At the time that I finished my studies Belgium still had National Service, since it was still several years away from the end-of-the-cold-war dividend. Normally you join the army as a “milicien” at the age of 18, unless you’re doing higher studies, in which case you asked for an extension, and then you joined some time after you’d completed your studies.
In my case I finished my studies in July 1979, and I was only due to join the army in October 1981. I still don’t know why I didn’t let them know that I withdrew my extension so that I could get it over and done with shortly after my end of studies.
Still, the way it went was that I had an offer from the Laboratory for Iron Steel Making at the Ghent University, which I took up in October 1979. This had a number of consequences :
- I interrupted my career as a researcher just when it started to become interesting;
- I came out of the army just when the steel industry was in the process of cutting back; and
- When I joined, I was nearly 26, which is way too old when your lieutenant is only 18.
Anyhow, I opted for the short pain (you had the option of 10 months in Belgium or 8 month in Germany), and was based in Soest, where an uncle of mine had been captain with the tanks. I, on the other hand, was placed in the artillery where I was being trained to calculate the settings to direct the artillery pieces.
To say that it was a happy time would be a mild understatement. Having to take orders “because I say so” has never sat well with me, and to hear it come from a sergeant or a lieutenant who are not even out of their teens makes you really bite your tongue.
One of our sergeant’s favourite “jokes” was : “You’re in the army. You’re not here to think. Leave the thinking to the horses, they’ve got a bigger head.” Mildly funny once, not so when repeated on numerous occasions. Maybe I’m doing proper armies an injustice and the Belgian Army is a one-of-a-kind, but my experience of those eight months has made me an anti-militarist for life. The futility of it all is striking : having Howitzers that can only shoot over a distance of 14km (whereas the competition can do 25km), being a nuclear batallion with guns like that (even a tactical charge is the strength of the Hiroshima bomb, and with our reach we would have blown ourselves away), and the fact that the guns are far too static for modern warfare, where attack helicopters could blow you away in a second.
All you could do during that time is let it pass by, keep your head low, and go quietly mad. It definitely brought an edge to my type of humour, and could hold myself better in subsequent life, so in a way the army has made me a man. But was it really worth it ? I doubt it.