trying to beat the record high score in the card game Solitaire on the office computer, or playing online poker or dice with the others. On some days, he says, he already went to bed in the late afternoon.
Many potential soldiers stand a good chance of not being drafted in the first place. Of the 417,300 potential conscripts who underwent a medical examination last year, almost 43 percent were rejected as being "unfit for military service" -- an army of invalids comprising 178,325 men, or the equivalent of about a dozen divisions. It's a total that also happens to be politically convenient.
The number of men deemed unfit for military service has been growing for years (see graphic). "The numbers point to a significant decline in general physical fitness and capability," the former parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, Reinhold Robbe, wrote in his 2007 annual report. He blamed the deficit on emotional stress, the rise in illegal and prescription drug use, as well as television and computers. Robbe painted a bleak picture, portraying almost half of those eligible for compulsory military service as a bunch of maladjusted youths who spent their time smoking pot in front of their PlayStations while stuffing slices of pizza into their mouths.
But the Bundeswehr also has no interest in a large number of new conscripts. They cost money and take up both space and valuable personnel time. In light of the goal of turning the Bundeswehr into an army of soldiers trained for individual missions and intervention campaigns, soldiers that cannot be deployed abroad are merely a burden. To at least preserve the appearance of fairness in the selection process for military service, the suitability standards are being raised higher and higher, thereby reducing the number of eligible candidates.
In the 2009 selection process, for example, those who were unfit for duty were eliminated first, followed by conscientious objectors, prospective police officers and firefighters. As a result, only 96,185 draft notices were sent out, and tens of thousands of those were nullified for other reasons. Thanks to age limits being exceeded, the nullification of draft notices and deferments, or simply for "organizational reasons," only 68,304 men were ordered to report for duty. Of that number, 4,891 left their units in the first four weeks. In the end, there were 63,413 conscripts left who were expected to go through the motions of serving their country.
To implement political requirements, the medical examinations for military services are filled with absurdities designed to provide district recruiting offices with as much leeway as possible in the effort to sort out unsuitable candidates. According to one of the rules, recruits are medically unfit for duty if they are allergic to celery. In the Bundeswehr, celery is used in meat and vegetable stews, among other things.
Those who are allergic to bee and wasp stings are also considered unfit for duty. Young men who are unable to tolerate prophylactic drugs against malaria and yellow fever are also sent home -- even though neither of the diseases has been reported in Germany in its recent history, and conscripts have never been sent to serve in jungles.
Oddly enough, young men who register as conscientious objectors, either before or during the medical examinations, stand less chance of being excused from duty. They have to perform an alternative "civilian service" known as Zivildienst, typically by carrying out social work in places such as hospitals or retirement homes. Unlike the Bundeswehr, the Federal Office for Civilian Service has many clients who like to employ cheap labor, such as private nursing services.
The procedures employed in district recruiting offices, on the other hand, are often arbitrary. The officials have been known to send home a recruit with tooth decay while pronouncing a recruit with a healed, comminuted fracture fit for duty.
With these practices, the Bundeswehr has also managed to alienate the enthusiastic conscripts. Sven, a 21-year-old from Hanover in northern Germany, was assigned to work as a medic after basic training. "I'm going to learn some medical things that I'll be able to use later on," he thought at first. Instead, Sven learned how to use a blood-pressure monitor. Once he had mastered this task, he was told to go from bed to bed, shortly after his comrades had been wakened in the morning, and ask them if their bowel movements were OK.
Bored to Tears
If one types the words "Bundeswehr" and "Langeweile" ("boredom") into the video platform YouTube, the scope of the great void becomes even clearer. The videos that appear depict German recruits doing battle with their biggest enemy: boredom.
In one video, a soldier wearing a camouflage uniform and a gas mask dances to techno music, using a broom as his dancing partner. In another film, soldiers play the game of "bed tipping," which involves tipping one of their comrades off his mattress. There is the Bundeswehr Twist, in which recruits in camouflage, steel helmets and gas masks dance the day away, and then there is the film in which men sitting in their room use tape to remove body hair from each other's thighs.
In another video, soldiers strap steel helmets to their elbows and knees and hop around on all fours across the linoleum floor, performing a "turtle race." In another, men stuff themselves into military-issue sleeping bags, like fat caterpillars, and then roll across the barracks floor -- to the applause of their comrades.
One three-minute video shows a soldier sitting on a chair. He is so tired that he can hardly keep his eyes open. He is a comic and sad-looking figure, but also a wonderful allegory for the complete absurdity of compulsory military service. Naturally, there are also plenty of videos that show soldiers drinking and vomiting.
After four weeks of doing nothing in the administrative office of his logistics battalion in Bavaria, David realized that he was wasting his time. He went to his supervisor's office, where he filed a retroactive petition as a conscientious objector. He now performs community service for a nursing agency.