In the aftermath of the Cold War and the Persian Gulf conflict, many nations are revising their attitudes toward compulsory military service and combat roles for women soldiers.
Some Western nations are weighing an end to compulsory military service, or at least reducing the number of draftees, and turning toward all-volunteer armies such as those of the United States and Britain.
Around the world, 83 of the 140 sovereign nations with military forces employ some form of conscription, which means, according to defense sources here, that at any given time about 10 million draftees are lost to the work force in order to serve in the military.
But among many Western and East European nations as well, the length of service for conscripts is being reduced, much to the dismay of professional officers who believe that training soldiers for short military stints is a waste of time.
Further, many countries report a growing trend, as in the U.S. Army, toward the use of women in expanding roles in the army, air and naval services.
The performance of American women soldiers in the Gulf was highly praised by military experts--five women were killed in action and two taken prisoner--and the U.S. Senate recently voted to permit women pilots to fly combat missions.
Ironically, Israel, the only major military nation that drafts women into the army, has refused to give them combat roles--and the Gulf War has not changed the mind of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. Nor is Israel reducing the length of service of conscripts: four years for officers, three years for men, two years for women.
As a senior Israeli officer put it: "Unfortunately, the military threat in our area still exists, so we won't be reducing the period of service for Israel Defense Forces conscripts."
The pressure for limiting conscription service is impelled by the reduced defense budgets on both sides of the old Cold War divide. Moreover, population trends in some of the industrialized countries have already so reduced the number of young men coming of military age that these nations have been hard-pressed to fill their draft quotas.
In Germany, for instance, the Bundeswehr only two years ago was still planning to raise the length of service for draftees from 15 to 18 months to maintain armed strength. But last October, on the eve of unification, Bonn announced a cut for conscript service to 12 months.
The Dutch, too, have reduced conscription time to 12 months, and are planning to reduce the total number of draftees by almost 50% by 1995.
Some military experts argue that a smaller, all-volunteer, professional standing army will be better able to cope with emergencies than one heavily reliant on conscripts.
In the Gulf War, for instance, France, with one of the largest armies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, decided for political reasons not to send conscripts into the battle zone. But it was then hard-pressed to quickly find a well-balanced, all-volunteer force that could play a serious role in the coalition effort against Iraq.
In July, the French government decided to reduce compulsory military service from 12 to 10 months. Former Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement complained: "I am against this reduction. It is the first step toward a professional army." But former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing countered: "I am for an army of volunteers and professionals for two reasons. One is the end of the Cold War, and the second is the Gulf War, which has shown that only the scientific arms used by men very well prepared are efficient."
Among the Eastern European nations, the former Communist defense ministries are also reducing the length of service for draftees. Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland all have cut service time to between 12 and 18 months from the former two to three years. Even in the Soviet Union, where compulsory service has long been viewed as one of the most sacred patriotic obligations, a vigorous debate is now under way.
In East Asia, Japan has an all-volunteer Self-Defense Force, including women, while the huge armies of China, North Korea, South Korea and Vietnam generally conscript for longer periods than Western services and use women volunteers.
"We are using more women in the military," said a South Korean officer. And a Japanese diplomat added: "We may have a lady general one day."
While China technically has universal conscription of men at age 18, in most parts of the country the number of those who want to be drafted exceeds the quota. Some young men have even used bribery or personal connections to make sure they're taken, and the main problem faced by the military seems not to be forcing people into the service, but keeping out those who aren't qualified.
Chinese women are also subject to the draft "according to the need of military units," but under the circumstances, the vast majority of those serving are volunteers.
According to the latest statistics available, China had 104,000 women officers and 32,000 women soldiers in 1987. The country has cut the size of its military by nearly 30% since 1985, however, and it is unclear how that has affected the number of women in the service.
A Beijing-based expert on the Chinese military, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that a serious private debate is under way within the top levels of China's military and political leadership about how to address the problem of poor quality recruits. It appears likely, he said, that China will move forward within the next year or so with further manpower cuts, higher pay for service personnel and a shift toward enlisting more long-term volunteers, who serve eight years or more compared to the standard three to five years.
Military analysts say that improving relations may eventually bring reduced terms of mandatory military service on the divided Korean peninsula. Currently, North Korean draftees must serve a staggering five years, while South Korean men are obligated for three years of military service.
In most countries of black Africa not involved in ongoing civil or other conflict, enlistment in the military tends to be voluntary. Often, places in the army are oversubscribed because of the scarcity of jobs in civilian sectors of the economy.
