German army fights a new Battle of the Bulge

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The Independent Online

The German army's reputation as a disciplined and highly professional fighting force has been undermined by new figures which suggest the service is being weighed down by flabby, overweight conscripts who are unfit for duty.

Nearly half of the 223,000 young men and women medically examined this year before starting their national military service were disqualified from taking part because they were too fat, a defence ministry survey showed.

The figures, which mirror the health and weight problems faced by other European armies, have alarmed German defence experts. The number of overweight conscripts rejected by the army rose from 19 per cent in 2002 to more than 45 per cent this year. The army responded by raising its fitness standards, but this resulted in the number of conscripts being cut by almost half. The fight against the flab has coincided with political debate in Germany about the usefulness of national service and conscript armies in general. Successive post-war governments have argued that a conscript army is vital to maintain a "citizen in uniform" concept and to safeguard against political extremism in the armed forces.

However, the German Green Party has for years argued that conscription makes no sense in the modern military, which needs highly-trained, professional soldiers for it to be effective. Although Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling conservatives want to keep conscription, her Social Democrat coalition partners have started to baulk at the idea.

National service has been opposed by millions of young German pacifists since its reintroduction after the Second World War. While the draft period has been cut from 18 months to nine, most of those who object opt to serve in a civilian capacity instead. The Central Office for Conscientious Objectors claimed this week that many unwilling recruits had found doctors who were prepared to support them by issuing medical certificates attesting to their unfitness for duty.

One argument against scrapping the draft is that it would cost millions of euros to replace the young men and women who perform civilian service in old people's homes, hospitals and welfare centres.