From taking part in major international peacekeeping missions around the globe to opening its doors to dual citizen conscripts from abroad, the Finnish Defence Forces is becoming more and more international in character.

In the 21st century, the Finnish Defence Forces is – purposefully or not – projecting an image of an international institution. As Finnish society becomes increasingly open to new cultures and reaches out more to the rest of the world, changes are being felt within one of the country’s most prominent tools in foreign policy and international relations.

A foreigner in the Finnish Army

Finland has a conscript army, which decrees that every male Finnish citizen must complete military service lasting 6-12 months between the ages of 18 and 29. Women can also complete voluntary service in the army.

As the demographic of Finnish society is becoming more and more international, its effects are beginning to show in the different nationalities, cultures and religions of young men and women serving in the Finnish Army. Although the military has an equalising effect unlike any other place, some of these people of international backgrounds have difficulties overcoming barriers that arise in joining the army of a foreign country.

Sean Yallop, a dual citizen of Finland and Ireland, who has lived his whole life in London, came to undertake his conscription in January 2011 at the Guard Jaeger Regiment, located on the island of Santahamina in Helsinki. At the time of commencing service his understanding of the Finnish language was almost nonexistent.

“I signed up to do national service because Finland means a lot to me, and all other Finnish males in my family had completed it,” Yallop recalls. “I also wanted to learn Finnish better since before the army, I could only understand a bit and could hardly speak it and had never had any lessons to read or write.”

“The training and instructions were all in Finnish,” explains Susanna Dunkerley, a dual citizen of Finland and Australia, who also undertook her conscription in Santahamina. Although she did not speak any Finnish when signing up at the age of 26 in July 2011, Dunkerley received help from her peers and officers when completing important tasks such as live firing drills.

“Most of the time I didn’t know what was going on, and it was more of a case of monkey see monkey do; the Finnish Army is not rocket science. My lack of language skills did result in some mix-ups, like putting on the wrong uniform, and once even being left behind. I picked up a little bit of the language, but most of the words I learned were military drills and swear words, which didn’t really help me when I was down at the pub on the weekend.”

Commander Kimmo Salomaa presents the gym of FINCENT, where officers from around the world work out during their training sessions in Finland.

Foreign volunteers show motivation

Lieutenant Colonel Heikki Saarento, chief of staff at the Guard Jaeger Regiment, estimates that the regiment trains some 30-50 conscripts coming from abroad annually. 10-20 of these dual citizens cannot speak Finnish when they begin their service.

“Conscripts trained for crew-level duties obtain an adequate command of Finnish during the two-month basic training period,” Saarento says. “Insufficient understanding of Finnish is taken into account during training whenever practically possible. The training staff and most of the conscript leaders know English at least at a satisfactory level, which allows the possibility to give individuals personal guidance if needed.”

According to the Finnish conscript law, a dual citizen who has lived outside Finland for over seven years of their life or has completed more than four months of military service elsewhere can be exempted from conscription in Finland. However, Lt. Col. Saarento recalls that many dual citizens who have lived abroad want to serve in the Finnish Army as a way to get to know their mother or father’s home country and learn the language.

“These ‘volunteers’ are often highly motivated and carry out their service successfully from beginning to end. By the end of their service, many of them are also able to get along in Finnish.”

Saarento emphasises that conscripts in the Guard Jaeger Regiment are not divided or separated according to their level of understanding of Finnish.

“In order to learn Finnish and get used to service in the army, it is best for the conscripts to use as much Finnish as possible during their service time. The training officers, conscript leaders and peer conscripts are almost always capable of explaining and giving aid in English when necessary.”

Learning Finnish is a bonus

Although learning to speak Finnish is not directly required from conscripts coming from abroad, learning the language makes it easier for the soldier, and often happens automatically in a situation where he or she is constantly immersed in the new language.

Seaman Apprentice Bruno Jacobsén is currently undergoing his service in the navy base of Upinniemi. Half-Finnish and half-Portuguese, Jacobsén says he has learned quite a bit of Finnish during his five months of service so far, at least in terms of military terminology.

“The officers try to make things easier for me, and sometimes they speak to the whole team in English just because of me,” Jacobsén says. “I think most of the people there like the chance to speak English and enjoy doing something out of their normal daily routine. Although I understand most basic things, I often miss details, which makes things difficult. The corporals often ask me why I didn’t do something faster or better. Some of the officers don’t have an understanding that language is a big barrier.”

Jacobsén’s job on the ship is in the engine room, and thus his daily duties don’t require a wide understanding of Finnish. His commanding officers have even photocopied an English-language engine manual for him.

