Mandatory military service — anyone?

Updated September 18, 2014

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When I used to write my weekly columns, every now and then, someone would respond to my hilariously clever witticisms and barbs at the current conditions of Pakistan by saying, “It’s easy to criticise, why not offer a solution?”

At the time, I always replied by saying that offering a solution isn’t my job.

My job is to point out the flaws in the system and warn about how these flaws would cause an eventual collapse. Finding the solution is what we elect a government to do and it was them that we should hold accountable to that responsibility.

I partly believe that, of course, but some of it was also me shifting focus away from myself. I was comfortable in the seat of a cultural commentator, but had no interest in being someone who claimed to have the answers to such complex questions. I’ve always intuitively distrusted people who say they can “fix things”.

More often than not, all they are really saying is “Put me in charge”.

And the golden rule to decent governance is never give power to those who want it.

But — and this is a big “but”, I cannot lie — I was also deeply uncomfortable with the only solution I’ve been able to come up with. You see, I did try coming up with a way of changing the entire current system so it works better, but while, I do not trust my faculties or current depth of knowledge enough to think it’s the correct fix for Pakistan’s problems, I also couldn’t come up with anything better.

So, I’m going to put it to you. I’m going to present my idea and then ask that you tell me what is wrong with it.

Not by email, I much prefer keeping my inbox limited to Viagra discounts and Nigerian investments. If you think I’m wrong and can provide a reason for it, post it in the comments section below. For once, let’s use the comments section for discussion and analysis, instead of flinging poop at one another.

(One more caveat; as a life-long leftist/liberal, this idea also goes against a lot of what I believe in, which is what makes it so difficult for me to swallow as a practical solution. Still, again, it’s the best I could manage which probably says some worrying things about me.)

Here goes then.

My big idea for fixing Pakistan's problems at one fell swoop!

Ready? Brace yourself, ‘cause here it comes:

Conscription.

Mandatory military service for every Pakistani, male and female, from the ages of 18 to 21.

Seriously. It’s that simple.

Now let me present my justification:

Firstly, I don’t understand why Pakistan doesn’t already have this. Israel does, as does Finland, just to name a couple of countries. It makes sense for a nation with enemies much larger than itself.

Pakistan’s natural enemy, despite all platitudes and rhetoric to date, remains India. It’s a damn shame yes, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to change anytime soon.

India’s standing army is 1,129,900 active troops and 960,000 reserve troops. Pakistan’s is 725,000 personnel. In addition, there are around 550,000 reserves. (This information is sourced from Wikipedia so it could very well have been made up by some teenager in California for all I know, but it sounds legit enough.) There’s a huge size disparity there.

Pakistan’s relationship with its other neighbours isn’t ideal either. Given that we have quite blatantly thrown our lot in with Saudi Arabia in the Shia-Sunni battle that Iran and the Saudis are proxy-fighting, that puts us at odds with Iran. And unless the Taliban take over Afghanistan again, that’s always going to be an embittered neighbour.

In a hypothetically cataclysmic scenario, which begins with war with India, Pakistan could see Iran and Afghanistan jumping into the fray as well. Throw in separatist movements active and popular in at least two of Pakistan’s provinces, if a cross-border war starts, the country is well and truly in trouble. The nuclear bomb does exist, yes, but it’s a measure of last resort. Worst case scenario type stuff.

Which begs the question, why doesn’t Pakistan have mandatory military service for all its citizenry already?

(It’s a rhetorical question, please don’t answer it.)

So why would putting everyone in the army help, beyond just giving us a massive fighting force?

I’m glad you asked.

Let’s look at the major problems facing Pakistan, beyond terrorism. Terrorism is, after all, a relatively new issue, with extremist groups taking advantage of systems that have been failing for a long time prior. Nor is this idea inspired by the current fiasco playing out in Islamabad. The less said about that ongoing embarrassment, the better.

I’m talking real problems, the ones that have existed for too long now and need drastic surgery to remove.

1) Class divide:

It started with the immense wealth gap caused by entrenched feudalism, then grew worse with the rise of the industrial and business classes. This is stretched further by the extremes of opportunity offered to urban versus rural classes, etc., etc. Basically, the poor in Pakistan are shockingly poor and the rich in Pakistan are astoundingly rich. There is a massive middle class, but even there the gradations are severe.

I used to work in advertising, an industry which is very sensitive to the differences in socio-economic classes. Product A, for example, is advertised to SEC A (the upper class) while Product B is advertised to SEC C (lower middle class). But in a country like Pakistan, those distinctions just aren’t accurate enough.

If you take just the upper classes even, you should probably have SEC A, representing a monthly salary of Rs. 55,000 per month; then SEC A+, for those earning Rs. 100,000; SEC A++, for those of Rs. 200,000; SEC A+++, for between Rs. 350,000 to Rs. 1 million; and so on until you reach SEC A∞ which is those people who have money in Swiss bank accounts, private helicopters, and own television channels — a number that is much larger than we should be comfortable with. On the other side are the A-, A--, A---, and so on until we reach the massive stretch of financial gradations that is SEC B.

The problem this creates are many and varied. The suffering of the lower SECs is ignored largely by the higher ones and interactions between these groups can be almost non-existent. Revolutions have happened over less.

