Attention! My Time As a Soldier in the German Army

By Matthias Knobloch on Email

It was a warm Indian summer day when I said good-bye to both my girlfriend and denim. October 1, 2002 marks my first day as a soldier in the German Army. Germany has conscription for all young male citizens and that first day in October was the day that the German government drafted me. They wanted me to learn how to control a rifle in the event that the wonderful German constitutional rights were ever under attack.

I underwent three months of basic combat training composed of drills, physical activities, field maneuvers, and theoretical lessons. There I was, standing in front of a drill sergeant lucky to have finished 10th grade, thinking “Really? I just graduated with my Abitur, Germany’s highest school degree and now I have to put up with this?  Sergeant, someday I’m gonna be your boss” and yet I was forced to put up with his yelling at me for not having shaved or cleaned the dorm in the proper way. However, It didn’t take me very long to realize that I should see these nine months with the German Army as a gigantic summer camp for young adults. We got to sleep in the forest, play with guns, and eat together. Sure, our camp counselors weren’t very nice and our personal freedom was narrowed to the walls of the barracks, but in retrospect, I would say that my time as a soldier was more enjoyment than pain. Of course, I could have started my studies one year earlier instead of crawling through mud in Thuringia’s finest forest preserves, but doesn’t every boy dream of walking like Rambo with a bandoleer on his chest and a machine gun in his arm?

After the first three months of basic training, I was transferred to the Logistics Battalion. The transfer came along with a promotion to “Gefreiter” which is comparable to the US version of Private 1st Class. My division was responsible for fixing and maintaining tanks in the tank division. In training sessions I learned how to change tracks, fix wheels and brakes, maintain the heart of the Leopard panzer with a 1,500 horse power Benz engine. Unfortunately, my interest in fixing dark green tanks decreased daily, to the point where I began to just fall asleep inside the tank that I was supposed to have fixed by the end of the day.

Germany’s young men can choose between serving in the army or doing alternative community service in a social institution such as a hospital or a nursing home. Young men who want to become health industry professionals particularly prefer to go the social service route. Recently, the German Minister of Defense discontinued the German Army conscription in July 2011. This is a smart move, considering that this obligatory service costs Germany a fortune and that I was most likely not the only Private sleeping in a tank. The rise of web 2.0 has also caused the practice of German Conscription some humiliation. Videos on YouTube that show young recruits drinking in dorms and playing obvious war games were feeding the media and added to the call for the discontinuation of the program. Although both high costs and the current lack of discipline exhibited by recruits are both strong arguments for discontinuing conscription in Germany, many argue that the Civil Service will suffer from the loss of young men willing to choose this track instead of the military service, particularly given the fact that Germany’s public health care system depends on these young citizens as cheap labor.

With conscription being overturned, Germany’s army wis becoming a career army made up of recruits who are eager and willing to dedicate a part of their lives to military service. Some may chose to become livelong soldiers, as the Army also offers excellent academic programs for cadets and could contribute more to these promising recruits if funds were freed up as a consequence of discontinuing conscription.

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Matthias Knobloch