The REAL Meaning of Conscription

Conscription in Greece has wide-reaching implications for Greek society. These include financial conseas well as important effects on the socialisation of men and in the propagation of gender, sexual, racial and international stereotypes. Conscientious objection has an important role in challenging many of these structures. Whilst this subject is large, here we will attempt to give an overview of some of them.

The economic role of conscription

The Greek army is not a 'conscript army' since the officers are professionals - the conscripts are used merely as unpaid labour to sustain the military institutions. The army provides only the very basics for survival, so that conscripts need financial assistance from their families. When families can't afford this, the army often grants the conscript 'postponement of service on the basis of psychiatric disorder'. The conscript can then go home and work, but at the enormous cost of psychiatric stigmatisation. 'Middle class' conscripts sustain an even heavier loss of earnings, but they are in a much better position to absorb the financial cost. Most of the parental financial assistance is spent in the vicinity of army camps, away from hometowns. Conscription thus functions to the detriment of parents and to the benefit of specific provincial societies. Recent moves to reduce conscription have therefore been strongly resisted by the parasitic economy surrounding army bases. In addition, conscripts are removed from the general labour force so that conscription artificially lowers unemployment figures.

Conscription and the 'Hellenic-Christian' ideology

Greeks are indoctrinated to see the army in an effectively sacred role. Junior school children are taught to believe that God actually sent St. Constantine, the first Byzantine Emperor, a vision of the Cross on the eve of a major battle, together with the inscription "In this you will be victorious". The dominant 'Hellenic-Christian' ideology still sees the Greek army as Saviour of the Race. Conscription is therefore portrayed as a sacred (as well as practical) duty. Those who conscientiously object are then stigmatised as traitors of all the highest ideals.

The religious right, spearheaded by high-ranking Orthodox priests, constantly promotes this ideology. This is very effective whenever Greeks feel under threat, which is often.

The socialisation of men through conscription

Conscription constructs 'men' out of Greek 'boys'. Let's hear a characteristic statement from an officer admonishing a new recruit who was 2 minutes late. The officer shouted at the recruit in front of a woman petty officer and some conscripts: "When a Russian tart is waiting for you to fuck her, are you late? If you're not late then, how dare you be late now?" This vignette summarises the grotesque insults, racism and sexism that conscripts suffer. All this seethes behind a persona of political correctness publicly displayed by the army.

Conscription is supposed to help 18-year-olds to 'fly the nest', to learn teamwork and responsibility. In reality, the army keeps conscripts dependent and utterly institutionalised. The army is where Greeks learn how to exploit others in order to get out of duty or danger. Obtaining an advantageous post is a prime example: In wartime, it's the poor boys that become canon-fodder while most of the rich ones sit in offices. Conscription trains men in setting up bullying hierarchies and rituals. One example is so-called 'Seniority', whereby new recruits are worked to exhaustion and ritually humiliated by those further into their term of service. Greek men realise that although the written rules are on the surface fair, the real, unwritten rules are grossly abusive. They learn that they can't beat such a system, only join it.

Abuse of 'friend' and 'foe' becomes worse the more conscripts are exposed to conflict. Along Greece's 'threatened' northern border, would-be-immigrants captured trying to enter Greece are often grossly humiliated and treated as slaves by Greek conscripts. The captives are 'only' Albanians, fair game for anyone socialised in Greek military racism. In more 'civilised' units, bullying is 'lite', e.g. chasing new recruits and ripping off parts of their clothing. It is therefore unsurprising that research shows that conscription precipitates psychotic disorders. Conscripts suffer various mental disorders, but the military frequently diagnose these damaged young men as 'Maladjusted'. The clear implication is that the 'maladjusted' isn't man enough for military life and is often medically discharged. He will have to declare this 'medical' status to any future public employment agency.

Conscription and the social construction of sexuality

Conscription socialises men into gendered roles. Greeks are taught that they must 'protect women'. 'Protection' has a specifically sexual aspect: it is against Turks (mainly) who would invade, rape "our women" and "make us into yusufakia" (child sex-servants). Thus conscientious objectors are often faced with the indignation of female relatives: 'Will you not join the army to protect me from the Turks?' often with explicit mention of the danger of rape. All this has a socially corrosive effect: femininity is positioned as a family possession requiring violent defence by socially obedient men.

In the Greek popular imagination, soldiering is construed as preventing boys from becoming effeminate, thus protecting them from homosexuality. In reality much homosexual sentiment is aroused amongst conscripts. Sometimes it is displayed, e.g. by enactments of anal sex between clothed conscripts. However, it is simultaneously heavily denied: conscripts homophobically accuse each other of 'faggotry', flaunt their 'manhood' by frequenting lapdancing clubs and organise porn-video viewing sessions within camps. They learn to sing of invading Turkish villages and raping the villagers. On the other hand, conscription puts immense strain on men's real-world sexual relationships.

Partners suffer enforced, prolonged separations from conscripts whose very mentality becomes alienated by the gendered military socialisation. Ensuing splits are very sad and promote further malignant gender stereotypes: e.g. conscripts whose girlfriends leave them often talk of 'all women being unfaithful tarts'. The strain on relationshps is even worse for conscientious objectors. Partners perceive the grossly punitive 'alternative service' that the Greek state imposes as the choice of the COs themselves and therefore an affront on the relationship. They have to endure increased separation & economic hardship. Many of the healthiest relationships break up.

The social implications of conscientious objection

Greek COs have broken through the stereotype of 'cowardice'. It has become utterly obvious that it takes much more courage to declare Conscientious Objection than to enter national service, where numerous mechanisms exist to dodge danger & duty. Amnesty International, the European Parliament and many other international organisations have called for conscientious objection to become a Right in Greece, gravely embarrassing the Greek Government. They are gradually influencing the Greek people to regard CO as a legitimate stance and not as treason. Conscientious Objection by a few military men during recent wars (Yugoslavia, Iraq) has seriously challenged the 'sacred' role of the army. Greek involvement in those wars is extremely unpopular, but CO by serving personnel remains quite illegal. This situation forced the media to inform the wider public about CO and to provide unprecedented publicity and support for the views of established COs.

Greece is likely to develop a fully professional volunteer army within a few years. This would eliminate personal conscription, at least in the years until the next major war. However Greek COs still have a long struggle ahead for their rights to be respected, for the stigma and discrimination against them to stop and for Greek militarism to come to an end.

Michael Moutoussis