Behind the Iron Curtain part 23 – Military

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

The cold war was not called war for nothing – military has played a significant role in it. There was mandatory draft – one year for university students and two years for everyone else – and it could only be avoided for medical reasons. Sometimes not even for that (more on that later). No conscientious objections either.

Behind the iron curtain the role of military composed of several things. First was propaganda. In the school we were regularly shown propaganda videos showing how technically superior is the Soviet bloc military to USA. And how depraved USA military is, how comparable to Nazis – Vietnam war has provided very nice and even true examples for such propaganda. And we were constantly reminded how important is army for our country, and how honorably is serving in it. There was even a moderately popular propagandist TV series “Chlapci a chlapi” (Boys and Men) that was entirely about how wonderful life in the army is. I do not remember much from the TV series and I do not ever want to watch it again.

As a child living right in the shade of the barbed wire curtains, my experience with military was sometimes more up close and personal – with its second function, border patrol. In our little town were military barracks, my mothers first husband was an officer of the border patrol, and later on father of one of my schoolmates was a captain of the border patrol. Seeing a couple of soldiers in uniform was nothing uncommon for me, because my mother was boss at local grocery shop and the barracks were buying some of their supplies there.

The border patrol guys had relatively miserable life, which I only learned later on. Suicides or suicide attempts were not uncommon. Due to the common practice of sending soldiers as far away from their home as possible, many of them were from as far as Slovakia near the Hungarian border. Not only was it quite depressing being torn away from your family and loved ones and sent across the whole country away with dismal chance at a leave maybe once or twice for a few days (which has led to many breakups), the border patrol had another problem – the prospect of having to really shoot at people. Only it was not a prospect of shooting enemies, but civilians. Because as I learned fairly early on, although the implications took quite a few years to sink in, the real purpose of the iron curtain was not to keep enemies out, it was to prevent people from escaping.

I have avoided draft – I was not of age before the Iron Curtain fell, and although we kept compulsory draft untill 2004, well after  I have finished university, the regulations were slightly relaxed at the time so I have managed to convince the draft physician that my atopic dermatitis is severe enough for me to be deemed ineligible.

I am glad I did. My older brother was not that lucky. He got drafted despite much worse atopic dermatitis than I ever had, and he served in military in its third prominent function – cheap labor. He was ordered to sweep dusty factory hall, to which he of course objected for health reasons. However his objections were ignored and as a result, his dermatitis worsened significantly and he has spent few months sick with hands bandaged up to the armpits – but that did not matter to the green brains too much, orders must be obeyed! Afterward he was given to sign a declaration that he is completely healed, which he declined to sign on advice of a family friend. I do not actually know a lot about his experience in the army, because we never talked about it much. From my perspective it is a two-year hole in my childhood where he was absent. What I know for sure that it instilled in him neither love for the military, nor for the country – quite the opposite. When he heard the leading song of the Boys and Men TV series, which contains a line ♪ it is a two years vacation, nothing more ♪ he actually screamed at the TV in rage.

It was not all bad, allegedly. The miliary offered free education in some skills that were difficult to obtain otherwise – like truck/bus driving licenses. Some relationships started that way because sending people across the country has led to of course meeting new people. Some of the working units got actually paid, but the money was not given to them until after the service, so they had a decent starting money after that. But there are people, even some of my friends, who decry the abandonment of compulsory draft because “it teaches young men discipline” and I do not buy that. Maybe it did sometimes break their spirit. But the way I see it, mostly the result for any given individual was two years of life lost without adequate recompense.

And there is no need to guard a fence around half of the country anymore. For now.


  1. kestrel says

    A draft to teach discipline? Not too sure about that… and what about the young women? Plus I’m not sure that everyone would do well in the military, as it’s just not for everyone, so I do disagree with drafts, actually. Why not try and make the best use of someone for the good of all society? A draft tries to force people into the same mold.

    I think that what the military needs to do, if they wish to encourage enrollment, is PAY BETTER, and have actual genuine benefits. If there were better benefits maybe more people would join. Let’s say, if you join, then all your schooling is paid for -- including things like your rent and your books. If a person thought they could get a good education or some other very real and strong benefit, they would be more motivated. And yes, they probably would be able to learn at least some discipline in the military, if they are that kind of person.

    Anyway I do enjoy this series, it’s a fascinating look at some recent things that not all of us could catch a glimpse of.

  2. Jazzlet says

    The aquisition of skills is one of the ways the armed forces are sold in the UK. I don’t know how many soldiers actually acquire transferrable skills, I guess it depends what part of the armed forces they join.

  3. jrkrideau says

    @ 10 Jazzlet
    I guess it depends what part of the armed forces they join.

    It probably does but the Canadian and British military are pretty good at imparting training and education. I have known and often worked with former Cdn and UK military who had received top-notch training in anything from cooking to electronics to psychology by way of mechanic’s training, flying and driving ships. Judging by the streets around here, they will teach you how to drive a 5-ton truck too.

    Depending on the subject, training will be done in-house or farmed out to universities and community colleges.

    There is a rumor that the Canadian military may even teach you how to shoot a gun

    Neither military has conscription and the pay and benefits typically are good.

  4. chigau (違う) says

    This is such a strange mix of a good idea implemented in the worst way.
    * Let us teach all the kiddies all kinds of skills! *
    * Let us traumatise them to the max whilst we do that. *

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