Students
An infantry officer trains in combat Photo Israel Defense Forces / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Russian threat looms over draft

Student to soldier

An infantry officer trains in combat Photo Israel Defense Forces / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Instead of long, boring days of sitting around doing nothing, UG students from conscripting countries in Europe suddenly face the possibility of actually having to fight. ‘If war arrives on our doorstep, God forbid, I’ll have to go.’
13 April om 10:36 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 13 April 2022
om 10:36 uur.
April 13 at 10:36 AM.
Last modified on April 13, 2022
at 10:36 AM.

Door Jonah Franke-Bowell

13 April om 10:36 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 13 April 2022
om 10:36 uur.

By Jonah Franke-Bowell

April 13 at 10:36 AM.
Last modified on April 13, 2022
at 10:36 AM.

Jonah Franke-Bowell

For 347 days, Otto Helantera was a member of the Finnish army. Not because joining the military was his first choice of future after school, but because he was conscripted. ‘Every boy of a certain age in Finland expects their enlistment letter, you could set your clock to it really. It’ll be in your letterbox whether you like it or not.’  

Learning how to set up frequency-hopping military radios and satellite communications links in the boreal forests of Finland is a far cry from Groningen’s lecture theatres, where the twenty-one-year-old student of international and European law can be found nowadays. But after receiving his letter in the summer of 2019, those were his orders.

‘There was a lot of time spent at the gun range, shooting at cardboard targets at different distances. Tearing down my RK 62, reassembling it, cleaning the receiver and barrels, shooting under all sorts of conditions and always being one with your rifle’, he recalls. 

After having learnt the basics, he was assigned to a unit where he trained as a signal stations squad leader. ‘Dealing with all of the communications for my platoon.’ Quite a responsibility for a guy just out of high school, he says. 

Looming war

But now that Finland’s much larger, much better armed Eastern neighbour has invaded Ukraine, the prospect of even more responsibility suddenly looms over Otto. Finnish politicians have mulled joining the NATO alliance and for the first time in history, a majority of Finns are in favour of that. What if Putin decides another NATO country bordering Russia is unacceptable and launches an attack? Otto would be called up again, this time for actual war.

‘War is something nobody is ever ready for. I hope it won’t come to that’, he says. ‘But it’s something my friends and I have given a lot of thought to. If war arrives on our doorstep, God forbid, I’ll have to go.’

War is something nobody is ever ready for

Fellow countryman Mirco Partanen, twenty-two, was able to postpone his service in order to study abroad. ‘The Finnish defence force is pretty accommodating to people who want to study first. But you have to do it at some point’, says the international management student. 

Conscription is embedded in the Finnish culture. Both Mirco and Otto’s fathers served and Mirco’s grandparents lived in territories annexed by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. For Finns who have religious or conscientious objections to the military, other avenues exist. ‘I think you can do some sort of civil service instead – disaster relief, that sort of thing’, says Mirco. ‘But the army, it’s sort of a rite of passage. One I’m happy to go through.’ 

He doesn’t really worry about the Russian threat, since he feels it’s unlikely the country will set its sights on Finland again. ‘But if what was happening in Ukraine was happening in Finland, I’m sure I wouldn’t enjoy it. War is after all pretty scary.’

Grisly

That’s something twenty-nine-year-old UG student Frank (not his real name) from Israel can confirm. ‘In 2014, I was involved with Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. We went in there to find three Israeli teenagers that had been kidnapped. It was pretty grisly for all involved and we more or less knew we’d be looking for corpses’, he recalls. ‘In Israel, these sorts of events affect everyone – you know it could have been your friend, your brother.’

He had little choice but to join Israel’s army. Controversial and often in the headlines, it’s a major part of Israeli society given the country’s difficult birth, Frank explains. ‘My father, my uncle, my grandfather: they all served in the military. It becomes a societal expectation that when you turn eighteen, you do as well.’ 

We more or less knew we’d be looking for corpses

Often, young men find their motivation through the past sacrifices of family, explains Frank. ‘My grandfather fought in the war of 1948 and that legacy is very much present in modern Israel. I started training for the selection process when I turned sixteen. You anticipate it and your whole life until you leave three years later is dictated by the military.’

He’s had experiences many other students will never have. ‘I spent a lot of time digging foxholes, being shouted at, traversing the Negev mapless at night, firing high calibre machine guns – things most young people never do.’ 

Upside

War became a fact of life. ‘You’re not the owner of your own life while you are there’, he says matter-of-factly. The upside of life as a soldier, he feels: ‘When you live by the sword, you appreciate everything else a lot more.’ 

The hallmarks of youth, like travel, relationships and university, are put on hold in Israel. Twenty-two when he left the army, Frank had to make up for a lot of lost time. ‘I did the classic Israeli-post-army “hummus tour”’, he says, a gap year on steroids. Young Israelis chart a route through South East Asia, South America and the States, looking to uncouple from a life of guns, dust and death. 

‘I spent a year at a Jewish summer camp in upstate New York, did a bit of construction work and then took myself to Asia’, he says. ‘I may have given up a lot to begin with, but Israel’s history is one of sacrifice. But I think I’m more mature than my peers as a result.’

Scared

For Greek computer science student Faidon Oikonomodis, nineteen, the situation in Ukraine does not help paint a rosy picture of serving in the military. ‘I can’t lie, I would be scared if I had to go to war. The future doesn’t fill me with confidence.’

The future doesn’t fill me with confidence

Since Greece is an island nation and on Europe’s flanks, Faidon will serve in the Greek navy. ‘I’m enlisted officially, but I’ve been able to postpone my start date until I finish here in Groningen.’ 

That hasn’t been without its hassle, though. ‘I had to source proof of enrolment first of all, have the thing legalised by the Dutch education ministry and the court, then it had to be sent back to Greece before it could be translated and finally end up on the desk of some bureaucrat in Athens.’

While he fervently hopes he won’t see action, the alternative doesn’t appeal much, either. ‘There is a saying in Greece: “You go to the army and come out fatter than when you arrived.” It seems a bit backwards to me.’ 

Friends who have served before him couldn’t assuage his fears of long, boring days to come. ‘Apparently, you just spend a lot of time at checkpoints smoking cigarettes. If that’s war, don’t think I’m cut out for it.’

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