On Politics and Officers

Lt (N) James Mashiri has on his blog ‘Random Thoughts’ given a reply to the anti-conscription campaign Ohi On (lit. “It’s over”, Finnish military slang for ending active conscription service)*, which accused certain members of the Finnish Defence Forces of stepping out of line (and possibly breaking Finnish law) by voicing the opinion that general conscription is preferable to the alternatives.

Mashiri’s answers can be found in Finnish (pts. 1 and 2) and Swedish (pts. 1 and 2) on his blog, but in a nutshell he notes that the laws regarding expressing political opinions as a (professional) soldier have been revoked 15 years ago, and that strengthening the morale of those serving is amongst the missions of the armed forces.

The notion that the army should be devoid of politics has deep roots in Finland, mainly due to the unfortunate civil war of 1918. To its defence, it has worked rather well, Finland being one of the very few European states emerging after WWI, which was a democracy throughout the inter-war years. However, the definition of “politics” is in itself problematic.

What would it mean if a soldier would not be allowed to voice political opinions? At the end of the day, isn’t (almost) everything in our society connected to politics? Could he/she not state that more money should be spent on infrastructure? Or that the educational system needs more teachers? I believe most people would argue that, as these have nothing to do with the soldier’s line of work, they could be voiced freely.

Is it the case then, that a soldier can comment on things not related to defence matters, but not on his/her area of expertise? This seems equally strange. Especially as, as Mashiri already noted, the defence forces are tax-funded, and are there to provide the citizens with certain services. If something is wrong, or if something is about to shift to the worse, who is to raise the alert, if not the people working with the issues every day?

Were goes the line then? Can a soldier voice an opinion about grand-strategic questions (NATO naturally comes to mind)? Or, in the other end of the spectrum, about specific systems/routines? I believe that the answer to the first question is yes, as long as it is clearly stated that the opionion is a personal opinion only (as I do not believe that the defence forces as a whole could express an official line on issues of this complexity). On the second question, we come down to more issues such as security, and if specific details about how the defence forces operate should at all be debated in public. However, if that is the case, then I believe the answer is yes here too.

Having now given an opinion on general politics, I will now turn to party politics, which I personally believe is a different beast altogether. I have been present when a conscript (Sergeant) has commented election results in front of his subordinated company (made up of younger conscripts). Did it disturb me? No. Was I objective? Of course not. I had also voted, and as it happened, I shared the opinion of the speaker. It is not difficult to understand that someone in the other end of the political spectrum might have felt differently, and been at unease by the comments of his superior.

Bottom line: Having your superior tell you that voting on a certain party is preferable, is quite different from having you superior in a public forum state his/her personal opinion that we need better roads, or that conscription gives us a better chance at defending our territory.

My personal opinion is that the first is to be avoided, but that the second is both perfectly acceptable, and in some cases even desirable.

*It remains a bit unclear to me whether this was the official stance of the campaign, or just the personal opinion of one of its private backers

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