It was where boys would become men and where lifelong friendships across class boundaries could be born, but it was also a place that some still remember with horror. With the conclusion of the last cycle of compulsory military service in 2011, Sweden's military service went to the grave – loved, hated and remembered by millions of Swedes.
It is said that modern military service was born with the French revolution at the end of the 1700's. In the new France, it would be the citizens, and not hired mercenaries, who would save the country. A system in which all men between the age of 20 and 25 were obliged to do military service was introduced. During the French revolution, between 1792 and 1802, France would suddenly receive unparalleled mass armies as countries such as England, Russia and Spain were brought onto the battlefield.
It was a system that made it possible to build up enormous forces at a much lower cost than before, and soon many other countries followed in France's footsteps.
Example of Sweden
As for Sweden, a form of military service could be said to have already existed in the beginning of the Swedish Empire. In 1619, Gustav II Adolf organised the Swedish armed forces. The country was divided into so-called roots, each of which consisted of 10 men between the ages of 15 and 40. One of them was chosen for soldier service; in the same way, a crew for the navy was built. Still, the Swedish defence service was still created to a great extent using hired foreign soldiers.
In 1682, Karl XI created the "subdivision work". Each root, which then consisted of a number of yards, would recruit and support a soldier or a boatswain. The soldier/boatswain received a holding on which he could pursue agriculture. If that did not suffice to launch a farming operation, he could also get a loan.
In 1812, a type of general military service for men in Sweden was introduced – conscription service. It was decided that men between the ages of 20 and 25 would receive a basic military training of 12 days' duration. It was possible to avoid this, however, in many ways: for instance, one could buy one's way out.
During the 1800's, the training was extended incrementally, and from the year 1872 on, it was no longer possible to buy one's way out. At the same time, the division work remained as before, and to a great extent, the defence consisted of paid soldiers.
Subdivision work disappears
In 1901, subdivision work was abolished and soon most of the paid soldiers disappeared from the old system. Sweden achieved a defence system that was based on universal military service in which all men between the ages of 20 and 25, who were fit for military service, would be included. The training period for most of them was 150 days; in addition to this, three practice exercises were included, for an additional 90 days. In the spring of 1902, 40,000 men fit for military service, were conscripted into the army. Regimental areas were built in several Swedish cities. Practices such as rifles sports, care of arms and the parade in front of the officers' eyes were performed. In the crisis between Sweden and Norway around the turn of the century, when Norway wanted to withdraw from the union between the two countries and the risk of war was imminent, one reason was that Sweden wanted to strengthen its defence. The other was the great fear of Russia.
A lot of the military service system remained during a great part of the 1900s even if a part changed. The training period was extended and shortened depending on the state of the world. The age of military service was changed. The pattern and tests that formed the basis of the tests one would receive were created, and from 1965, both thorough medical examinations and a visit to the psychologist were included.
In 1980, for the first time women were given the opportunity to do military service, which was optional; however, during 15 years, they got to take training only if they wanted to become officers (the rule was abolished in 1995).
General military service disappears
In 2009, the Swedish government decided to abolish conscription during periods of peace (in the event of a war, it could very well be introduced again). However, it was a close shave: the vote was 153:150. The decision entered in force on 1 July 2010, and in the following year, Sweden's last military service cycle was came and went. For many, this was a logical development. In the begining of the 2000s, the Cold War had ended, the Soviet Union had dissolved and the security situation in Europe had changed considerably. The conscription system was questioned increasingly and many Western countries went back to having professional armies. In Sweden, in the beginning of the 2000s, only a small exclusive minority was selected to do military service. The defence budget was reduced drastically and a great number of units were closed.
Today military training is optional. The Swedish defence has gone from a being huge invasion defence built on universal conscription to a small defence force of professional soldiers, with Swedish troops often cooperating with other nations on international missions far beyond the borders of our country. The period when nearly all young men and some women did military service and got to learn things like how to make one's bed so that you can toss a coin on it, shoot with a submachine gun and polish your boots so they shine, is a story that fades with each passing year.