Tag Archives: military training

The latest brainstorm: military sports centers to popularize a military career

The other day I came across a Hungarian-language article about a speech delivered by Antoni Macierewicz, the Polish minister of defense. The article claimed that the minister talked at length about the necessity of having an army that would be strong enough to defend Poland’s independence without outside help. His assessment of Poland’s military strength, both now and in the future, sounded far too optimistic to me, so I visited the Polish site where the information came from. There I learned that, according to Macierewicz, if there is national unity and a national government, there is also a strong army. “We hear voices that the Territorial Defense Force is not needed, but it is the Polish army that binds the nation together.” A unitary Polish nation means an invincible army.

The current Hungarian government has been thinking along the same lines. The debate over the military has been going on for years. It has become evident that the kind of professional army the United States and some other countries have doesn’t satisfy Fidesz politicians’ somewhat old-fashioned military ideas. While in 2003 the socialist-liberal government was envisaging “an army for the 21st century,” the present leadership in many ways would like to build a much more traditional defense force. Viktor Orbán and his comrades know that returning to conscription is out of the question because a few days after such an announcement the Orbán government would be a thing of the past. So they have been trying to expand the numbers of recruits. Given the low pay and prestige of the military in Hungary, this project never got off the ground. Then came the idea of building up a force of reservists who, somewhat like the National Guard in the United States, would serve as part-time soldiers. Interest in the program was meager. Even the training of the so-called “border hunters” was intended to serve as a kind of introduction to army life. Just yesterday, however, the Hungarian media reported that a whole class of a police academy was ordered to the border because the number of “border hunters” was insufficient.

In the last year or so the ministry of defense has been looking for ways to make military service more attractive to young men and women. First, we heard that shooting galleries would be attached to schools, and several school principals reported receiving inquiries from KLIK, the center in charge of all state schools. But a few days later the ministry of human resources, which deals with matters related to education, issued a denial. Although there will be more emphasis on “patriotic” education, the talk about the “militarization” of Hungarian schools was nothing but an unfounded rumor. If there was, at one point, some thought of using schools as sources of future military personnel, this idea had been scrapped.

Meanwhile, the ministry of defense was working on a new idea. On February 11 the ministry announced the formation of the National Defense Sports Association (Honvédelmi Sportszövetség/HS) under its auspices. HS’s president is István Kun Szabó, a major general and assistant undersecretary in the ministry of defense. According to the initial announcement, “the task of HS is to renew the relationship between society and the Hungarian Army and at the same time to promote the establishment of a voluntary reserve system on new foundations through leisure sports.” As I suspected, this new military sports association is a backdoor way to try to enlarge the Hungarian Army. There will be plenty of enticements. In the sports centers that will be built, people can learn to shoot, fence, engage in martial arts and strength athletics, even joust. In addition, they can learn to drive and apply basic first aid. The Sports Association will also organize military summer camps. “Ultimately, the goal is to attract as many young people as possible who want to play a role in defending the country by applying for either reserve or professional service.”

The news came on September 6 that the government had set aside 17.5 billion forints (57.1 million euros) to build 40 sports centers. In a second round, another 67 such centers will be established. They will be constructed on land owned by the Hungarian state, and the structures will also be state-owned. The amount of money to be spent on the first 40 centers is considered by commentators to be extravagant. But these centers must be relatively large to accommodate all the different sports offered. In addition, each of the facilities must have a staff. All in all, operating these centers will not be cheap. Moreover, there is no guarantee that those who benefited from the sports facilities will actually enter the armed services. This will most likely be a mighty expensive way of recruiting military personnel.

At one of the military summer camps

Criticism of the plan to establish more than 100 shooting galleries was immediate. Apparently, 98 shooting galleries exist in Hungary now, and all of them are in terrible shape. Some people argue that the renovation of the existing galleries should be the first priority, not building new ones.

There are objections about the overall course of the Hungarian Army from military experts as well. Gyula Kovács, a retired lieutenant colonel and expert of the Magyar Hadtudományi Társaság (Hungarian Association of Military Science), wrote an opinion peace in Népszava on August 18, 2017 in which he described the Orbán government’s military plans under the title “On the road to the 20th century.” Kovács doesn’t believe that István Simicskó, minister of defense, is the right person to lead the Hungarian military. After years of funding shortages, now at last the ministry is getting a sizable infusion of money, which should be spent on reform. The Hungarian Army is still organized according to the old Soviet structure, which by now even the Russian Army has abandoned. When at the moment there are only 38.6 billion forints for development, spending 17.5 billion on sports centers seems a terrible waste of money. Kovács points out that “the main goal of the program is the formation of a territorial defense force of 20,000.” But he doubts that 20,000 young people will be ready to join the army any time soon. Moreover, one wouldn’t need a larger force if the leadership got rid of the bloated bureaucracy (about 20,000-21,000 men and women) when only 6,000-7,000 people are actively engaged in the military. If the army’s structure were at last changed, 12,000-14,000 men and women could produce, given modern equipment, a division of American quality. In short, the whole project is a waste of money. A modern army cannot be built by recruiting youngsters who like to shoot and enjoy martial arts, he claims.

