Chatting up guys on trains


“Tax Evasion, Welfare Fraud and Grant Savvy: An Uncomfortable Venn”- Delete. “Getting 89794913
What You Pay For- The Costs of a Free University Education” -Delete. “Leveraging Tradition – Selective Cultural Marketing” -Delete. “Color-blind Equality” -Delete. If only it was as easy to get rid of those sweaters I brought but never wore.

yes-butOther blogs are headed toward the trash can as I think about packing up. Like “Yes, but…” -which seemed like it would fit but it’s not right for a blog party. A quick mini-share before tossing this one, though.overstuffed20suitcase1“Yes, but..” had sassy sentences like  YES, Finnish teachers are respected professionals who can earn salaries reasonably close to those of some doctors BUT Finnish doctors don’t command the obscene incomes rich-doctorthat American MDs do. And YES- every Finnish student gets a free school lunch, BUT most buy their own books and handle their own transportation. And YES- the fifteen-minute recess is for real, BUT some lukio students (and teachers) take classes at different schools and need the time to run down the street and since lukio teachers don’t “have” classrooms many need that time to set up for their classes. YES, teachers have advanced degrees, BUT for ed majors this means a five-year degree (no GRE prereq) that qualifies graduates to work with grades 1-6. Older students are taught by teachers who are experts in their fields- a physics teacher has a graduate degree in physics, a craft teacher specializes in textiles or technology, and so on. YES, many younger students don’t have homework, BUT they have independent work – often done at school. And many lukio students study. Hard. YES, a generous maternity babyinaboxleave and a baby box as well as free or affordable child care, free college (for most), public transportation, and a range of social services exist in this Nordic wonderland, BUT the 2016 Finnish average income tax for a 40K salary was about 30% in 2015. And sales tax is 24%.

And on and on. “Yes, but…” is just too complicated for the blog genre. We all want the pithy, easy to implement solutions. The dozens of programs we juggle in the schools today were undoubtedly at one time quick fix / one-size-fits-all answers. So “Yes, but..” is not a blog but maybe a twenty plus page article. (Fulbright Finlanders, I’m thinking we need a group “It’s complicated.” T-shirt.)

“Guys on Trains” is that new shirt I never wore but will pull on now. The guys are military conscripts- mostly young soldiers returning to camp on Sunday afternoon after a weekend at home. Finland has a universal draft and I seem to spend a lot of weekends on trains where there are always groups of these young bereted and cammo-clad backpackers. Many of our Carencro High graduates join the military so getting some insight into the Finnish military became one of those rabbit holes I followed.varusmiehet-667x375

Finland is one of the last countries in Europe to draft young men. The Conscription Act notes that “Every male Finnish citizen is liable for military service starting from the beginning of the year in which he turns 18 years old until the end of the year in which he turns 60.” Young men receive their conscription letter when they turn 18 and can begin training in January or July. The term of training is 165, 255 or 347 days, depending on the soldier’s specialty and whether he will be trained as an officer. Service can be delayed until the 28th birthday, but the Ministry of Defense website recommends not putting it off. There are some religious and geographic exemptions.

Alternatively, conscripts may elect to do a civil training for one year. These men receive first aid training, peace education, internationalism classes, and non-violent resistance training. After this training, they work in schools, libraries, elderly residences, etc. The General Secretary of the Committee of 100 in Finland notes that less 70 percent of men in each age group now carry out military service, a drop of some 10 percent within a decade. Most of the rest carry out alternative civilian service – which has a longer minimum length – or receive various types of waivers. Any Finnish citizen who refuses to perform both military and civilian service faces a penalty of 173 days in prison. Wikipedia’s Finnish Defense Forces article claims “homeland defense willingness stands at 76%, one of the highest rates in Europe.

I tried to get some in-the-trenches perspective on this internet wisdom during those train finland-winter-warrior-special-weapons1rides. The young men I’ve chatted with seem to take their military service stoically. I heard no complaints- most of the young men I spoke with seemed to take it as a part of what they needed to do. Several thought training was a fun time with the guys. A few offered that they saw the training as a part of growing up and doing the right thing for their families and country. Some felt like military service teaches useful skills and will help in their work life.

