Voices: I look at what’s happened in Ukraine and realise the importance of national service

·6-min read
The war has given a lot of people a new and very real sense of purpose (AP)
The war has given a lot of people a new and very real sense of purpose (AP)

The war in Ukraine has brought the brutality of armed conflict home to generations of Europeans who had lived their whole lives in peace.

It has had a particular immediacy because of satellite television, social media, and the millions of refugees who have brought their ineradicable memories into exile with them. Amid all the horror, however, it is possible to identify one positive: the huge mobilisation of especially young Ukrainians who immediately volunteered to join the war effort, contributing in whatever way they could.

Many – not only young men – took up arms and set off to fight the enemy, wherever that enemy was to be found. By no means everyone took up arms; many others have helped to organise evacuations, ensure medical care or distribute food supplies. A “PR Army”, (metaphorically) bombards people like me with information.

And however great the death and destruction around them, it is not uncommon to hear Ukrainians sounding, if not actually happy, then (to an outsider) surprisingly upbeat and fulfilled. They see their involvement as a formative experience; they are busy and feel useful, some for the first time in their lives.

The war has given a lot of people a new and very real sense of purpose, and that includes young men who might never have ventured beyond their home area and found it hard to find a job. The crime rate, it has been noted, has gone down.

Adversity, of course, calls forth its own heroes. Remember the volunteer efforts that sprang up in the early months of the Covid pandemic, in the UK as in many other countries, and the spontaneous help, in Poland, and elsewhere, for Ukrainian refugees?

To delve into the past, I and many others will recall female relatives reminiscing with a degree of nostalgia about their “war work”, from driving officers, to packing parachutes, manufacturing munitions or taking their place on the fire-watching rota.

Anyone could do something, and felt needed. That, as well as stoical solidarity, is what the hackneyed “Blitz spirit” was about. I don’t want to underrate the extreme traumas suffered by those who fought, or who experienced conflict – traumas that last to this day, and will surely mark Ukrainians, too, far into the future.

But might there not be something to be learned from a national war effort that mobilises everyone and proceeds from the belief, the necessary belief – that everyone can contribute in some way? And that this effort can work to the individual and common good?

This is why I have in the past supported the principle of some sort of national service, and may also be why David Cameron’s National Citizenship Service – proposed as part of his Big Society initiative in 2010 – was generally favourably received.

That it failed to flourish – to the point where its budget has been slashed and an independent investigation described it as akin to a “holiday camp for middle-class kids” – underlines some of the difficulties in organising such a project in peacetime, but not that it should be entirely written off.

One drawback is that the young people who tend to join organised volunteer efforts are by and large – and I realise this is a generalisation – those who can afford it and whose life prospects are already good. Those who might benefit most from leaving their immediate surroundings and trying something new are often the least likely to have that chance.

Which is why I have supported not only the principle of some sort of national service, but the idea that it should be compulsory. Yes, obligatory for everyone. And this is not only for reasons of social equity – the offspring of the better-off and better-connected should not be able to buy or network their way out, nor should those with lesser means feel that they would not fit in – but also to demonstrate what is currently being demonstrated to such effect in Ukraine: that everyone, whatever their means and their background, can contribute in some way.

But surely, you might object, it is different for Ukraine, which is engaged in a military struggle for its very survival.

Why should the UK and other countries at peace disburse any resources at all, given the improbability of war. Maybe. But it is not necessary to envisage a military conflict on the horizon to believe that there could be an emergency of some kind or other around the corner and that it would be better for citizens who have known only peace to be prepared.

Seen from outside the country, the UK has an enviable degree of public resilience. People tend to keep calm; they are resourceful; they help: the public response to the 7/7 London bombings and other attacks are testament to that. But might it not be an asset if more people, a lot more people, were trained from an early age in a range of emergency skills.

First aid, elementary civil defence, even – I can already hear the qualms – how to handle a firearm? It is routine for journalists, aid workers and others going to conflict zones to take what is known as a hostile environment course. Is that sort of knowledge – about how to avoid or respond to attack, how to tell incoming from outgoing fire, how to defend yourself – not useful for everyone, not just those who expect to find themselves in a war zone.

Keeping fit, knowing how to swim (eight young men drowned in the recent heatwave), reading a map, using GPS, basic navigation? How many of us know how to do this? How many would benefit from such skills? A new national service need not be primarily military or even military at all.

Nor, if it introduced such a programme, would the UK be a particular outlier. More countries than you might imagine either never abolished national service or have reintroduced something of the kind, with civilian and military strands. Sweden reintroduced conscription as recently as 2017, in part as a social solidarity measure, and the subject is a hot topic again in the Netherlands and Germany.

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The fiercest opposition tends to come not only from those reluctant to spend a year or so of their lives in this way, but from the top brass, who argue that in this day and age they need committed professionals, not “kids” just parked with them for a few months. With the military starting to be called upon again to supplement services at home, they may need to rethink.

As the Commonwealth Games open in Birmingham and London basks in nostalgia 10 years after the London Olympics. I would add as a footnote the role played by young volunteers, many of whom discovered strengths that might otherwise have lain undiscovered.

In particular, I remember watching two teenage marshals shepherding huge crowds over the complicated crossing at Marble Arch, with a confident charm that would surely stand them in good stead later on. It is a long way from Marble Arch 2012 to the war raging in Ukraine today.

But the hidden link is the opportunity people have to feel needed and to serve a purpose, as the late Senator John McCain used to say, greater than themselves. There is a good argument to be made that everyone could devote a small part of peacetime to acquiring habits and skills that might one day become life-savers – even in emergencies that fall well short of war.