I can only concur. I simply cannot believe that this trick will produce a large number of recruits. And Gyula Kovács is most likely also right in saying that Hungary doesn’t need such a large force. A smaller and more modern one would suffice, but that would require serious changes, which the big brass would undoubtedly be loath to implement.

September 10, 2017

Introducing patriotic physical education classes

Back to education of sorts. Of sorts because the Orbán government, like all authoritarian regimes, looks upon education as a vehicle for its political agenda. It has been constantly fiddling with education ever since 2010, trying to adapt it to its own ideas and needs. Acquiring knowledge is taking a back seat to nationalistic indoctrination. As the latest test results attest, these “improvements” produced lower scores in all categories–math, science, and verbal skills. Instead of beefing up academic skills appropriate to the modern age, the government added subjects such as religious education (or ethics), and it increased the number of physical education classes. Of course, rote learning is still the pedagogical method of choice. As a result, children spend an inordinate number of hours in the classroom with less and less to show for it.

The Orbán government’s real aim is to use the school system for the infusion of values that the political leadership deems essential. Among these values, perhaps the most important is nationalistic patriotism, which they think young Hungarians lack. Therefore, the Orbán government’s new curriculum places special emphasis on pride in Hungarian cultural and scientific achievements and, in general, on historical and folk traditions. As the ministry of human resources put it, teachers of history and literature are supposed to instill national pride in their pupils.

Over the past seven years the government’s educational “experts” floated several ideas that were supposed to arouse students’ interest in what the Orbán government considers to be Hungarian specialties. Examples were the introduction of horseback riding and the compulsory daily singing of folk songs in schools. Luckily, the crazy idea of daily singing was soon abandoned.

Here I would like to focus on one notion that was put into practice: five gym classes a week instead of the earlier three. In theory, this might have been a good idea, but as usual it was introduced without due preparation and there are still many students who must do their exercises in the corridors instead of a gym due to lack of space. I was also very suspicious about the real reason for this great emphasis on physical education. We all know that a daily exercise program is good for us, and everywhere in the world only a small percentage of children and adults are physically active. Hungary is no exception. So, more gym classes could be a step in the right direction. Still, I was worried from the beginning that the greater emphasis on gym was not for the sole benefit of physical well-being but that the powers-that-be had a hidden agenda. Soon enough there were signs that my fears were justified.

The first sign that the government was thinking about general military training was Viktor Orbán’s surprising announcement that those men who received military training during the Kádár era and afterward, until it was abolished in 2004, gained immeasurably from the experience. The announcement was surprising because Orbán loathed his year in the military between high school and law school. According to his own admission, this was the time when he came to hate the regime and decided to turn against it. But today he seems to be convinced that Hungary must be able to defend itself and therefore must have a strong army. I believe that if the idea of conscription weren’t so unpopular, he wouldn’t mind reinstating compulsory military service. But since this is not possible politically, at least at the moment, he would like to have a strong reserve force.

István Simicskó, minister of defense, has been for the longest time a promoter of the idea of a “home army.” A year ago there was a lot of talk about building one, but it seems that the army found it difficult to convince men and women to enlist. Once that failed, Simicskó floated the idea of establishing shooting galleries in every “járás,” an administrative unit smaller than a county. Today not much can be heard about this idea either. Instead, at the beginning of June RTL Klub reported that the Klebelsberg Center (KLIK), which oversees Hungary’s educational system, inquired from school principals about the feasibility of establishing shooting galleries on school premises. A day later Magyar Nemzet learned that KLIK is also interested in the practicality of introducing martial arts. KLIK wanted to know what kinds of martial arts they teach now, because as of May students can replace gym classes not just with football but also with some kind of martial art. I should add that Simicskó is a practitioner of Wing Chun, a traditional Chinese martial art specializing in close range combat. Simicskó achieved the 4th master level.

The word is now out that by the end of this year schools will have to change the curriculum of gym classes to reflect “a program of patriotism and national defense.” Critics of the Orbán government’s educational policies are baffled and somewhat worried about these plans because of the coupling of patriotism/nationalism and the defense of the homeland. As it is, Hungarian education is supposed to instill an admiration for those who over the years have fought against “foreign oppression.” One only wishes the curriculum placed as much emphasis on the fight against domestic oppressors and the love of individual freedom.

It looks as if it is never too early to start patriotic/nationalistic indoctrination. According to the description of the project, it will begin when children enter kindergarten at the age of three. It is still not clear when students will have to start learning the rudiment of “the basics of military training.”

