Beating the Authoritarian Legacy: Upgrading Conscription in Greece and Taiwan
As democracies seeking to deter attacks from much larger neighbors, both Greece and Taiwan face challenges stemming from their histories of authoritarian rule. In both cases, authoritarian regimes have poisoned civil-military relations, with lasting consequences for their countries’ national security.
In Greek and Taiwanese politics, there is an enduring and internalized resistance to trusting military officers to turn civilian youth into effective soldiers. Conscription has been devalued among important civilian stakeholders — conscripts, their families, and their political representatives. The result is that post-authoritarian civilian and military leadership struggles to adequately train and equip their conscription-based armies.
There are a number of steps that the Greek government can take to address this problem. First, it should better communicate to conscripts how army training, particularly in the technical realm, can help them in their professional life. While upgrading conscript training, it should also demonstrate a robust commitment to ensuring the physical security of recruits in order to permanently sever any connection with the callousness of the 1967-1974 military regime. Finally, the government could present conscription as a remedy for the challenges facing affluent societies everywhere, specifically emphasizing the importance of its physical fitness regime in tackling the country’s high rates of obesity.
Taiwan’s military and geopolitical situation is different from Greece’s. But so long as it is relying on its population to protect it from an existential threat from China, Taipei may benefit from some of these same measures.
Under the Greek dictatorship, which lasted from 1967 to 1974, conscription served as a tool for enforcing civilian subservience, both inside and outside the barracks. For example, when students protested in 1973, the junta used the threat of conscription, coupled with torture at the hands of the military police, to force them to abandon political activism. The failure of this measure to quell student protests led to the subsequent Athens Polytechnic uprising, which was bloodily suppressed with the participation of army units. This legacy of repression undermined the legitimacy of the officer corps and of the institution of conscription more broadly.
During the transition to civilian rule, transforming conscription became a way to demonstrate civilian control over the officer corps. Democratically elected leaders, accountable before the parliament, the media, and civil society, sought to regulate acceptable treatment of conscripts. In the context of competitive democratic politics, politicians often conflated structural features of army life — discipline, physical rigor, demanding training involving an element of physical danger — with authoritarianism itself. Because students were the most prominent social group resisting the military dictatorship, they subsequently acquired a unique moral and thus political force. Their antimilitarist stance was institutionalized through party-controlled student organizations, which became the unofficial arbiter of what constituted an acceptable conscript experience for decades to come. Countries like Argentina experienced a similar phenomenon after their own democratic transitions.
Once conscription is devalued, it loses its broader social support. For instance, in Taiwan conscription was limited to four months following the end of authoritarian rule. Many young citizens and their families not unreasonably concluded that it was a waste of time and a tedious chore. In such a climate those with political connections seek to be posted in cities rather than at the border or in the field. The resulting inequality undermines unit efficiency and esprit de corps, while also leaving front-line units understaffed. And when elite opinion comes to views conscription as unnecessary, there is little political cost to letting these problems go unchecked.
Degraded Conscription, Diminished Army
Greece’s broken conscription system has had a major, if seldom acknowledged, impact on its national defense doctrine. First, it has led the country to rely on procuring major weapons systems from powerful patrons such as the United States and France. These systems are manned by professionals, and their purchase is assumed to win support from these countries in checking Turkey’s military assertiveness. Second, it has led to an excessive emphasis on punishment by deterrence. For example, serving officers have implied, and retired officers have boldly stated, that air-to-surface missiles could help to deter a Turkish attack. Yet this risks proving to be counterproductive, particularly if such tactics lead to civilian casualties that only strengthen Ankara’s resolve.
Third, a weak conscription system weakens combined arms competence and drives the air force and navy to “go it alone.” Air superiority, achieved through acquisitions of fourth and a half and fifth generation aircraft, cannot currently serve as a force multiplier for the army. Even within the army this creates problems. For example, Greece has advanced Leopard main battle tanks. But because its mechanized infantry is mostly manned by conscripts, these are accompanied in the field by long-redundant infantry M113 armored personnel carriers.
A fourth consequence is the dominance of peacetime gray-zone operations over preparations for an all-out war. Constant gray-zone operations have helped the Greek navy and air force to develop tactical excellence, but this has come at the expense of narrowing their professional horizons. For example, the air force has developed cutting-edge capacity in the highly contested Aegean airspace at the expense of investing in combined-arms operations proficiency. Degraded conscription compounds the natural tendency to double down on peacetime, gray-zone proficiency in the navy and air force in intra-service procurement battles as well. Now, as the Greek government purchases advanced frigates and fighter jets, the army, which can only be mobilized in all-out war, has been left by the wayside.
