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Total Objection and Alternative Service: a Finnish perspective

Return to Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements

Kaj Raninen has been involved in the antimilitarist movement since the beginning of the 1990s.  He is currently general secretary of the Finnish Union of Conscientious Objectors.  Ruka Toivonen, meanwhile, is a Helsinki based transgender activist and student. They study queer theory, prison systems and social history, but value their experience in radical grassroots organising as their highest and most precious education.  They have been involved in the Finnish Union of Conscientious Objectors for many years.  Here, they discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of conscientious objection campaigns that focus on total objection and alternative service. 
 
Finland still has comprehensive conscription for men.  Even though the number of people doing military service has declined and will most likely continue to do so, about two thirds of all men coming of age still go through military service (about 20,000 per year).  Women have had the option of volunteering for the army since 1994, and a few hundred enrol each year.  Approximately 7-8% of men choose an alternative, non-military service which is twice the length of the shortest period of military service (165 compared to 347 days) and the same length as the longest.

Until the 1980s, Finland's conscientious objection movement worked mostly on issues concerning alternative civilian service.  Total objectors were either Jehovah's Witnesses or non-organised individual cases.  The situation changed in the late 1980s, however.  In 1987, Jehovah's Witnesses were exempted from conscription during peacetime, and the conviction hearing procedure for people applying for alternative civilian service was abolished, after which anyone who applied was automatically accepted.  At the same time, however, the duration of alternative civilian service was extended from 12 to 16 months, and there was an attempt to 'militarise' the content of the service, tying it together with the idea of 'holistic national defence', which was at the time more prevalent than ever.  Men doing non-military service were positioned at airports and fire departments, for example, which could be seen as linked to military defence.

The changing attitude of the state towards conscientious objectors lead to the radicalisation of the movement.  The number of total objectors saw a rapid increase, from a handful to dozens per year, and  became an essential part of the movement's work in the latter half of the 1980's – and has remained such  ever since.

In many European countries, movements had previously been divided into groups and organisations working either on total objection or on alternative service. As time passed, many organisations ceased to work on matters concerning alternative service, because they thought it was not meaningful from an antimilitarist perspective.  There was little internal debate within the Finnish movement about whether alternative civilian service should be abandoned entirely as a form of conscientious objection, and even less talk of going back to focusing entirely on alternative civilian service.  These discussions did not happen even when,  as a consequence of the movement's radicalisation and new forms of action, the state passed a new and improved law on alternative service in 1992.

One of the reasons was a practical one: the number of total objectors stayed relatively low (it has never exceeded 100 annually), and it was thought that focusing only on this subject would be detrimental to the size of the movement.  Another, more important factor was connected to the nature of the Finnish conscription system: military service has been seen as its only acceptable form.  A large – albeit shrinking – majority of young men act in line with this expectation.  In the late 1980s, almost 90% of conscripts went through military service, and a little over 65% still do so to this day.  As the state's attitude towards any form of conscientious objection is negative,  punitive, and aims at marginalising the phenomenon, alternative civilian service – at least according to experiences in Finland – has not completely lost its antimilitarist meaning.  While not everyone going through civilian service has opposed state militarism, state militarism has opposed them.

Although alternative civilian service has been an important part of the movement, a dominant view in the Finnish conscientious objection movement, at least since the 1990s, that alternative civilian service represents an ineffective tool in the struggle against militarism, since it is fulfilling the function of conscription.  Learning from the experiences of other countries' conscientious objection movements, Finnish antimilitarists have been aware of the state's ability to capitalise on alternative service, even before these kinds of state efforts became topical in Finland.  In addition, a substantial number of people going through alternative civilian service do not consider their actions to be antimilitarist or even anti-war.  Many are interested neither in the conscientious objection movement nor in participating in any other kinds of antimilitarist activities.  Some emphasise that they chose civilian service for various 'practical reasons', not because they are opposed to conscription or militarism per se.

