In 2009, Sweden voted to stop conscription into its armed forces. Unlike many other Western European countries, it had kept the draft going for more than a century—but with the Cold War long over, a full-scale military was no longer deemed necessary. Instead, the right-wing party that was then in power sought to institute what the minister of defense at the time called “a more flexible and useful military, one of the most modern in Europe.” The next summer, Swedish media was full of wistful scenes of the very last class of conscripts arriving for training. Men who’d gone through their training decades earlier waxed nostalgic about its edifying effects, while historians worried that the kinds of people who would volunteer to be soldiers would skew trigger-happy.
In the end, the draft stoppage lasted only eight years. In March 2017, Sweden’s Parliament voted to reintroduce conscription—and, for the first time, it would apply to women, too. Voluntary enlistment had left almost half the spots for new recruits unfilled; it seemed that the rigidity of military life wasn’t attractive to millennials, and besides, it didn’t pay enough. This worried decision-makers who were now watching Russia annex Crimea and expand its ambitions toward the Baltic Sea, upgrading warships in those waters and simulating nuclear strikes against Stockholm. So this summer young conscripts will start basic training once again—running drills in forests and archipelagoes, and smudging their faces to match.
It might come as a surprise that a nation which has been at peace for longer than any other on earth (Sweden was last officially at war in 1814) has such a strong tradition of conscription. But Sweden’s peace is of the militarized kind. It has paired a policy of nonalignment—rejecting formal alliances with major world powers—with secret negotiations that ensure it has de facto allies in the EU, NATO, and the Baltic region, as well as a military-industrial complex that has turned this small country of fewer than 10 million people into one of the largest war-materials exporters per capita in the world. Sweden may be nonaligned, but it can no longer call itself officially neutral.
It might come as a surprise that a nation which has been at peace for longer than any other on earth has such a strong tradition of conscription. But Sweden’s peace is of the militarized kind.
Sweden’s formal policy of neutrality was first developed in the 19th century, less as a humanitarian stance than as a typical small-state strategy—a way to avoid getting squeezed by larger, more powerful players. Still, when war drums were sounded on the continent in the 1930s, Sweden was in no shape to oppose an attack. In July 1940, it allowed Nazi troops to pass through its borders on their way to Norway; soon there was a Nazi consulate in the northern Swedish town of Luleå. When the tides later turned, Luleå’s airport became a US military base.
As the Cold War escalated, Sweden was determined to avoid being occupied or manipulated by the big powers once more. A strong military adds muscle to paperwork, and Sweden made sure to bulk up. Investing exponentially in a growing war-materials industry became an important aspect of its neutrality politics, as well as a way to secure the jobs on which a large swath of its welfare-state population had come to rely. Swedish companies began manufacturing and exporting missiles, fighter jets, and guns to countries such as Indonesia, Israel, Egypt, and the United States. When they sold weapons to countries at war, they made sure to sell to both sides.
In the meantime, the Swedish government formed increasingly close ties to international defense organizations, whether through official or unofficial membership. Its help has been enlisted for multiple NATO infrastructure projects meant to defend the Baltic Sea region and, by extension, the security interests of the United States. (Allied or not, the only way to get access to American military technology is to make yourself available for collaboration.) Sweden also sends members of its armed forces abroad on international peacekeeping missions, often—but not always—in noncombat positions; Swedish soldiers can currently be found in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, and Somalia, among other places.
Conscription may keep the country peaceful—it’s harder to use the children of the rich and powerful as cannon fodder.
The elimination of the draft had only barely squeaked through Parliament back in 2010. When the current government reversed that decision, all parties voiced their support: “Exclamations of Joy in Parliament,” read the headline in one of the big newspapers. For the Swedish left, conscription has historically been linked to democracy. The Social Democratic Party tied the duty to serve in the military to the right to vote as a strategy to achieve expanded voting rights: if all men were expected to risk their lives for the country, they should also all have a voice in how it was run. Today, Vänsterpartiet (the Left Party) wants all citizens to enlist. The logic is that a military drafted from the entire population brokers relationships between social classes who might not otherwise meet, fostering greater solidarity. Conscription may even keep the country peaceful—it’s harder to use the children of the rich and powerful as cannon fodder.
As it stands, only 13,000 18- and 19-year-olds were drafted this year, and less than half of those were actually selected to enlist. (That’s similar to the number that had been anticipated to enlist in the short-lived voluntary army.) Even considering Sweden’s relatively small population, this number is conservative: during the 20th century, it was not unusual for 40,000 to 50,000 young men—the full age group—to be drafted each year. Military service was the norm, and it might become so again. “I imagine that we will train even more soldiers in the future,” said a representative for the center-right party Liberalerna last year, while another member of the right-wing opposition noted that a bigger military budget would be welcome.
This May, 4.8 million Swedish households received a pamphlet called In Case of Crisis or War (Om krisen eller kriget kommer). It was a new edition of a brochure first sent out during World War II, and, later, the Cold War; the updated version included preparedness checklists and warnings about climate change, cyber attacks, and food shortages. It also reminded Swedes that all citizens between 16 and 70 years old, trained or not, are legally bound to serve their country if called.
“As the world around us has changed, the Government has decided to strengthen Sweden’s total defense,” the pamphlet explains. A satirical version of the pamphlet’s cover was shared on social media, edited to read, “In case of crisis or war, we’re lucky that the right to asylum exists” (Om krisen eller kriget kommer så är det tur att asylrätten finns)—meaning that, rather than closing its borders and revving up its own war machine, Sweden should focus on helping those fleeing conflicts elsewhere. But it may be too late: with its arms sales, NATO commitments, and other foreign entanglements, Sweden has already staked out its position. In which case, conscription—which distributes the threat of war across all social classes—might actually be a better defense than the scrim of neutrality ever was.