Democray and Aus­trias’s Mil­i­tary

METROPOLE - Vienna in English - - OP-ED - by Si­mon Bal­lam

Many Aus­tri­ans are not sure that the Repub­lic needs an army, or as they of­ten put it: “Noth­ing’s go­ing to hap­pen any­way.”

The Bun­desheer is the na­tion’s stepchild, unloved and un­der­fed. But it is a re­spected in­ter­na­tional player and may have found its new role To­day’s Aus­trian army, the Bun­desheer (BH), is a mil­i­tary min­now: 15,000 pro­fes­sional sol­diers, 18,000 draftees, 7,000 civil­ians and 25,000 Miliz (re­servists). It’s a strange beast, an army that never fights, a con­scrip­tion force with too few con­scripts, and a po­lit­i­cal or­phan starved of funds. It is charged with four tasks: de­fend­ing the bor­ders, op­er­a­tions abroad, as­sis­tance dur­ing nat­u­ral catas­tro­phes and in­fra­struc­ture pro­tec­tion. Pros­per­ous lit­tle Aus­tria spends well un­der one per­cent of GNP on de­fense, about half the Euro­pean av­er­age. In pop­u­lar de­bate, it is jus­ti­fied as dis­as­ter re­sponse, a kind of Red Cross in khaki. The Trump US’S par­tial with­drawal from the world stage is push­ing the Euro­peans to re-think their col­lec­tive mil­i­tary needs and de­spite Aus­tria’s tech­ni­cal neu­tral­ity, BH par­tic­i­pa­tion in the in­ter­na­tional PFP (Part­ner­ship for Peace) and var­i­ous peace­keep­ing mis­sions has be­come ac­cept­able. Aus­trian of­fi­cers are proud of their small army’s spe­cial­ized ex­per­tise and knack for im­pro­vi­sa­tion; France and the US send troops here to train in moun­tain war­fare. Dur­ing the Kosovo cri­sis, the Bun­desheer was charged with search­ing civil­ian homes for ex­plo­sives. The Aus­tri­ans went in with teddy bears for the chil­dren, earn­ing a peek into their back­packs. An Amer­i­can unit would have kicked in the doors. Through the Cold War, neu­tral Aus­tria shel­tered co­zily be­tween the NATO forces of Ger­many and Italy. A 1989 Pen­tagon study (“The Aus­trian Army, is it Worth the Ef­fort?”) ques­tioned whether in the event of a War­saw Pact in­va­sion, the Bun­desheer could be taken se­ri­ously at all. Suc­ces­sive de­fense min­is­ters fought man­fully for their army’s bud­get, usu­ally on the los­ing side. The truth is that many Aus­tri­ans are not sure that the Repub­lic even needs an army, or as one re­tired Miliz of­fi­cer put it, they think: “Es wird eh nix passieren.” (Noth­ing’s go­ing to hap­pen any­way). “That’s the way the gov­ern­ment wanted it,” he added wearily. Democ­racy Aus­trian style. PRO­FES­SION­ALS VS. CIT­I­ZENS By 2010, the de­bate over the fu­ture of Aus­tria’s mil­i­tary crys­tal­ized into an al­most philo­soph­i­cal de­bate over a pro­fes­sional vol­un­teer army (the An­glo-amer­i­can model) vs. con­tin­ued con­scrip­tion. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the prag­matic con­ser­va­tive ÖVP ar­gued for a pro­fes­sional army and the prin­ci­pled so­cial-demo­cratic SPÖ de­fended the hal­lowed con­cept of the “cit­i­zen in uni­form”. Sud­denly, Vienna’s so­cial­ist Mayor Michael Häupl spoke up in fa­vor of the pro­fes­sional army, just days af­ter De­fense Min­is­ter Nor­bert Dara­bos (also SPÖ) de­clared the ex­ist­ing draft sys­tem “chis­eled in stone.” The two gov­ern­ing par­ties swapped po­si­tions and agreed to a Volks­be­fra­gung (con­sul­ta­tive ref­er­en­dum) to re­solve the stand-off. Vot­ers were asked: Are you in fa­vor of in­tro­duc­ing a pro­fes­sional army? (the SPÖ po­si­tion) or main­tain­ing the gen­eral draft? (ÖVP). As with Bri­tain’s un­holy Brexit vote, the blunt in­stru­ment of a ref­er­en­dum re­duced the sub­tle is­sue of the Repub­lic’s fu­ture mil­i­tary to a feed­ing frenzy of pop­ulist pos­tur­ing in the Boule­vard (yel­low) press. One of the hottest is­sues was the fu­ture of the am­bu­lance ser­vice, manned largely by low cost paramedics do­ing Zivil­dienst (Al­ter­na­tive Ser­vice). iron­i­cally it was the con­ser­va­tive ÖVP, who ve­he­mently op­posed the Zivil­dienst back in the 70s and now pro­claimed it a pil­lar of the so­cial sys­tem. In Jan­uary 2013, the ÖVP pref­er­ence for re­tain­ing the cit­i­zen in uni­form model won com­fort­ably 60/40. The lib­eral Ger­man daily Süd­deutsche Zeitung com­mented drily that af­ter 70 years spent de­mo­niz­ing the pro­fes­sional sol­diers who put down the 1934 work­ers’ up­ris­ing, the SPÖ had failed to un­der­stand its own vot­ers. The fu­ture of the Aus­trian Repub­lic’s mil­i­tary prob­a­bly lies in in­creas­ing in­volve­ment in in­ter­na­tional peace­keep­ing mis­sions, “do-gooder” enough to sat­isfy lin­ger­ing left-wing sus­pi­cions. The De­fense Min­istry’s site states proudly that Aus­tria pro­vides “hun­dreds of sol­diers ev­ery day in the ser­vice of peace” and shows an im­pres­sive list of cur­rent Bun­desheer hotspot in­volve­ments – Le­banon, Kosovo, Bos­nia, Ukraine and oth­ers. Na­tions have al­ways used the mil­i­tary to ad­vance their in­ter­ests, and neu­tral Aus­tria is no ex­cep­tion. The “Great Deal­maker” Bruno Kreisky un­der­stood this: In 1960, he lever­aged Aus­tria’s will­ing­ness to send a med­i­cal unit into war-torn Congo to get the UN to for­mally dis­cuss Südtirol, pres­sur­ing a re­luc­tant Ital­ian gov­ern­ment to grant long wished-for re­gional au­ton­omy. Cur­rently, there are nearly a thou­sand BH troops abroad, more than half in our own Balkan back­yard – long an area of le­git­i­mate Aus­trian self-in­ter­est and a con­tin­u­ing op­por­tu­nity for Aus­trian busi­ness, as one of­fi­cer told us with a smile. Will the fu­ture of Aus­tria’s mil­i­tary once more be to de­fend the old Hab­s­burg crown ter­ri­to­ries from bar­bar­ians at the gate?

Si­mon Bal­lam is English, stud­ied in NY and worked in Lon­don, Düs­sel­dorf, NY, Frank­furt, Prague and Vienna. This cov­ered stints in mar­ket re­search and the film in­dus­try, in­ter­na­tional ad­ver­tis­ing coordination and strate­gic plan­ning. Cur­rently busi­ness school lec­turer and jour­nal­ist.

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