A few states in Europe (at least Germany and Austria) have succeeded in utilising alternative civilian service as a source of cheap labour and a tool for maintaining conscription, with the result that most people chose to do alternative service: in Germany, more people were opting for alternative rather than military, service by the time conscription was abolished.  This appears to have been one of the foremost reasons why it took Germany years longer than most other western European countries to abolish conscription (2010) and why it is still in place in Austria. Indeed, Austria held a referendum on conscription in 2013: the Austrians voted to keep conscription, possibly because they feared losing the work of conscripts completing alternative service.

The state's efforts to capitalise on alternative civilian service in Finland, instead of punishing people choosing it, has become topical very late in the day – basically during the current decade – and it is still not the prevailing approach.  The Finnish government still refuses to implement an alternative service that would fulfil even the most basic human rights requirements in terms of length of service and supposed 'gender equality'.  It would seem that the Finnish state is afraid that this would lead to an increase in the number of people doing alternative civilian service, even though, for state militarism, it would be a more desirable situation at the moment.  It says a lot about the state's attitude that even with low numbers, there is a persistent shortage of places where people who want to complete civilian service can be stationed.

The opportunities to depoliticise and make use of alternative service have, however, not gone unnoticed within Finnish militarism, while there remains little debate inside the conscientious objection movement regarding giving up working around alternative civilian service.  It is only the function of activities that has changed: the movement does not use alternative civilian service as a strategy for combating militarism, as much as it wants to prevent civilian service from being used as a means of militarising society and supporting conscription, in the event that lest it becomes a state strategy some day.

Technological 'advances' in warfare and the rising prices of weaponry have led the number of people serving in the military to decrease, as is shown in the numbers stated above – even from the militarist perspective, it is no longer feasible to provide military training to all men in every age group.  And even if the amount of people doing alternative civilian service has not increased – it has been remarkably static since the mid 1990s at around 2,500 a year – the number of people exempted from conscription has increased rapidly.  At the moment, about a quarter of men coming to conscription age do not complete any kind of service.  Many conscripts seek suspensions until the age of 29, when they will no longer be called for service.  Others get exemptions based on a wide and sometimes vague range of medical and psychiatric impediments.  The fact that many conscripts choose to use these exit strategies because of their antimilitarist or state critical views, or just plain indifference, arguably undermines the legitimacy of the conscription system much more than if the same number of people chose alternative civilian service.

Another factor which shows the extent to which alternative service and total objection are interwoven in the Finnish conscientious objection movement is the inclusion in most major conscientious objection campaigns of both alternative service and total objection.  Campaigning in the late 1980s and early 1990s included activities based on both total objection and alternative service, and its single most important event combined both: in the spring of 1990, people doing alternative service went on strike while, at the same time, four total objectors went on a hunger strike.  Both campaigns, based on alternative service and total objection, had the same objective: to improve the law governing alternative service.  Indeed, for some, total objection was already a protest against the poor alternative service legislation.

The situation repeated itself at the end of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the conscientious objection movement campaigned for a change in the outdated law on alternative service, put in place in 1992.  Again, there were campaigns on alternative service, including work stoppages.  Total objection campaigns also took place, the biggest of them revolving around a 'refugee case' where a total objector fled to Belgium and, living in exile for five years, managed to avoid being forcibly returned and serving his sentence.  The joint objective of these campaigns was to improve the law on alternative service.  This campaign again led to a partial victory when new and improved legislation was finally passed in 2008.

Of course, Finland has also seen campaigns based solely on total objection.  In 1992-93, there was an attempt to create an anti-conscription total objector campaign inspired mostly by the Spanish Insumisión movement and perhaps partly by the 'Campaign to abolish conscription', a project that was ongoing in the Scandinavian countries.  Total objection campaigns in the 2010s – and total objectors’ rationale for their actions – have also steered away from demanding improvements to alternative service.  But interwoven as they may be, campaigns on alternative service and total objection do differ from one another.  Total objection campaigns typically concentrate on one individual or a handful of people going through the process of objecting.  Indeed, this individual centred approach has been the only way of addressing this issue, since there have never been large groups of total objectors in Finland.  Another common trait has been the active participation of total objectors in planning and implementing campaigns built around their objection.

