Would you ever consider becoming a florist? Have you ever wanted to be a woman? Do you ever count the windows of buildings you are walking past?
These were only a few questions asked from us, young adolescent men, amongst hundreds of other questions supposed to determine our suitability to compulsory military service in Finland.
My answers, though, were not exactly what they wanted to hear. I was nearly declared insane. Not until the post-exam interview with the psychologist took place, I was being reclaimed reasonably level-headed and fit to the society. Hence my planned enlistment was kept valid, although postponed for a year to give me more time to “grow up”, as they say.
Whether that additional year made any difference is debatable. I had three different jobs while waiting for joining the army, so I guess some growth could have been detected.
But most importantly, that initial psychological assessment taught me to say people and organisations what they want to hear rather than what I really think or feel. Probably this simple realisation separated me from the ones being institutionalised.
Once I tried to look at the complex, slightly out-of-date questionnaire from the perspective of the warlord or whoever put it together, I understood immediately where I had gone wrong. If the military wanted focused and efficient individuals, then of course someone randomly stopping and starting to count the windows of buildings was not necessary the right person to be placed in the middle of a heated conflict. If they wanted cold blooded and toxically masculine war machines, then someone desiring to be a florist may not assert the right interest and qualities to get the job done, while simultaneously trying to preserve life of a plant. And since most of the fighting in the history has been done by men, if some of the soldiers have an interest to become a woman instead, that could perhaps indicate them being physically inferior, which could lead to more problems when the going gets really tough.
I must stress the facts that I don’t want to be a woman; I don’t count the windows of buildings, at least not all the time; and my first priority is not to be a florist. But I only paid attention to the detail, which was in the wording: “Have you ever?” In my innocent and naïve mind, I got stuck with “ever”.
I always had this idea of being able to be a woman for just one day and not more (and definitely not during period). Only to understand what it’s like and then get out quickly and be sort-of a man again. Maybe learn something about the opposite sex that I could use in the future to make myself a better man. I thought that was good enough reason to give a positive response in the test to these peculiar questions.
About counting windows, I may have done it once or twice in my life when passing by some massive council high-rises with lots of small frames, only to get a rough estimate of how many people or families potentially the building could hold inside. It fascinated me that an entire population of a small village could live just in a one block of flats.
So again, I thought my logic would make perfect sense.
If I was ever under enormous financial pressure and there were no other vacancies available, or if I was in need for another change in my personal life or career, I could become a florist. I had nothing against it, nor was it my desire. So the answer was: yes, I could be a florist, if I had to.
These are really not excuses to my undesired responses, but since the test was the first ever of this kind I had taken, my simple pattern at the time was to be as honest and literal as possible.
So nearly failing the test had taught me to bend the truth, and now I was a step fitter to military, and perhaps, life as well.
There would have been other options available like civilian service or imprisonment - both which were never really on the cards. Firstly, in the environment I grew up, it was just less controversial and more convenient to get enlisted. The men in my family had done so and so did my closest friends. No one I knew ever objected. Secondly, my vague understanding of a prison-life was largely based on seeing films like The Longest Yard. I was fearful if I was going to choose the six-month sentence instead, I would end up serving time more like The Caretaker, rather than Paul Crewe.
Surprisingly, my overall experience of the year in the army was fun, sociable and educational. I got myself many like-minded friends with whom I spent time also outside the barracks hours. Not sure though if I was this positive back then, since the memories can gradually change over time, sometimes for the better.
Athletes had a huge advantage during the initial training period when many physical tests were conducted. The military camps at places like Lapland in the mid-winter in minus forty degrees Celsius were the toughest. Frozen to the bone, sleep deprived and starving, we still had to attend the battle rehearsals using equipment and vehicles, some of them, as old as my grandparents. Gladly though, our enemy was imaginary and exercises like a picnic compared to those dodging real bullets.
My intention here is not to share any juicy, national secrets, or give our closest neighbours like Putin ideas about Finland being an easy target, but I wish by now the Finnish Army has been given a defense budget to renew some of that outdated material we used to play with twenty-odd years ago. The current figures show at least that the spending is substantially higher than in the southern neighbour, Estonia.
Once I got past the halfway point of my service, the remaining months were mostly spent resting on the bunks, sleeping late, training in the gym and watching reruns of old TV shows like Dallas and Happy Days - while the enemy, fortunately, remained fictional.
The idea of what the future brings once back in the civilian life was exciting, confusing and frightening, all three at the same time. In some weird way, it was easy and comfortable to be told what to do. For many individuals, a compulsory military service may have been the only place and time in their lives when they had any structure. The time served did make many boys men for sure (and a few girls women, whoever chose to do it on a voluntary basis), and I am writing this on a positive note. It made many better persons, including myself.
Any compulsory service, like the one I experienced - as long as their structures evolve - have my full support, until alternative methods to train, guide and discipline youth are in place. Since I have my doubts whether the current schooling system or many distracted parents out there are enough.
Like many others, I may have come out of the army as more of a man I used to be. Though I never lost that curiosity to be a woman – for one day only.