Tomas Jermalavicius, ICDS
A couple of weeks ago a brief controversy erupted in the Estonian media over the proposals to raise military retirement age for military personnel of the Estonian Defence Forces to 65 years. The proposal came as part of the effort of the Estonian government to balance its books and prevent the deficits of the social welfare system from spinning out of control in the future. The same package envisaged increase of retirement age for the personnel of the police as well as emergency rescue services. In many other countries of the EU, the demographic trend of ageing population combined with too generous state-sponsored benefits for retired public servants have already put an unbearable strain on public finances. The predicament has been exacerbated by the current economic crisis, which utterly discredited the model of endless borrowing by governments to plug the expanding hole in their budgets as completely unsustainable. From Greece to Latvia, from Spain to Hungary, examples of where bad policies lead are abundant, and Estonia’s wish to avoid the same path is understandable.
However, the economic and financial realities aside, there seems to exist a more subtle shift in the underlying attitudes towards the military in Estonia, which allowed contemplating such a proposal in the first place: from treating the military as a unique profession to seeing it as not so exceptional. Of course, extensive sociological research would be necessary to test this assertion and ascertain its validity. But it is quite informative that the proposed measure essentially equated a soldier to any civil servant, toiling behind a desk from 8am to 5pm. As one senior military officer complained to me, even some civil servants in the Ministry of Defence brushed aside the objections to increasing military retirement age with a counter-argument that being a military is “a job just as any other”. So, indeed, this line of thought goes, why should they enjoy a lower retirement age?
“See on absurdne” — this was a response of the EDF commander Lieutenant General Ants Laaneots. To a great extent, he is right: soldiers have to be able to endure the hardships of battlefield and operations such the one in Afghanistan, while remaining combat effective and able to exercise sound judgment. No other profession calls for the same degree of fitness and none exposes to the same sort of physical, psychological and emotional stresses, where your own life is constantly in danger and where your decisions may mean life or death to you, your comrades-in-arms or to innocent civilians. Even killing an enemy combatant is psychologically not such an easy feat as it may appear watching Hollywood action movies. In short, the “wear and tear” – physical, emotional and psychological – inherent to military profession is greater than elsewhere. Concomitantly, ways to recruit and retain personnel must be different and the required average age of combat-ready personnel must be lower. This train of thought holds that, if your country’s active duty military personnel parades start resembling veteran marches, armed forces of your country are probably in trouble. This is particularly true of the military which its parent society wants to be…well, the traditional military – an organisation able to fight and win military campaigns, not just serve as uniformed humanitarian aid or social workers, able to do only traditional peacekeeping or post-conflict reconstruction tasks.
There are also other very important aspects which make military profession unique. Chief and foremost among them is a demand to perform duty at whatever costs, even at the expense of own life, without questioning the merits of national policy or putting your personal interests in front. In short, soldier‘s liability is unlimited, both in terms of time (24/7 availability for service) and possible consequences (death). But their rights are limited. It is the job where, at least in countries such as Estonia or the United States, military personnel have their civic liberties seriously constrained: as a military, you cannot join trade unions or political parties, go on strike, or exercise the right to run for an elected office while in uniform. Such are the costs of being in the “business“ of managing organised means of violence, so the rewards must be adequate too, in order to convince people join the military.
The challenge that Lt. Gen Laaneots and his colleagues face is that they adhere to a very traditional notion of what the military is for and about, while the societies around them keep evolving in their values and attitudes in the direction which makes them less and less congruent with this traditional notion. This phenomenon is known in the academic literature as “civil-military gap“. On the one hand, the civilians in the so-called post-military societies (the term coined by Martin Shaw) know less and less about the military and are not able to appreciate the demands and nature of this profession. To them, the military‘s hierarchy, demand of utter obedience and discipline, elevation of collectivity above the individual, austere conditions, pursuit of uniformity in behaviour, values and even appearance and restriction of civic liberties of serving personnel are alien. On the other hand, the military, whose success in conventional warfare used to depend on a very prescriptive set of military values, watch with trepidation what else those individualistic, egalitarian, critical, hedonistic societies with little respect to tradition and authority will throw at them, wrapped in a demand for change or in a “job as any other” argument. In this context, the spat over the military retirement age in Estonia might be just one of the first salvos in a protracted battle over Estonia’s military soul. There are already some signals of the forthcoming backlash from the military, captured by the label of “absurd”. For once, the military would certainly be tempted to point out that, having said “A”, the civilian decision-makers would have to follow it with “B” and “C”: for instance, if it is job as any other requiring no exceptions in retirement age, how about following the example of other countries with a prevailing similar attitude – Denmark, Sweden or Belgium – and lifting all those bans on military trade unions and party membership? Tough to swallow, isn’t it?
The trouble is that the military has to adjust to the trends in the society, not the other way round. There will be other controversies over other issues, and the armed forces have to be prepared to respond and adapt, even proactively lead the way and benefit from trends in the society. Otherwise, if they dig in the heels, the risk is a growing civil-military gap and alienation between the military and its parent society, which no favourable public poll ratings or repeated mantras about an ever-closer bond between the armed forces and the people will be able to conceal. Or, if the military accept everything passively and uncritically, they will experience the “boiled frog” effect, whereby the armed forces will be forced to make one change after another until, at some juncture, everyone will realise they suit for parades and peacekeeping only. But to be able to manage the adaptation in a way which benefits the armed forces rather than harms their ethos and effectiveness and which strikes the right balance between societal imperatives and military requirements, defence organisation needs a very strategic and complex approach to human resources management. This approach has to be informed by continuous research in military sociology and military affairs, both to build the understanding of what is happening in the strategic and social contexts of the organisation and to generate the objective evidence of how various new personnel policies work (or fail). It has to connect the understanding of changes in warfare and military requirements with the right tools of attracting, motivating and retaining people, raised in a very different society than that of the end of the 19th Century, when the traditional profession of arms emerged. And this approach will have to employ effective mechanisms of communicating military concerns about the possible consequences of the required change in personnel policies to the general public and the politicians as well as engaging them in a dialogue about the role, mission and character of the nation’s military.
Many Western societies have been or are going through similar changes in the social fabric and personnel practices of the military. So, there is no need to reinvent the wheel in the process of adapting the military to social and economic realities of our times. Take this excellent article in Parameters about demographic trends and their implications to military recruitment in the United States as a starting point, and the idea of retiring at least some servicemen and women at older ages may not appear so out of touch with contemporary military requirements. The notion of “surprising possibilities”, put forward by the article’s author, is a more constructive way of looking at the challenge than a strict and unconditional objection preferred by many military leaders and military personnel managers.
A unique profession vs a “job just as any other”: how to bridge a civil-military gap?