The most important and visible campaigns focusing on alternative service have been work stoppages and strikes by people doing alternative service, which are activities that by definition are carried out by large numbers of people.  The biggest work stoppage, in November 1998, saw seven hundred alternative servicemen going on strike for a day at their alternative service placements.  It is also typical for participation levels among people in service to be lower than the total number of objectors in campaigns focusing on them.  Events are usually organised by activists involved in the Finnish Union of Conscientious Objectors, and only a small proportion of participants have themselves been involved in planning the events.  There might be practical reasons for this: it would be difficult for the movement to create and sustain a framework in which a couple of thousand people living across a vast country could participate in decision making and planning – even for those who would be interested.  Because of this, it is thought that the only way of reaching people doing alternative service is through campaigns that concern them.

Also, the rationale behind acts of total objection and choosing alternative service differ.  Most total objectors see their actions as a form of resistance, or at least protest, be it against faults in the alternative service system, conscription,  the manner in which they are put in practice, militarism in general, or the power of the state as a whole.  In the narrative of people doing alternative service, a term that often comes up is usefulness: they explain their actions in terms of how their free labour and service benefits other people, or society, or the state – and often themselves – more than military service would.  Many of them do not even see themselves as objectors; they are merely choosing alternative service because, for them, it is simply a more reasonable thing to do.

In practice, this way of thinking has sometimes lead to calls for alternative service to be accepted as a legitimate national form of service on an equal footing with military service.  This has in turn produced criticism of the conscientious objection movement.  Some people doing alternative service think the movement's supposedly radical activities and work with total objectors 'stigmatise' alternative service and everyone who chooses it.  They feel that radical claims are the reason why their honourable work for society does not receive the appreciation it deserves.  It has certainly not always received appreciation, but as we see it, the real reason is not the conscientious objection movement's methods, but rather the normalisation of men's conscription in Finland, not least through the militarisation of youth and masculinity.

Of course, there are differences within conscientious objection groups as well: personal reasons for total objection vary, and some people doing alternative service criticise the state's power or militarism in general by opting for conscientious objection.  There are also differences between conscientious objectors' motives and the societal impact of different methods of objection.  Based on these differences, it can be concluded that in the context of the Finnish system, alternative service represents a substitute for military service, whereas total objection represents protest.

One interpretation is that like many others, the Finnish conscientious objection movement has adopted a strategy based on individual objectors.  Does this, then, mean creating alternative masculine hero myths that mirror the concept of militaristic heroism?  It is at least a potential threat.  In the narratives built around some total objectors on hunger strike, there is a sense of creating a certain kind of heroism: martyrdom.  On the other hand, neither martyrdom nor 'anti-war heroism' have become dominant narratives in the campaigns or stories of Finnish total objectors.  Instead, in the last decades, total objection campaigns have revolved around the absurdity of the justice system, the day-to-day coping of conscientious objectors and, in one case, around the exile of one objector.

Nowadays in the Finnish conscientious objection movement, the significance of gender analysis is recognised, especially in studying militarism and analysing the movements' activities and structures, and it has perhaps been used to some degree in analysing the methods of the Union's activities.  However, there has never been an effort to analyse total objection or alternative service campaigns from that perspective.  From this, we can at least conclude that the subject of gender analysis has so far not been considered a priority.

What is there to say about the differences between alternative service and total objection?  The kind of 'resistance machismo' that fortifies men's agency at the expense of other genders' surely does not advance antimilitarist goals, and yet the fear of giving in to masculine hero myths should not drive us to the conclusion that alternative service represents a more antimilitarist, gender sensitive or feminist option than total objection.

Militarist structures are ultimately based on the dichotomy between the protector and the protected, where white (heterosexual) men are perceived as the protectors of women, especially women of colour: this is particularly evident in the current Islamophobic narratives of Western militaries as the protectors of Muslim women and sometimes also sexual minorities.  The same dichotomy is projected onto values and attitudes in alternative surroundings and works as a cornerstone of the nation state.  In this way, militarism and gender hierarchies support and reproduce one another.  It is important to remember, however, that Finnish militarised masculinity comes back not only to gender, but to nationalism and whiteness.  Thus, active conscientious objection and campaigning against shutting the borders on 'outsiders' are a vital part of the struggle against both militarism and gender hierarchies.