But (and here I worry I’m being idealistic), if a billionaire’s 18-year-old has to spend three years in the proverbial trenches with the son of a gutter cleaner, then that might increase compassion and understanding between the two.

In the barracks, how much your father is worth won’t affect how much time you march in the sun (or it shouldn’t, if it does). And if military structures are as close to true meritocracies as they purport to be, then the gutter cleaner’s son has as much a chance of being the rich kid’s commanding officer as vice versa. And when they get out of the army, there’s a greater chance of them maintaining continued contact, which might increase empathy.

It might also give the lower SECs more motivation to demand equitable pay and better working rights. You can’t take advantage of someone when that person knows they are as capable as you on an even playing field.

I don’t foresee a universally balanced utopia resulting from three years of rich and poor doing push-ups and rifle training together, even I’m not that idealistic, but it’ll be a huge step-up from the current situation. As far as I can tell, at least.

2) Unified Patriotism:

There are many Pakistans. The Pakistan in which all are free to go to their churches and temples, the Pakistan in which only Takfiri Deobandis get to live, the Pakistan in which we negotiate with the Taliban, and the Pakistan in which we don’t. The Pakistan of Mohajirs, of Punjabis, of Sindhis, of Pathans, and on and on and bloody on.

Instead of being a source of pride and achievement, Pakistan has turned its natural diversity into an area of bitter divides and polarising violence. But if an Ahmedi and a Wahabi are made to spend three years together in a platoon (reality TV show idea anyone?), that might help the latter see the humanity in the former. It’ll be a lot harder for a Sindhi to mistrust and hate a Mohajir. And we can all finally stop hating Punjabis. You get the idea.

Now, there’s a problem here as well. “We are all Pakistanis” can very easily also become “We are all one type of Pakistanis.” And given that armies aren’t known for teaching leftist and liberal philosophy, this could well result in conservative and rightist fascism of sorts. A diversity of opinion could well be lost. This can be seen to some extent in Israel, where the prevalence of Zionist ideology is reinforced through the military indoctrination.

I don’t know, however, whether this is a consistent risk with conscription.

Do other countries with mandatory military service see a reduction in diversity of opinion and thought, or are people a lot harder to brainwash than that and I’m selling human individuality short?

3) Gender Equality:

Right at the start I had said men AND women should be conscripted. Beyond the natural military advantage, this creates (just look at how Russia’s army basically doubled during WWII because women served with men on the front lines), it will also solve Pakistan’s endemic misogyny. It’s a lot harder to tell a woman to go to the kitchen when she can drop kick you and serve as a General.

It would also, I think, help bring a diversity of opinion into the Chiefs of Army Staff if there were some women in there, instead of old men with mustaches and cigars.

4) Whose war is it?:

One of the major challenges facing the fight against extremism and terrorists in Pakistan is that everyone has an opinion about how it should be done, but no one has any practical experience.

Clearly the rising risk of death-by-suicide-bombing isn’t enough to sway public opinion against extremists. Somehow, the terrorists have co-opted the narrative in their own favor. It also doesn’t help that while we know our soldiers have been fighting terrorists and dying at their hands, almost none of the decision makers or opinion-voicers have a family member in the fight.

You’d be a lot less tolerant of the Taliban if it was your son being beheaded in a video or your daughter being targeted by a suicide bomber.

This also enhances the Pakistan Military’s ability to deal with terrorists, given that the reluctance to remove troops from the border has always limited how many can be put in the field against the Taliban.

5) Education, Vaccination:

Pakistan has no shortage of crises, but the low levels of education and high levels of curable diseases need to be prioritised. If everyone has to join the army at some point and the army makes basic reading and writing skills a mandatory requirement for entry, then the systems will be put in place to provide that education. Public schools will see an increase in funding because it will help the army. Linking education to the military budget might be the only way to guarantee its salvation.

One initial challenge would be that a sizeable population, if not the majority, of all women and men between 18 to 21, are currently illiterate. Which means they wouldn’t qualify for entry and become a barrier to universal education standards.

However, all that needs is half a decade to remedy. For the first 5 years, all literate conscriptions unwilling to serve on the front lines will have to serve 3 years as teachers in public schools across the country, after receiving basic teacher-training. The influx of teachers will be huge. Those teachers will then provide basic education to not just children, but also to the adults of conscription age.

The only problem with this strategy, or rather the only opponents it might have, are those benefitting from illiteracy. Feudal and industrial forces who rely on cheap slave labor to keep their profit margins obscene. I am totally fine with those people being kicked to the road side.

The same goes for problems like polio vaccinations. You need a healthy citizenry for there to be a reliable military force, and nonsense conspiracy theories and the murder of polio vaccine providers will be tolerated a great deal less.

But:

Of course, one major problem with all this is that it means increasing the military budget immensely and handing the country over to the armed forces. But then, I’m fine with increasing that budget if it means the other areas can be linked to the military budget. The budget is already huge, at least let’s put it to some use other than General Musharraf’s legal defense fund.

And as for handing the country over to the army, both Israel and Finland have mandatory conscription and also have democratic governments in place with no risk of martial law.

So there you go. My problem, as you can probably see, is that I just don’t have enough knowledge on this subject to see the major flaws that no doubt exist in my plan.

If you know better, post your responses below. Next week we can get back to calling each other names.