The Known Soldiers - Conscript's experience and health sense

The Known Soldiers - Conscript's experience and health sense

(In Finnish: Tunnetut sotilaat. Varusmiehen kokemus ja terveystaju)

Tommi Hoikkala, Mikko Salasuo & Anni Ojajärvi
Youth Research Network 2009

The authors of this book had the opportunity to conduct an ethnographic study with participant observation in the Finnish army in January 2008, to live and to serve among the young conscripts. The study is exceptional in several ways; the tools for collecting data being mind, body and subjective experience. This can be seen along the journey in the text and it was concretely felt as mental and physical burden during the service in the wintery landscape in Kainuu (Hoikkala and Salasuo) and with the sounds of roaring tanks in Parolannummi (Ojajärvi). We provide, with the means of investigative social reportage, the reader with an image composed by conscript’s service experience, researchers’ experience and institutional conditions imposed on military service. 

The genre of this social reportage is built on presence, participation, a personal note, immersion in a contemporary phenomenon, subtle and versatile expression, all-round observation, narrative tone, a portrayal of people and setting as well as emotional appeal. Quite a list of requirements but this book fulfils them all. The conscripts and the company – also called a small-scale society – march on the frontline. 

In the first chapters, we establish solid legal, psychological and physical fences around the military service. The army is an institution in Finland even to those who have not served and thus do not know anything about it. Everybody has an opinion on military service. We display the army from the conscript’s point of view and guide all who have any interest in it through the garrison gates, including those who have previously rejected the institution. The military service may well be called a state of exception in life as the everyday life of an institutional resident is so remote from the ordinary life. Control from outside and deprivation of oneself are constraints familiar to each conscript. One cannot understand living under command from outside the fences. Instead, one has to comprehend how everyday life is constructed inside the fences.

The period of service in the Finnish conscription army is 6, 9 or 12 months, depending on placement. During this period, young men are trained as soldiers for various different tasks. Along pure military training, the army has several other aims which are pursued consciously and sometimes informally. In this study, the researchers were particularly interested in the military service as a socio-cultural entity in which physical exercise, civic education, eating, health, social interaction and socio-psychological processes triggered by the service all have their roles. This is the reality we want to portray as subtly and diversely as we can in order to provide the reader with the points of identification and interpretation.

The army is a very strong institution in Finland and, as such, a very familiar one to most people almost regardless of gender. Our title The Known Soldiers reflects this, too. The majority, over 80%, of each age group traditionally completes the military service. It is a collective experience to which men repeatedly revert to at later stages in their lives. Many women recognise the army stories, too. The stories are so typical that one cannot really talk about the army experience without resorting to them. We do know our soldiers.

A self-evident civil duty?

A compulsory military service has maintained its appeal over the decades. Young people still conform to the norm of serving in the military. The share of young men choosing the civilian service has remained low. Still, dropping out has become a major headache for the Finnish Defence Forces. This has initiated a heated public debate in which the accusing finger predominantly points at young people. The military mass production machine has been said to receive unfit raw material and, thus, “something’s got to be done”. In the debate, however, the answer seems not to be the reformation of the contents of the military service nor the restructuring of the army itself but the problems are said to stem from individuals. 

The individual-based discourse is absurd. Even the army cannot isolate itself in a separate stronghold without taking into account modernization, the everyday life of young people, cultural changes, zeitgeist and the changing mindset towards national defence in the society. We are constantly diverging from the heroic stories of the Winter and Continuation War. They do not resonate with the young generations who do not build up their universes of meanings through them any longer. The core content of the military service is missing and, consequently, the young men entering the service fill it up with various individual, historical, future and imaginary elements. This leads to the fragmentation of service motivation and challenges the Defence Forces. The conscripts may apparently operate as a collective body but the collective mind, i.e. the collective and historical resource for armed national defence, is wearing thin, starting to be porous and even disintegrating.

Thus, we ask what the purpose of individualism is and what are the conscripts’ means of taking their space and time in the army which, at the same time, tries to hold on to the concepts of collective body and collective action? Despite the deep leadership exploiting peer learning, the military service is about an individual conscript’s life characterized by competition, peer pressure and simply getting along. We want to know whether this compilation generates also something else than positive stress.

A health-sensible army?

We demonstrate in our study how health sense in the army is polarized into the official, institutional health sense and, on the other hand, the conscripts’ individual and varying versions of it. Everyday practices in the army are developed jointly between the formal and informal organisation, often resulting in unusual formulations. The critical concept of a hidden curriculum, familiar from school research, crosses also the army context. The army is a hierarchic institution characterized not only by military statute with its practices of command but also by the idea of mass production of soldiers. There are strong views that this is how the army primarily should be – to train men as fighters and killers for a potential war. In this approach, what is the status of civic, physical, nutrition and health education? A similar question from a different angle arises when reviewing the constant haste in the army combined by endless queuing up and waiting in the agorae of boredom.

A critical question is where the army eventually socializes the young men to? Is it an institution to raise boys into manhood, or is the army the biggest fitness centre in Finland, as is currently being advertised? The army is well suited for studying masculinities. Profeministic men’s studies usually conclude that the military service led by older men initiates a young man’s masculinity building; a militaristic and aggressive masculinity being the result of the process. We also comment on this in our study and launch a novel concept of male nurturing.

Why did we do all this? Initially, our aim was to study merely health (health sense) and eating habits in the army. The answer is that we could not understand these without immersing in the fuss surrounding them. Food and health sense are prisms through which everything opens up and vice versa.