Finally, when conscripts are not trusted to operate advanced equipment, the army does not get it. Greece’s civilian leadership has been unwilling to invest in tactical drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance that would be deployed by hundreds of specialist conscripts. Even as Ukrainian forces have shown the potential benefits of this approach, Greece continues to prioritize the air force’s use of a handful of HERON drones and MQ-9B Sea Guardians.
From Alienation to Connection
How can Greece begin to belatedly repair the damage that its conscription system has suffered? The challenge lies in convincing civilian stakeholders. This starts with emphasizing the relevance of military service in civilian life, assuring conscripts that — unlike in the past — they will be physically respected and protected, and, last but not least, linking conscription with wider challenges facing Greek society.
For conscripts, the civilian and military leadership of Greece need to communicate the importance of high performance and autonomy in modern military life. This involves showing them that their technical training and experience will help them to succeed in their post-conscription future. For example, jumping out of airplanes as a paratrooper conscript is of no obvious civilian utility — but it can still give you an edge in a civilian setting. What the smart, ambitious conscript intuits on his own — that membership in elite army formations can advance your civilian prospects — needs to be transformed into accepted wisdom for all future conscripts. To take just one example, the creation of a conscript drone specialization could simultaneously help meet a pressing battlefield need and drive home the lasting benefits and intellectual stimulation that service in a modern army can provide.
Conscripts’ families should also be reassured that their children will be protected from harm and abuse, notwithstanding the introduction of an advanced and physically rigorous training regime. Families should know from the outset that the demands placed upon their offspring will be accompanied by a robust culture of care, institutionalized through well-designed safety standards. This will help to overcome the legacy of an authoritarian era where the abuses of an unaccountable military were part and parcel of the conscript experience.
Finally, for the society as a whole, the benefits of conscription should be linked with the challenges faced by affluent societies across the globe. For example, Greece is the most obese nation in the European Union. A revamped, scientifically-sound physical training regime for conscripts can improve physical fitness for the male population and serve as a crucial element in a nationwide anti-obesity public health strategy. Where army training is still thought of as a form of authoritarian hazing, this approach can transfigure it into a building block for a healthy life.
Lessons for Taiwan
Greece and Taiwan inevitably differ in important respects. Greece made the transition to democracy much earlier, in 1974, whereas Taiwan democratized in the 1990s. Greece also benefits from its proximity to countries like Sweden, Finland, and Israel that have excelled in integrating conscription into a balanced force structure and national defense doctrine. Taiwan, by contrast, is deeply steeped in the American all-volunteer force-based expeditionary warfare template, which is ill-suited to territorial defense.
However there are also important similarities. U.S. analysts have emphasized the need to strike a balance between supporting gray-zone operations in the sea and air and preparing the population for a land invasion of Taiwan. Taiwan’s policymakers have also been criticized for pursuing an ineffective or even counterproductive deterrence by punishment strategy, based on missile strikes against the Chinese mainland.
Taiwan also has a number of advantages over Greece as well when it comes to the capacity to reform its conscription system. The existential threat posed by China has already generated grassroots demand for better equipping and training Taiwanese citizens. Taiwan also benefits from the comprehensive critique of its armed forces generated by the U.S. analyst community. These make it harder for the political elite to insist that all is well and can strengthen reform-minded Taiwanese policymakers. Furthermore, the newfound emphasis on a “large number of small things” strategy will be well-served by upgrading conscription. After all many of these “small things” will need to be wielded by conscripts, whether they are members of the standing army or part of the army reserve. With the U.S. government declining to sell major weapons systems like the anti-submarine MH-60R Seahawk helicopter, and instead pushing for Taiwan to take lessons in land warfare from Ukraine, Taipei has all the more reason to invest in reforming conscription.
Building on these advantages, Taiwanese leaders, like their Greek counterparts, can help to beat the legacy of authoritarianism and design a conscription system well-suited to their history and circumstances.
Antonis Kamaras is a research associate at ELIAMEP, Greece’s leading foreign policy think tank, specializing on defense issues, where he has co-authored a major piece of research on Greek conscription. He served as a conscript in the Greek infantry from 1989 to 1991, enlisting fifteen years after the collapse of Greece’s military dictatorship.
Image by Konstantinos Stampoulis