“They don’t expect me to learn Finnish and feel like they can work with me in English well enough,” says Jacobsén. “I am, however, making an effort to speak Finnish on a daily basis.”

Treated as equals

In the Defence Forces, any kind of discrimination towards ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, language, religion, opinion, health, handicap or sexual orientation is strictly forbidden.

Susanna Dunkerley says she never felt discriminated against due to her nationality, and never experienced any kind of sexual harassment, which, she says, is a big problem for women serving in the Australian Army. Sean Yallop was likewise glad to see that his training was not different from the rest of the platoon he served in.

“We were all of the same rank and learned together from the start,” Yallop says. “Even before I got there I did not expect any special treatment and I am happy I received virtually none. There were quite a few other internationals as well since most expatriates usually go to Santahamina.”

He recalls that although international conscripts were usually treated with understanding, the realities of serving in the military were not forgotten.

“The Captain of my company was harsh at times. I remember one incident when another international guy was pretty badly humiliated in front of the entire company because he was a bit slower to pick up the language. But it was only really the Captain who seemed less tolerant of the internationals. At the same time, in a war situation there can be no time for any language barriers or delays, which could be crucial. I do understand why the Captain was so insistent on making sure most orders and communication in a battle situation was in Finnish.”

Lt. Col. Saarento emphasises that the most important part in integrating into the Finnish Army for someone who does not speak the language is the role of the fellow conscripts, who set an example and help an international conscript fit in.

“The training begins from very basic and simple things, so fitting in with the help of the staff and fellow conscripts is usually quite easy. After the basic training period, duties are primarily assigned to conscripts according to their own interests and abilities. Most conscripts are commissioned to a job best suited for them.”

New religions in a Christian institution

Throughout its history, the Finnish Defence Forces has been a deeply Christian institution. Although less prominent than before, the Christian tradition is apparent today in hymns sung in parades, a monthly worship service and the administering of Holy Communion in the field. Questions arise when an increasing number of secular conscripts and conscripts from other religions are carrying out their service in the army.

“Since military service in Finland is not voluntary, it is seen that the state is liable to arrange religious and spiritual services for the soldiers during their conscription in the same way as it offers food or drink,” says Senior Chaplain Seppo Ahonen from Defence Command Finland.

According to the law on freedom of religion, the state must offer the possibility for all conscripts to practice their own religion as freely as possible during service. All conscripts are free to attend the Christian rituals if they so wish, but they also have the right to receive separate ethical education. The chaplain of each garrison offers consultation to all conscripts, irrespective of their religion.

“Although all chaplains in the Defence Forces are either Lutheran or Orthodox, the spirit of our work is ecumenical,” Ahonen says. “We have contacts to the heads of different religious communities in Finland, whom we can consult on issues related to conscripts who are other than Christian. It is important for all chaplains to have at least a general knowledge of the traditions and practices of other religions.”

It is estimated that at Santahamina’s Guard
Jaeger Regiment between 30-50 conscripts
annually come from abroad. 10-20 of these dual
citizens cannot speak Finnish when they begin
their service.

Special arrangements for Sabbath and Ramadan

Special questions the chaplains deal with include organising prayer times, diets, religious holidays, fasting and spiritual support. For example, Muslims must be allowed a chance to pray five times a day, and if in service during the month of Ramadan, a chance to eat before and after sunset must be arranged. For Jews, the prohibition of travelling during the Sabbath must be taken into account when deciding the return date from official leave. Conscripts are also allowed to request leave from the army for their own religious holidays.

Senior Chaplain Ahonen says that as internationality and the prevalence of different religions have increased in the military, the importance of understanding these religions has been emphasised to the employees of the Defence Forces. He recognises the fact that the opinions of people in the military echo the opinions of Finnish society, and attitudes relating to immigration questions may sometimes come out in a negative manner.

“Every now and then we run into instances where officers or conscripts have acted disrespectfully towards another person’s religion or beliefs. It is especially important for a state officials to exercise proper conduct in their words and actions.”

Ahonen emphasises the fact that at the moment non-Christian conscripts are a small minority in Finland, which is why Christianity is emphasised so greatly. He does not consider it impossible that were the numbers to change very significantly, other religious leaders, such as imams or rabbis could be hired in the future. A timelier question, he says, is whether it should remain obligatory for Christians to attend religious services in the military.