They shared stories about weapons training, outdoor survival, field dressing a reindeer, mm-drill-sgt_132376c-610x400the decent food, living conditions and stipends. No wild stories about sadistic sergeants or Rambo crazies or punishing training hazing/rituals that crop up in typical US army story trading. Of course, these are polite, young Finns fulfilling their obligation and talking to a grandmotherly foreigner who doesn’t know you don’t talk to strangers here.

blue_sticker_peace_sign_cnd_logoAlthough I caught a few sideways glances when I pushed about civil service option, their uniformed responses were restrained. Civil service was just longer and those who elected that option were missing out on some good times. I have discussed the civil option with several library staff members- there are a few at the Vaski library who either worked at the library or at a local school rather than commit to military training. These guys did feel that the yearlong period required of those electing to do the civil option was a form of punishment. But they chose this over military training for ethical reasons.

To dig deeper into this polite feedback I turned to Reddit and eavesdropped on a few redditinternational military conversations. These pretty candid messages lined up with what the guys on trains shared. When one American Redditer asked how Finns look at the military, responses claimed that folks were mostly neutral. “Of course we have our dirty hippies and extremist right-wing war nuts, but overall it is mostly viewed as a job among others, there are so many different kinds of positions.” Another Finnish soldier offered that “being a soldier isn’t as defining as in most other countries because of conscription, something like 3/4 of every generation ARE soldiers.”

A few touchy issues related to conscription are circulating. First, only males are involved. There has been some back and forth for a while about an equal society that discriminates on the basis of sex. And others feel that it is past time to go to an all-volunteer army.

I’ve known many young American men and women who benefitted from their decision to join the military. Although the draft is a hot-button issue, I do believe that when everyone is made to serve, and every family is affected by the decision to take military action, people pause and and think before supporting a war. One Reddit vet commented that a volunteer army tends to “ make it easy to sell a war because few people in the voting class actually feel it. In fact, many of them profit off of it.”

finland-putinI realize that many of my unpublished/deleted   decisions relate to topics with economic drivers.  Money is a factor here as well. Finland’s defense budget equals approximately 2.9 billion euros or 1.4 percent of GDP.(US discretionary spending on the military in 2016 was over 540 billion- about 54%. Education? About 6%.) Given the size of Finland and its’ relatively low population (16/km2) as well as the significant border, a conscripted military seems like an effective choice. And although times are changing, right now it does seem like military service is a part of the Finnish national identity. Although I’m not a Finn, it is a comfort to look at these stoic Nordic faces and understand that they are all committed to preserving the fatherland.

This afternoon there were more Finns crowded in the street than I have ever seen. They jostled a little and one or two elbows may have even touched. They had come to watch a military parade in Turku marking  one of the country’s flag days. Kids on shoulders, cameras, creeping closer to the front for a better view. It was a Finnish parade- organized, precise, timely, professional, touching. The restrained and proud energy of the event showed that all held “No valley, no hill,no water, shore more dear Than this northern homeland,the dear land of our fathers.”



Anna Marquardt is an American teacher currently living in Finland. The opinions represented here are hers and not those of the Fulbright Commission.


One thought on “Chatting up guys on trains

  1. Trivia bit: All Finnish conscripts are required to give the military oath or affirmation. The oath or affirmation is given in the end of the basic training using the formula:

    I, (name), promise and affirm before the almighty and all-knowing God (in affirmation: by my honour and by my conscience) that I am a trustworthy and faithful citizen of the realm of Finland. I want to serve my country honestly and, to my best ability, seek and pursue her edification and advantage.

    I want everywhere and in every situation, during the peace and during the war, defend the inviolability of my fatherland, her legal system of government and the legal authority of the realm. If I perceive or gain knowledge of activity to overthrow the legal authority or to subvert the system of government of the country, I want to report it to the authorities without delay. The troop to which I belong and my place in it I will not desert in any situation, but so long as I have strength in me, I will completely fulfill the task I have received. I promise to act properly and uprightly, obey my superiors, comply with the laws and decrees and keep the service secrets trusted in me. I want to be forthright and helpful to my fellow servicemen. Never will I due to kinship, friendship, envy, hatred or fear nor because of gifts or any other reason act contrary to my duty in service. If I be given a position of superiority, I want to be rightful to my subordinates, to take care of their wellbeing, acquire information on their wishes, to be their councillor and guide and, for my own self, set them a good and encouraging example. All this I want to fulfil according to my honour and my conscience.

    (Translation: Wikipedia)

    That is one helluva promise — when you sit down and think about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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