The controversy in the United States over the volunteer army is being echoed here in a somewhat similar debate about military conscription. For the moment, the advocates of tough draft laws have prevailed, but the issue is not likely to disappear easily.
The problem challenging the West German government at present, therefore, is to shape legislation that provides for an equitable system. It remains to be seen whether this can be achieved amid the uproar that has been sparked by the question.
The question dates back to last August, when a new law went into effect permitting young West Germans to avoid military service by working in hospitals, homes for the aged or other social welfare jobs. The law virtually eliminated the former procedure, under which conscientious objectors had to face special tribunals. Now a potential conscript could dodge the draft merely by registering his refusal on a postcard.
Not even the most liberal politicians favored doing away with the draft entirely. Every West German is aware that the 460,000 members of the armed forces are committed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is intergral to the nation's defense, and that 40 percent of these troops are conscripts.
But the ruling Social Democrats calculated, for several reasons, that a more flexible system involving free choice would not be abused by West Germans of draft age.
This estimation was based, in the first place, on the fact that the hearings to determine conscientious objection had always been a pushover for intelligent young men. As a consequence, high school graduates and university students had no trouble evading conscription, leaving the duty to the less educated.
Moreover, it was thought, numbers of youths would prefer to spend 15 months in the army than 18 months cleaning hospital bedpans and performing other social welfare jobs, which are often unattractive.
And among other things, it was figured that the serious unemployment situation here would prompt many young men to regard a term in the army as a viable alternative to idleness.
As it turned out, however, these ideas proved to be wrong. Last year, more than 70,000 West Germans claimed conscientious objector status - double the number for 1976 - and this threatened to put a dent in the armed forces.
The notion that the unemployment situation would drive youths into the army was largely unrealistic, since a significant percentage of the jobless are women and older workers. In any case, young men do not generally see military duty as preferable to being out of work.
In addition, the offer of social jobs instead of army service lacked substance, since there was not enough social work to occupy all those who rejected military duties. Accordingly, youths discovered that they could dodge the draft without having to do anything else in exchange.
THESE SHORTCOMINGS inspired the government's Christian Democratic opponents to make political hay out of the issue. They carried it to the Supreme Court with the argument that the new conscription law was unconstitutional on two counts.
For one thing, they contended, the constitution recognizes the refusal to bear arms, but only on genuine grounds of conscientious objection. Thus the elimination of the tribunals that judged conscientious objectors, they claimed, was illegal.
And secondly, they asserted, the shortage of social work as an alternative to military service meant that the constitutional principal of equality had been violated, since many youths could evade all responsibilities while others had to do army duty.
Late last year, in a preliminary decision, the Supreme Court ordered that application of the new conscription law be delayed. In a final ruling in April, the Court declared the law to be void, affirming that military service is a general obligation that must be performed except where avoidance for conscientious motives is truly authenticated.
The ruling signified that compulsory military service takes precedence over alternative social work. In deciding against the system of free choice, the court also confirmed the failure of an approach that had not functioned in practice.
Since then, the government has been striving to find ways to reintroduce a more rigorous system for concientious objection without abandoning its original concept of liberal choice.
Appropriations have been approved to build dormitories for a Conscientious Objector Corps, so that those who have avoided the army cannot live in the comfort of their homes. Plans also are under way to create social service jobs to employ them.
These moves have triggered protests by many conscientious objectors, and their demonstrations have turned public opinion against them. The government, though, has still not scrapped the idea of having an alternative service while maintaining an army.