As another group of Bermuda Regiment recruits prepares for camp and the necessary training, we should revisit the primary means of recruitment today—conscription—with a view toward its abolition. There may well have been historical justification for this but I is difficult to see how such an argument can be sustained today. Calling for the abolition of conscription for the Bermuda Regiment, however, takes away nothing from the excellent service to our country delivered by these men and women over the decades and today; nor does it denigrate the strong, effective leadership we have always seen at the helm.
Our regiment provides for our security in the event of internal unrest—as they did during the 1977 riots—and they provide a critical role during natural disasters, such as hurricanes. Their function could perhaps be expanded to some aspects of border protection and drug interdiction on our territorial waters and this may well already be under consideration. Suffice to say, the Bermuda Regiment will remain an important part of modern Bermuda.
The annual draft that is the means of getting recruits is resisted by significant numbers of young men and has created an undertone of dissension and discontent. Out of this emerged Bermudians Against the Draft who have fought a long battle to have conscription outlawed. While their objective is noble, they were destined for failure in the courts by arguing conscription was tantamount to forced labour. The European Union constitution has already established the distinction between conscription and forced labour and it was therefore unlikely, if not impossible, to expect that any court falling under the ambit of the European Court of Justice would render a differing view. That conscription is not forced labour does little to alleviate the discontent of so many young men selected in the random annual draft.
An obvious way forward is to contemplate a regiment which is composed of the men and women it needs and to have these soldiers as willing participants. The current structure of the Bermuda Regiment is 300 part-time recruits secured largely through conscription and a permanent staff. Motivation and discipline levels among soldiers vary widely because of this and therefore greater effort is necessarily expended to create a cohesive force.
An alternative structure could be developed along the following: (1) a voluntary regiment comprised of 100 full-time men and women, recruited in an extensive campaign; (2) these recruits would be paid a full salary; (3) they would have room and board provided for by the Regiment; (4) they would have an opportunity to pursue further education in a range of areas; (5) they would make a minimum three year commitment. This could be an ideal option for a number of our young people and eliminate the need for conscription. There would be a cadre of dedicated men and women serving our country; and we would have adequate numbers to carry out the duties required of the Regiment.
Too much of the discussion about the Regiment and conscription has revolved around what is does for the young recruits: “It gives them some discipline” or “Straightens ‘em out”. But these goals are better left to parents.
The Bermuda Regiment is an important part of our system of government and the training, discipline and morale it embodies is a central part of its ability to perform its functions effectively. We tend to take its role for granted because their dedication and work ethic during hurricanes and we admire the pomp and pageantry of regimental parades. But with the obvious tension brought about as a result of conscription is it not time to contemplate a more harmonious way forward?