Latvia is now debating a new law to introduce compulsory National Military Service as soon as possible. A relatively small country, which continues to tackle the challenges of a declining population, it is a stalwart Baltic nation and NATO member that borders both Russia and Belarus; its desire and drive to bolster its security now is understandable.
In Norway, compulsory national military service, or otherwise known as ‘conscription’, has been a bedrock of our strong society. Its form and function have varied throughout history.
Norway was the first NATO country to embrace the concept of ‘universal conscription’; women and men. It intends to serve not only its military objectives but also encourages support to wider society and core national institutions. At the core of this ethos was to be fully inclusive, embrace all aspects of diversity and afford every individual to develop their own personality and skill base. Thus, universal conscription, whilst based on a military model, has proved key to developing a resilient Norwegian society from which we benefit today.; as we look across Europe now the need could not be starker.
We can take a look back at our history. In 1628 Norway’s army was based on the typical European concept of fiefdoms; made up of predominately land workers, where every fourth farm, known as a “legd”, had to supply and support one soldier to the King. By the end of the Cold War in 1991, most Norwegian males at the age of 18 – around 30,000 per year – were called upon for a term of compulsory military service.
Norway’s modern compulsory national military service has its history in our Constitution written in 1814 (§109) and is part of the national legislation; the “Law on national conscription and the Home Guard” as of July 17th, 1953. Later amendments were made, as making it compulsory also for women from 2016.
Today, all Norwegian adults, at 18 years old, are mustered and around 9000 go through our compulsory military service program annually. This means that all men and women between the age of 19 and 44 (in wartime the age limit is 55) conduct compulsory military service for 19 months. This normally mandates a 12-month initial military service period, before being assigned to a reserve military unit or to the Home Guard (for example: Zemessardze). The last seven months of service offers options for additional service, essential refresher training, participation on military exercises or being available for active service in a time of crisis.
The number of conscripts available at any given time is not always a constant; it will always be dependent on current military structures and is underpinned by the annual defense budget. Since not all circa 60,000 annual coscripts can complete national service concurrently, it notable that there is competition amongst young Norwegians to be accepted to military service. It has become prestigious for young men and women to succeed in their military service in the same way they aspire to complete further education at university.
However, conscription is not without its critics and dissenters, as one should reasonably expect in any democratic society. But simply expressing that you are not wishing to serve is not an excuse to avoid military service in Norway; the Constitution makes it clear that as a citizen you have a legal obligation to the defense of Norway. Obviously not every person is lucky enough to be able to serve their country, despite their own aspirations, and the system will always consider their personal health as a priority and therefore they may be exempt. But the Norwegian military is first and foremost a professional and fully inclusive organization, where everyone is treated as an equal focused on maximizing individual strengths, different levels of physical ability, different qualifications, different backgrounds and interests. Norway has successfully challenged some of the old stereotypes of military service; it is a ‘one team’ concept that is now a flagship model for some of our neighbors and allies. It must be stated, that in Norway conscription applies for national service only. In law, our conscripts cannot be assigned to military service outside of national borders unless they volunteer to do so, post successful basic training. In parallel, Norway maintains a core of professional military units which, always at the highest level of training and readiness, operate separate from the conscripted element.
For Norway national service has and continues to be a success. It provides a bedrock for national defense capability. It also offers young people an opportunity to thrive. Likewise, it is the recruiting ground for our professional military; a significant percentage of our conscripts decide to remain in the military and join the professional ranks. It is important to acknowledge that in order to maintain a professional military, at a most pressing time, we must continue to invest in our military – both to build on the conscription system and bolster a professional element. Key to this is opportunities, fair pay and pensions and good living and conditions. National service is ultimately a social contract between the government and its population – where each individual has a responsibility to take part in the defense of the country and, in turn, must then be appropriately rewarded for that commitment.
Our border to Russia is in the North, in the County of Finnmark. This is in the Arctic. Finnmark is as far away from the capital, Oslo, as Rome in Italy. 9 per cent of Norway’s population resides above the Arctic Circle and is part of our modern, highly developed society. North of Norway is a strong, dynamic, and highly competent region. Investing in the people living and working in the North is a crucial investment in Norway’s security and wellbeing. Conscripts from the South are often sent North, and wise versa. Our military service thus also serves a purpose of ensuring a broad-based understanding and acceptance of the importance to our economy and security of the parts of the country you are not from yourself.
The international security environment has not been worse since the Second Word War. Russia’s aggressive invasion of Ukraine has made us all feel the need to create a larger and more robust wartime strength. In Norway we have found the compulsory national service highly valuable in this respect, and we feel that the service is popular amongst our population and our youth. Furthermore, it contributes to an overall resilient society.
Norwegian Ambassador to Latvia Ine Måreng and the Norwegian Defence Attache to Sweden and Latvia Bjørn Stai