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Dutch Draft That Liberalized the Military Going Out of Business

February 1, 1996

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) _ The Dutch draftee is hanging up his gun after a crusading career that gave the grunt an eight-hour day, a union, and the right to be gay.

As of today, draft notices will be a thing of the past. On Aug. 31, all draftees will be sent home and the Dutch army will become an all-volunteer force.

The reason? It seems there are simply too many soldiers and not enough work.

``A lot of people are in the service with nothing to do,″ said Jan Jaap van Buuren, spokesman for the Dutch Conscript Soldiers Organization, which lobbies for draftees’ rights.

The Dutch draft, which began in 1912, gained fame for making the military rank and file a mirror image of permissive Dutch society. Dutch soldiers on NATO maneuvers stood out with their pony tails and earrings.

During the 1970s, the conscripts fought a winning battle against the regimentation of past generations, and the army, at least in comparison to those of other countries, was a laid-back place.

The ban on gays in the military was lifted in 1971, more than two decades before President Clinton tried _ and failed _ to do the same in the United States.

But while Dutch draftees were never beaten down by the system, history ultimately made them irrelevant.

With the Soviet disintegration and the resulting unlikelihood of another great land war in Europe, the army was overstaffed. For many draftees, their nine-month duty stint was like an extended summer camp with beer-drinking privileges.

``During the day it was quite boring, but we spent many nights drinking and partying,″ said 28-year-old Rudi Djurrema, who was sent home after four months because the army ran out of things for him to do.

``It was a very depressing atmosphere since no one wanted to be there, but we made the best out of it.″

At a time when the army _ like those of other NATO nations _ is increasing its participation in multinational peacekeeping missions, the military high command apparently feels that professional soldiers are more suited to the new challenges.

``Conscripts are drafted to protect their own country, and not the New World Order,″ said Gert de Nooy, a military research fellow at the Clingendael Institute, a public-policy research group in The Hague.

``By doing away with the draft, that leaves the government free to recruit volunteer soldiers who are willing to go to Yugoslavia or somewhere else.″

The changing mission of the army also means that the draftees are not as useful as they once were.

``Look at the peacekeepers for the NATO mission in Bosnia,″ said De Nooy. ``You need people who are better-trained, with skills in many fields.″

The 300 Dutch peacekeepers entrusted with guarding the U.N.-mandated ``safe area″ of Srebrenica were criticized last July for failing to stop rebel Serbs from overtaking the enclave, reportedly killing and torturing thousands.

The end of the Dutch draft is part of a Western European trend. Belgium ended its draft in 1994, and Germans have cut theirs from 18 to 10 months over the last few years.

France announced this month that its own draft, dating from the French Revolution, will be replaced over the next six years by a volunteer force.

The contingent of Dutch draftees has actually been shrinking for years. In the 1980s, conscripts numbered between 40,000 and 45,000, making up about a third of the 130,000-strong military.

Now the military has shrunk to 84,000 members, and only 10 percent of those are drafted. Only 35 percent of those eligible for the draft _ men once they reach 18 _ end up serving. The rest win exemptions or deferments because of moral objections, health or education.

After eliminating the draft, the government plans to lower the military budget and trim the army to 72,000 members by 1998.

What balance the volunteer army will strike between military discipline of old and the free-wheeling style that evolved from the draftees’ rights movement of the 1970s is unclear.

The draftee rights movement is likely to have a lasting effect in making the command structure more flexible and responsive to soldiers’ needs.

But a professional force is sure to be better disciplined, and some think the spit shine could soon make a comeback.

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