However, some governments fighting active insurgencies have engaged in wholesale conscription--notably Ethiopia where the drafts were so arbitrary and brutal that they provoked much of the public opposition which eventually drove former President Mengistu Haile Mariam into exile last May.
Among other sub-Saharan nations, Angola drafts young men for two years service, and Chad for three years, while Nigeria, the region's most populous country, does not have conscription.
In South Africa, considered to have the continent's most formidable armed forces, service is mandatory for all white males. But the conscription period was reduced from two years to one in December, 1989. Women, Asian-Africans, Blacks, and mixed-race citizens may volunteer for service, but are subject to review.
In Latin America, conscription is still common, although Nicaragua ended the military draft when Violeta de Barrios Chamorro defeated the Sandinistas at the polls in 1990. She demobilized draftees on active duty and called for similar disarmament programs elsewhere in Latin America.
Mexico, with an armed force of 148,500, inducts 60,000 militia conscripts a year through a national lottery system. And the Chilean army is required to use a portion of its draft quota to induct and educate illiterate members of impoverished communities.
Cuba, while still conscripting men into its 180,000-strong army, cut the mandatory military obligation last February from three to two years. It is currently withdrawing overseas troops from Angola, the Congo, Nicaragua and South Yemen.
Women may volunteer to serve a two-year term in the Cuban armed forces, but are rarely used elsewhere in Latin America.
In the Middle East, where several nations remain technically at war with Israel, there is perhaps the least sign of change.
Israel has a tough conscription policy and drafts women, though they are kept out of the kind of combat roles their predecessors once played during pre-statehood fighting. "In every place and every unit where women are to be found," says military commentator Zeev Schiff, "they contribute to improved operations and morale."
Major Arab military nations such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Algeria, all have conscription with periods ranging to three years. But none accept women soldiers in the armed forces.
Despite the general mood of detente around much of the world, there are those among politicians, particularly, who argue conscription has important non-military advantages.
It's much cheaper to enlist and maintain a conscript army than a professional one, for example. Recruiting officers don't have to compete on the open market for manpower, for example--they can pay their conscripts a minimum wage for the one or two years they remain in the armed forces.
Col. Andrew Duncan of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies cites another factor long applicable in such European countries as France and Germany: "Continental nations fighting large land battles have traditionally maintained large armies, and needed conscription to fill the ranks," he said.
Socialist and Social Democratic political parties in Europe--as well as in Israel--have traditionally seen conscription as a way of democratizing the society and insuring that a professional military caste never threatens the nation.
As a German senior officer put it: "There is a feeling here that young people should all participate in the basic duties of the country."
In the case of Israel, service in the military is a way of introducing and assimilating immigrants into society and giving them a deeper stake in their new homeland.
Switzerland sees universal peacetime conscription as a way of letting more aggressive nations know that while it is peaceful, it remains vigilant and ready to defend itself. The Swiss also find the draft useful for getting its German, French and Italian-speaking citizens accustomed to living and working together.
But while conscription can draw into the army citizens of above-average education and talents, it may not be the best way to build a high-quality professional army.
As Gen. John Hackett, the British army commander and military historian, says: "Conscription tends to produce good soldier material, but this is only available for a short time in service. Junior and middle-rank officers spend so much time and effort in the training of conscripts in elementary military skills that attention is to some extent withdrawn from the study of more advanced techniques."
As conscription dwindles, the use of women in the armed forces has increased. Denmark, Norway and Canada, along with the United States, employed female personnel in Desert Storm.
A recent conference at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels, chaired by U.S. Rear Adm. Roberta Hazard, assistant chief of naval personnel, reported that the number of women in NATO forces rose from 2% in the late 1960s to 7.4% today. The United States has 223,000 female members in all branches of the service.
Only Italy among the NATO nations excludes women from serving in the armed forces, and even there there is much discussion about changing the law.
In recent years, four NATO countries removed their legal constraints on the assignment of women to combat units: Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Britain. A U.S. resolution to that effect is now going through Congress.
The use of British women sailors, known as Wrens, on naval vessels provoked a protest among navy wives when it was recently disclosed that two unmarried Wrens became pregnant while serving on a frigate at sea.
Still, the greater use of women in the service is increasing and Adm. Hazard has recommended that countries maintain the same percentage of women in the forces in the face of defense budget cuts and reorganization.
The navy's senior female officer complained that "too many women in the different armies are still used in technical positions only, or other traditional jobs. The role of women must evolve in parallel to the situation in the civil sector," she added, "and military men will also grow accustomed to it."
Times correspondent David Holley in Beijing, and researchers Janet Stobart in Rome and Sarah White in Paris contributed to this story.