Religions among conscripts commencing
service in the Finnish Defence Forces in
January 2012

Lutheran 10,310 85.51%
Orthodox 133 1.10%
Other Christian 85 0.70%
Muslim 73 0.61%
Jewish 2 0.02%
Others 29 0.24%
No religion 1,425 11.82%
Total 12,057 100%

Source: Pääesikunnan Henkilöstöosasto

Finland’s changing role in peacekeeping

Senior Chaplain Ahonen adds that an important part of military chaplaincy is the understanding of other religions, not only within the Defence Forces, but also in cases where Finnish troops take part in international peacekeeping operations abroad.

“It is extremely important that Finnish soldiers who take part in missions in Afghanistan or Lebanon understand the local religious climate in these areas. The chaplain plays an important role in promoting understanding and dialogue between cultures as well as making sure the troops don’t accidentally do anything to offend the local people.”

As with countries all around the world, the next few years will see a drastic decline in Finnish military expenditure, but the Defence Forces has long since realised that taking part in international activity is something worth investing in. Today, Finland is active in international military co-operation, from participating in trans-national military exercises to training officers and soldiers for hazardous peacekeeping missions abroad.

Since the 1950s, Finland has had an international reputation for peacekeeping. Partaking in international crisis management is one of the main tasks of the Defence Forces.

“Peacekeeping has always fit in well with Finnish values,” says Commander Kimmo Salomaa, chief of staff at the Finnish Defence Forces International Centre, FINCENT. “Especially after we joined the EU, Finland lost some of its political neutrality, but has kept tightly to its military non-alliance. Promoting stability, democracy and human rights through crisis management is something that we have become known for.”

From the 1990s onwards, however, Finland’s participation in international crisis management has declined rapidly. For the last several years, less than 300 Finnish military peacekeepers have permanently been working in crisis management missions abroad, whereas their number used to be nearly 2,000.

The Finnish Military Reform

■■ Last February, the government’s
Foreign and Security Policy Committee
announced the prospects of a massive
military reform, which will reshape the
structure of the Finnish Defence Forces
by 2015.

■■ The reasons for the reform are (1) the
need to cut military expenditure and (2)
the declining amount of Finnish population
in the coming years, leading to less
conscripts to be trained annually.

■■ Finland’s wartime capability will decline
from the present 350,000 soldiers to
230,000 soldiers.

■■ By the end of 2014, six garrisons will be
shut down and four will be amalgamated
with pre-existing ones.

■■ By 2015, the amount of peacetime
military employees will drop by 2,200.
Roughly half of the former employees will
be relocated to other government posts,
while the rest will face layoffs.

■■ The aim of the reform is to make military
training more cost-effective and of better
quality with a smaller organisation.

■■ General Ari Puheloinen, Commander of
the Defence Forces, has stated that his
vision for the military organisation after
the reform is that the military (1) is capable
of fulfilling its functions, (2) is close
to the citizen, (3) uses the state’s funds
cost-effectively and (4) remains a good
place to work in.

Looking to the East

“After the ‘90s, operations have become very expensive,” Commander Salomaa says. “As conflicts around the world have become more complicated, necessary technology has become more high-tech and the risks have increased, we often run into limits with our resources. We have plenty of trained volunteers, but our budget limits the amount of international activity greatly.”

Since 2001, the largest crisis management operation Finland has been partaking in is the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. From this past May onwards, Finland’s role in international peacekeeping will be more prominent than ever in the 21st century as 200 soldiers are being sent to join the United Nations’ UNIFIL-operation on the Southern Lebanese border.

“Finland has been wanting to participate more in UN-led missions, since our role in them has become scarce over the last decade”, says Salomaa, who served in UNIFIL himself from 1993-1994. “UNIFIL has been successful in achieving some stability in the region, and we have prior experience of it as well.”

Participating in UNIFIL has also been seen as part of Finland’s campaign to be elected as one of the non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Due to involvement in UNIFIL, Finland’s crisis management budget for 2012 is 125 million euros, up from last year’s 117 million. Unlike most countries, Finnish crisis management is not funded directly by the military, but by the Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs.

The future of Finland’s crisis management, Commander Salomaa believes, is in developing logistics and command systems. He also sees an increasing need to synergize military crisis management with civilian peacekeepers and NGOs working in crisis areas.

Salomaa says that international experience among the Finnish military staff is highly revered today – it is difficult to get promoted to high positions without it. He expresses his hope that the Finnish Defence Forces will continue to amplify its role in international co-operation in the future.

“When we take part in international crisis management, we present a positive image of Finland, its soldiers and the possibilities of a conscript army. For fifty years Finnish peacekeepers from General to Private have earned an esteemed reputation all around the world.”

Text Sakari Nuuttila