22 January 2009

The Lost Week and a Half

Conscription.

Isn't it a lovely word? Um, well, no, I'm sure most people would agree that it isn't. It's a relic of a different world which should be obsolete. But we've still got it here in Finland. Every able-bodied male must serve in the military. Granted, we have it better than many other places that still practice conscription. The standard service time for most people is currently only six months. But it's still military service, and to many of us the very idea is impossible.

Which is why there's a pacifist alternative, known as civilian service. This involves regular work (without pay, of course, apart from living expenses and food), in non-profit governmental bodies, institutions or other organisations. The total time is currently twelve months. Which, obviously, is much longer than regular armed service. It can be argued that men in civilian service have a regular 40 hour work week and live in their own homes, unlike men in the army, but it doesn't change the fact that a whole year is taken from you, tied to a job that you're very likely not interested in, and not even receiving proper pay for. The third option is prison.

Ok, back to my own case. Civilian service was an obvious choice (if you can call any choice of submitting to what in my view is almost legal slavery obvious). I kept applying for extensions because of my continuing studies. You can only do that until you're 28, however, and I was ordered to begin my service on January 12, 2009.

In my early 20's, it probably wouldn't have been a problem. But right now, the thought of losing a year, labouring in a job I couldn't care less about (even if it was beneficial to the community), was, to put it bluntly, impossible, and frankly quite distressing. I was already having problems with motivation in my studies, and other aspects of my life seemed stuck as well (creative projects and the like, things I'd really like to do but somehow just can't get started). I feared the year of forced labour would drain whatever mental energy I had left and leave me empty and stuck, no life of my own.

The service begins with a month's training camp at Lapinjärvi, in southern Finland. Which isn't too bad in itself, a few lectures each day and a crowd of like-minded people. A week and a half in I had a medical examination, as all men coming into service do. I shared my fears with the nurse, who sent me on to see the doctor.

The doctor relieved me from service due to anxiety.

This isn't at all rare. Two others left for home on the same bus that evening, and there must be plenty of others. I'm sure they can't afford to take the chance that someone really breaks down during service, so any signs of distress are taken seriously. My age was obviously a factor, a younger man would only have got a temporary reprieve, at best. The fact that I hadn't been able to find a suitable service place yet also played in my favour. (Men in civilian service are responsible for finding their own workplace, but there's no abundance of places available, at least if you want a place that's even remotely interesting and in line with your own skills and education.)

Of course there's no pride in 'dodging the draft' in this manner. It's an admission of one's own weakness. But if strength means allowing yourself to be torn from your life into a world you have no interest in and which drains you dry, I want no part of it. I salute those that defy this flawed system in its entirety and go to jail for their beliefs. That is true strength. The thought had crossed my mind on several occasions, but I'm just not an activist by nature, rather looking for the easy way out.

Now I'm still in a state of disbelief. I'm a free man. Life has not been disrupted after all. I can continue my studies. With any luck I could even graduate this year. And if I could only get some of my more personal projects under way, writing etc... But right now I can only thank the gods and be grateful for the chance I've been given.

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