Tre unge personer som aftjener værnepligt.
Foto: Frederik Ringnes,

The Nordics are gearing up: What should we be aware of when it comes to military service?

The building up of armed forces and resilience have become high priorities on the political agenda in the Nordic countries.

At the annual Theme Session of the Nordic Council in Torshavn in the Faroe Islands, the main topic was security, peace, and preparedness in the North Atlantic. Vice Admiral Louise Dedichen, Norway’s permanent representative the NATO Military Committee, was invited as a guest speaker. She noted, among other things, the importance of the Nordics being able to recruit young people to the armed forces.

The same is currently being discussed in Denmark, where a majority in the Folketing has now agreed that women should be conscripted on an equal footing with men, that the conscription period should be extended from four to 11 months, and that the number of conscripts should be increased from about 5,000 to 7,500. There are also plans in Norway to increase the number of conscripts.

What should the Nordic countries bear in mind when conscripting more young people?

We met with Dag Ellingsen from OsloMet and the Norwegian Police University College. He is a sociologist who, along with colleagues, has researched gender equality and conscription among young recruits in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, leading a NordForsk-funded project.

Dag Ellingsen. Photo: Privat.

He’s been a researcher since the 1980s. Like now, the security situation back then was also tense. All the talk of the balance of power between the superpowers, the Warsaw Pact, and NATO made an impression on him. At that time, there was also unrest in the world that created insecurity. Although Dag Ellingsen doesn’t want to trivialise the current situation, he emphasises that we’ve previously experienced periods of high uncertainty.

We’re in a time when the Nordics are ramping up their military capabilities, and where the security of society has reached the top of the agenda. How would you describe the times we live in now?

“It’s particularly interesting to see how the uncertain times we live are being expressed in the discourse on the build-up of armed forces and conscription. When I was young and had to attend the conscription assessment, many didn’t want to join the military and any minor illness was used to avoid conscription. That’s not the case today, and in Norway there are a large number of both men and women willing to join. The armed forces can essentially pick and choose among the young people who show an interest.”

Young people want to serve their nation, not just their own interests

Why has conscription become so popular?

“In Norway, young people state that they want to be conscripted to develop and grow as individuals, to experience new sides of themselves, and to build their careers. In the US, however, it seems that phrases like ‘my country’, ‘my God’, and a strong sense of national identity can be used to describe the motivation of young cadets.

We believe that young people today want to set personal goals and do something that looks good on their CV. Others want to experience something they don’t experience elsewhere; they want to push boundaries and master a skill. This is fascinating, and we’ve published a research article about it. Young people today want orders and duty, to swim in ice-cold water, and do other uncomfortable things. We’re dealing with a generation of young people who’ve grown up in a socialisation that revolves around negotiation. ‘Football isn’t fun, so I’m quitting,’ and we believe that’s reflected in young people now asking: ‘Please give us orders’.”

With the new security situation and the desire to increase the number of conscripts, it’s plausible that we’ll transition from a motivation centred around experiences and mastering skills, to one that’s more nation-oriented, about values and a willingness to sacrifice, though without it becoming like in the US. The Norwegian Armed Forces have long had a campaign that translates as ‘For everything we have. And all we are’. It has replaced something that was more about action and was more individual-based.”

What’s the significance of conscription?

“When you’ve been through the compulsory education system as a young person, you have to reorient yourself when you reach the age of around 18 or 19. Some choose to attend folk high schools, others travel to distant countries, while others go directly to university or enter the workforce. The armed forces offer something special. What’s interesting is that conscription will become a much more important recruitment arena, now that we need larger armed forces.

In the armed forces today, we have a selected elite, which is the cream of Nordic youth, consisting of individuals who’ve excelled academically, are in great physical shape, and possess a strong mental resilience. The question is whether the armed forces will continue to be able to make itself attractive to this group as more people are needed.

I’m also concerned that the armed forces will lose its ability to offer resocialisation and provide a new chance for young people who didn’t fare well in the regular school system or in the workforce. We’ve come across some incredible stories in our research interviews about young recruits who’ve gone from having a difficult life to becoming trusted representatives in the armed forces, polishing their shoes, and obeying orders. This includes young people who’ve never been seen and who’ve been on a troubled path.
I hope that in the future, the conscription period will offer such an opportunity for young people who need a fresh start.”

It’s not just about muscles

What should we be aware of when young people do their military service?

“Now that Denmark is introducing conscription for women, there’s something to be learned from Norway, Sweden, and Finland. We have to be observant of harassment and the more subtle mechanisms that often come into play in a male bastion such as the armed forces. It’s important to create an inclusive atmosphere for both men and women.

There have been discussions around how many women there can be in the armed forces, and whether women are physically fit enough. It’s not particularly groundbreaking to say that the armed forces have always been as much about logistics as physique. If you don’t have bullets and weapons, you can have as many muscles as you want. Being a conscript is also largely about having technological competence, being smart, creative and adaptable, and having planning skills.”

Based on your research, what would you recommend that the Nordic governments pay particular attention to, now that the number of conscripts will increase in the coming years?

“It’s very important to be aware of harassment and bullying, which pose a threat to unity and the work environment. The environment during the period of military service goes on to affect onward recruitment for a career in the armed forces. It’s going to be something that they’ll have to address. If conscription becomes something people just have to endure, then it’ll be difficult to retain the workforce. We’ve seen both in the armed forces and in the police that women become extremely frustrated when they’re in their 30s and still have to endure pubescent talk from their male colleagues.

Our research shows that there should be more than one woman in a platoon because we know that all-male dormitories conform to the stereotypes of poor hygiene and a high level of so-called locker room talk. In Norway, we also have all-female dormitories for women who - for religious or other reasons - don’t wish to share rooms with men. However, our research shows that in many contexts, completely gender-segregated rooms can be a disadvantage because there’s a lot of informal information that’s not shared when you have all-female dormitories, and the level of intrigue can be on par with a reality TV series.

In Norway, we’ve had compulsory military service for women since 2015. Before that, we’d had a system similar to Denmark’s, where women were welcome to serve if they wished, and in Norway, they had a one-month notice of termination. Today, with equality between women and men, we see fewer of the ‘jokes’ and jibes than when we first conducted field studies. Although men now consider women as more qualified members of the armed forces, they don’t like having women as leaders or to be in the minority in the platoon. The first year group of female conscripts was larger because there was an expectation of a significant drop-out rate. That’s no longer the case, which is a sign of success.”


Marianne Knudsen. Photo: NordForsk

Marianne Knudsen

Senior Communications Adviser
Thomas Jacobsson

Thomas Jacobsson

Senior Adviser