Written by Matthias Strohn
This work is strictly the view of the author, not the British Army and Ministry of Defence.
The current situation has demonstrated that the United Kingdom can really count on its citizens in times of need and crisis: More than 750,000 citizens signed up to support the NHS. Tens of thousands of retired medical personnel have re-joined the NHS to support the struggle against the virus and to protect the lives of their fellow citizens. The Army is supporting the NHS and has contributed to building the new Nightingale hospitals. It is also on standby to support the strained (civilian) logistical supply lines. These are achievements that can make Britain proud of its armed forces and its citizens. They are also admissions of a lack of strategic planning and foresight. These impressive achievements are only possible, because, so far, the measures are short or perhaps medium term. Should this crisis continue for, say, several years, would the population’s enthusiasm for these voluntary contributions continue? From a military perspective, the Army can afford to support the civilian agencies, because it is currently not required to engage in the realm of its primary reason d’être: fighting a (large scale) war. A very basic look back into history puts this into perspective: The Spanish Influenza that hit Europe in 1918 did not stop the First World War. Priorities were different, and the virus was seen as less threatening than the German troops in the Flanders trenches.
We currently hear a lot about the “war” against the virus, and the “Dunkirk spirit” is often used to describe the nation’s mood and the typical British stiff upper lip in dealing with the crisis. Historical catch-phrases are often imprecise and sometimes they can be dangerous. We are not at war. The virus is not an enemy that can be defeated with a military arsenal. And yet, these terms point us towards an interesting fact and a possible contribution to solving the nation’s strategic challenges. The Second World War was not fought by professional armies or large masses of volunteer forces. The armies of all main belligerents were characterised by conscripted men. Legislation ensured that the populations’ initial enthusiasm (if it existed in the first place) could be channelled into long-term support for the war effort. In the period of the brooding storm prior to 1939, the nations had prepared for the war and had mobilised their people. Even Britain introduced a limited form of conscription prior to the conflict: It passed The Military Training Act on 27 April 1939, which was followed by the National Service (Armed Forces Act) of 3 September 1939, the day the UK declared war on Germany. The latter imposed a liability to conscription of all men between 18 and 41 years of age. By 1942, all male subjects between 18 and 51 years of age and all females between 20 and 30 years of age were liable to be called up – with some exceptions, such as clergymen, married women and some other groups.
Training an army and preparing the civilian population for a war takes time. The British measures came late, but the “Phoney War” on the Western Front between September 1939 and May 1940 bought this time; time that could be used to put the Army and the population on a full war footing. The current crisis has shown that not every situation will allow for such a “Phoney War”. The Army needs to be ready to engage swiftly and en masse in a substantial crisis. The population has to be prepared for long-term “blood, toil, tears and sweat”, as Winston Churchill announced in a speech on 13 May 1940. How can this be achieved, with a small Army and, in particular, in a society such as the UK’s, which prides itself on the protection and value of the individual? There is no easy answer, and interests inevitably clash here between the nation’s need and the individual’s rights and will. And yet, the nation’s interest needs to come first, because only a secure and prosperous nation can guarantee the well-being of the individual. The solution seems obvious, yet painful to the British reader: A national service and the obligation of the entire population to sacrifice some time of their lives for the well-being of the nation.
This does not have to be interpreted in a strictly military sense. People could be given the choice to join the armed forces or work in the social services. This is what, de facto, German conscription equated to before it was stopped in 2011. It is interesting to see that in Germany, and in other countries, the debate about a re-introduction of a national service of some form has gained traction in the context of the current crisis. Yes, such a step would infringe on the individual’s freedom and liberty. But the overall benefits outweigh this restriction: The Army and the nation would be better prepared to “fight” a crisis – be it a military conflict or a national emergency as we see today. A large body of reserves could be formed that would be able to support the national effort. Resilience is the key word here. Civilian qualifications would be fed straight back into the Army via the reservist. The fixed costs to maintain such a strategic reserve might well outweigh the immediate expenditure and long-term effects that a crisis will otherwise cause. It also prepares the nation for the “unknown unknowns”. A nation modelled on just-in-time delivery and a lack of strategic depth and resilience in every sphere will struggle when swift and decisive actions are needed. This problem will only exacerbate if the solution to the problem is not a quick fix, but if the nation and its Army are drawn into a long-term quagmire. From a pure military point, there would also be another beneficial side effect. Armies based on conscription traditionally recruit a healthy number of their professional soldiers from the conscripts. This in itself is, naturally, not a good enough reason for the introduction of a national service, but, in the current recruiting climate, it is a point worth remembering.
It also needs to be remembered that a conscript or somebody working for, say, a year in a hospital cannot be compared to a fully trained soldier, nurse or doctor. A reservist will usually no longer be as current in the military profession as his regular colleagues. But neither are the 750,000 volunteers that have, thankfully, offered their services to support the nation. What all these individuals do offer is resilience to the Army and the nation alike.
 See, for example, the strategy paper of the German Armed Forces Think Tank, the GIDS, from April 2020: https://gids-hamburg.de/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/GIDSstatement2020_1_Rogg_COVID19.pdf), accessed on 06.04.2020.