A conscientious objector leads an antimilitarist protest carrying a flag with WRI's broken rifle emblemA conscientious objector leads an antimilitarist protest carrying a flag with WRI's broken rifle emblemHere lies the weakness of the Finnish non-military service from an antimilitarist perspective: its role as an 'alternative service' legitimises the current system rather than shattering its foundations.  It is true that the stereotypes sometimes attached to men going through alternative service, from 'sissy boys' to workfearing, peaceloving hippies, do not represent the hegemonic model of masculinity of which militarism and patriotism are an inseparable part.  Nonetheless, it would be hasty to think that alternative service would be effective at breaking gender roles and inequality in contemporary Finnish society.  Those going through alternative service are a mixed bunch and some of them demand a higher degree of appreciation for their service, sometimes unfortunately reproducing gender hierarchies in doing so.  Since nowadays they do not represent a legitimate threat to the conscription system so much as prolong its lifespan, their peaceful work for the common good does not exactly dismantle militaristic structures.

Alternative service is, by law, work done for nonprofit organisations and the public sector, for example in schools, hospitals and nursing homes.  In practice, the state furthers the racial and gender segregation of labour much more efficiently outside of alternative service.  This service is done in a relatively broad range of assignments within organisations, institutions and government agencies, whereas immigrants, for example, are automatically directed to low wage caring jobs for the rest of their lives: generally speaking, the 'common good' professions of the public sector are highly segregated in Finland.  Whether doing this kind of low wage work with almost no compensation is more feminist than going to jail, just because the person is a man, remains questionable.

Sometimes, though fortunately only on occasion, women participating in campaigns have had to face being undermined, mostly by men doing alternative service whose rights the campaign has been working to improve.  Sometimes this has been in the form of a well meaning inquiry ('what got you, as a woman, into this kind of activism?'), but at its worst in the form of aggressive questions ('this doesn't concern you, how is this any of your business?').  As a highly gendered institution, conscription seems to lead easily into tendencies that exclude people who are not subject to it, also from activities concerning conscientious objection and at worst all antimilitarist activities.  Thus, becoming active in conscientious objection campaigns may be easier for men who are affected in a more direct way by conscription.

The gender context of the Finnish military institution creates particular challenges for antimilitarism in terms of gender issues.  Conscription applies only to cis men, that is, men who were called boys from when they were born (the Finnish Defence Forces disregard trans people's gender identities by exempting trans men from conscription regardless of their own will).  People exempted from conscription due to their gender can, however, participate as planners and organisers in the conscientious objection movement, though in the face of the kind of put downs mentioned above.  Their role in putting a campaign into action is basically the same in campaigns both for alternative service and total objection.

Conscientious objection is fundamentally a reactive form of action: the state sets the rules of the game, and it reserves the right to change them at any time, for example by determining whether the prevailing attitude is to punish conscientious objectors and marginalise them, or to utilise them as a valuable source of alternative service personnel.  As an antimilitarist strategy, conscientious objection can affect the way in which the state is able to manipulate the rules and, at best, force it to burn the whole stadium down and come up with an entirely new militaristic game in the post-conscription society (as in Spain – see chapter 20).  But outside of this game, conscientious objection has very limited capabilities as a tool: campaigns on non-military service face this problem perhaps more acutely, but it is also one which total objection campaigns have to confront, at the latest when militarism no longer needs comprehensive conscription.

An interesting point to note is that the predominant line of thought in the Finnish conscientious objection movement has long been that conscientious objection in isolation is not a sufficient basis for antimilitarist activities, and nowadays the movement concentrates on many other issues that are relevant to antimilitarism.  A broader societal analysis of militarism and its destructive impacts forces one to look beyond one gender also on  the issue of conscientious objection.

Translated from Finnish by Tuukka Toro

Go to next chapter: Campaigning for Alternative Service in Russia