It was announced yesterday that following the resignation of Francisco Ramos from coordinating the vaccination plan against Covid-19 (in a dignified manner, knowing that the hospital whose board he heads has also been receiving inappropriate vaccines). Coordinating Vice Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo will be in charge of the plan. It is no coincidence that the President of the Republic has defended that Francisco Ramos’ withdrawal should be used to involve the armed forces more closely, and the PSD and CDS will also have urged the military to replace the hospital administrator.
The armed forces have played a vital role in fighting the pandemic which, in my opinion, has often been discreet or overlooked because it did not have the media coverage it should and deserve. The armed forces have admitted Covid patients in their hospitals, set up field hospitals, collaborated on contact tracing, vaccination logistics, and helped meet various public administration requirements. For an institutionalist like me, this role of the armed forces is proud but not surprising. And it is not surprising for two reasons: first, because the Portuguese armed forces have already accustomed us to excellent performance, even in difficult circumstances and without the necessary resources; second, because the concept of service is part of the mission of the armed forces.
This shows what practically no one has doubted: the armed forces have an enormous social service. Contrary to the famous phrase, it may not be that difficult to justify the existence of an army in peacetime. In the time of greatest pressure we turn for them and well. When the seriousness of the situation calls for objective analysis, discipline, hierarchy, commitment to a mission, and rigorous planning, this is the force we call upon.
For all these reasons, and although there is still a long way to go to the end of the tunnel, after the Covid we must move on to a deep and protracted reflection on the role of the armed forces in society and their urgent armament. Other points of discussion could be pointed out, but I think the three main lines of reflection will concern:
1. Defense of the country and strategic reserve
We always assume that the integrity of the territory is not threatened, that the armed forces never have to fulfill their main task and purpose: to defend the national territory. My generation did not do the military service anymore (I will go there) and due to the relatively long peace period in Europe I never knew the reality of the war, so I see this as an impossibility. It is not so, and certainly the possibility of war does not diminish with the devaluation of the armed forces, on the contrary – si vis pacem for War.
On the other hand, the defense of the country – and its allies and partners – also often takes place outside the national territory. Foreign missions and the armed forces stationed there fulfill the dual aim of national defense and of contributing to world peace and stability. Portugal has played an important role in several missions (mainly in Africa, but not only) which adds a lot to the national reputation. Therefore, the quality of the armed forces is also of crucial importance.
But even without war or external missions, it is important, for reasons of strategic restraint, to keep the armed forces in good readiness. Our economic prosperity has led us to believe that important goods that are imported will never be missing. Well, it is not unthinkable, even outside the framework of a conflict (conventional or not), that it does not. Standstills and disruptions in the normal functioning of the economy and communications can lead to shortages or shortages of essential goods, and there are recent examples of this in Portugal. The armed forces must be ready to deal with these situations as it implies the existence of logistics that, unfortunately, have been reduced in recent years rather than increased.
It is no coincidence that Germany’s help to Portugal to fight Covid consists of teams of doctors and military auxiliaries who, among other things, bring 150 beds. The ability to intervene in crisis situations in Portugal or with allied states depends on the permanent maintenance of a state of readiness and preparedness, which requires professionals dedicated to this issue.
2. Military health and the national health system
Given the size of the armed forces resulting from the colonial war, the PREC, and the existence of compulsory military service, the military health system was once extensive. Several hospitals in Lisbon, one in Porto and one in Coimbra, among others with large capacity and offered a wide coverage of the most diverse areas and specialties. Little is left of this system today due to the unification of the hospitals in the different branches in Lisbon and the creation of the Hospital das Forças Armadas, which is divided into the Lisbon Pole and the Porto Pole. The end of compulsory military service led to a sudden decline in the active military, in addition to the decline in the contingents allocated to each branch (despite warnings from military leaders) and, over the years, the military in the reserve and in reform, the main users of the military health system . A pessimistic look would then say that the military health system is doomed to end, to become remnant, or to operate by convention with other hospitals.
However, this will only be the case if political power so decides. There is an alternative, and I believe that it is necessary in long-term thinking about things at the macro level and taking into account the national interest. As I mentioned earlier, in the current public health crisis, support for the military health system for the NHS has been one of the armed forces’ major contributions. The help of the military laboratory in the manufacture of alcohol gel must not be forgotten. For this reason, and for reasons of the aforementioned strategic reserve that the armed forces must represent, there is an urgent need for the military health system not to disappear. In addition, the military health system has undeniable know-how in crises of this type – an example of this is the fact that one of the key medical commentators on the pandemic, Silva Graça, was an army officer general.
Conscription has the potential, in a modern way, to do more for citizenship and social cohesion than many other state measures. The question remains: ask young people for a year of service in a country that offers us life, education, health and opportunities. Is it asking for that much?
However, according to the statements about the decline in the number of users of military hospitals, their capacity will be surplus in some areas. The solution, which at the same time makes it possible to protect and improve military health without having to pay skilled workers to simply wait, is easy to see: creating a cooperation framework that enables the use of overcapacity of military hospitals to support the national Healthcare In other words, integrate military health into the national health system.
The final and thorniest point that reflects (at least) concerns mandatory military service. In my opinion, the SMO was thoughtlessly and hastily abolished, very much under pressure from the party youth, only against the will of the PCP (honor be done). Young people born into the “Age of Rights” (Norberto Bobbio) have already tended to devalue the existence of duties in favor of rights, which will only become more acute. The SMO was a “boredom”: one year of life in the armed forces.
Time was responsible for demonstrating the unpredictability of abolition. On the one hand, from a practical point of view, our armed forces today lack personnel – albeit mainly due to political power, which does not create attractive entry conditions. On the other hand, the lack of a minimum level of discipline and service is very visible in many of our young people. SMO has the potential to do more for citizenship and social cohesion in a modern way than many other (and more expensive) government policies. So the question remains: ask young people for a year of service in a country that offers us life, education, health and opportunities. Is it asking for that much?