The plan strongly resembles the “levente movement,” which was introduced in 1921 and came to an end in 1945. It was the primary organization for pre-military training in the Horthy era. According to the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary could maintain only a very small army, so the introduction of the levente movement helped to circumvent the military restrictions imposed on the country. Every male between the ages of 12 and 21 who no longer attended school had to join a local levente group, where he was forced for 8-9 months a year to take physical education classes for three hours a week. So, it’s no wonder that some educational experts are worried that the patriotic physical education classes signal plans to reintroduce conscription sometime in the future.

Members of the levente movement practicing the shot put, 1928

But the very idea of “teaching” patriotism/nationalism to youngsters is frightening by itself. Often the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is blurred. It’s enough to take a look at the dictionary definitions of the two terms. Patriotism is “love and devotion to one’s country” while nationalism is “devotion, especially excessive or undiscriminating devotion to the interests or culture of a particular nation state.” But what is excessive? The second meaning of nationalism is even more telling. Nationalism is “the belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national rather than international goals,” which is certainly true of the “patriotic” aspirations of the Orbán government.

In brief, the present regime is introducing the teaching of blatant nationalism into the school curriculum. This highly questionable project is being financed to the tune of 318 million forints by, I’m sorry to say, the European Union. It is one of the many paradoxes that most of us find intolerable. Here is the European Union, which is supposed to stand for international cooperation and ever closer integration at the expense of nationalistic egotism, and that organization finances Viktor Orbán’s latest plans to bring up a generation of Hungarians antagonistic to the very ideas the European Union stands for.

August 6, 2017

The latest plan: The militarization of Hungary’s youth

A few days before the October referendum Viktor Orbán gave an interview to Katolikus Rádió in which he painted an unusually grim picture of the Hungarian military. He pointed out that Hungary’s neighbors have been expanding their military capabilities lately, but “Hungary is way behind.” “A serious country has its own army, an effective force,” he insisted. Of course, what Orbán neglected to tell his audience was that for the current absolutely deplorable state of the Hungarian army his own administration is largely responsible.

The Hungarian Army was never much to brag about, but at least earlier governments allocated more money to the military. In 2006 the government spent 283 billion forints for defense, which was 1.24% of the GDP. Today defense spending is 0.79% of the GDP. The MSZP-SZDSZ governments steadily, if modestly, raised military expenditures while the Fidesz government has consistently shrunk military spending. The current plan is to increase the military budget by 0.1% each year. That means that the country will reach the level of military spending during Gyurcsány’s last year in office only in 2022.

This is at least the second time the Orbán government has announced its intention to do something with the Hungarian army. In 2014 they promised the modernization of equipment, but without adequate resources it is hard to replace all the antiquated and often unusable tanks, helicopters, and artillery. According to a 2014 article, Hungary had 15 tanks, 12 howitzers, and 0 helicopters. At that time there was talk about purchasing Italian-made helicopters, but so far nothing has come of it. Although at the military base at Tata there were about 50 Soviet T-72 tanks manufactured in the 1970s, half of these were good only for parts. The 12 guns are also Soviet made, D20s. At that time experts estimated that the Hungarian army’s arsenal was 20 to 30 years behind the times.

And don’t think the situation was better when it came to uniforms. Hungarian soldiers serving in Afghanistan, for example, had to return in their old uniforms so they could be used by the soldiers taking their place. As for fighter planes, I assume the readers remember the two Gripens that were practically destroyed in accidents due to inexperienced pilots. Apparently, there isn’t enough money for fuel for extended flights. Hence pilots are inadequately trained.

The state of the Hungarian army nothing like what this photo suggests

The state of the Hungarian army is nothing like what this photo suggests

Then there is the problem of personnel. The Hungarian Army consists of about 25,000 men and women, but “under the best of circumstances only 4-5,000 of them could be sent to a fighting unit.” Recruiting hasn’t been successful. As a source told Index, “today only those come who have no other opportunities. The mother of numerous children in the hope of 80-90,000 forints a month.” Those who have technical skills would rather work for one of the auto manufacturers where they make a great deal more money.

Under these circumstances it is hard to imagine that the Orbán government will be able to attract 20,000 people as reservists in the near future. Because this is the plan. Moreover, it looks as if these additional men and women will be part of a kind of alternate army, organized along the lines of the National Guard in the United States. This idea has been kicking around for a while. István Simicskó, minister of defense, who was undersecretary of defense in the first Orbán government (1998-2002), has been smitten with the idea for some time. At first he wanted to call it Magyar Gárda, but then came the far-right paramilitary formation that usurped that name. In 2007, while in opposition, he pushed for the establishment of a Honi Gárda (Home Guard). Now as minister he is in the position to implement his plans, and it looks as if he has convinced Viktor Orbán to endorse them.

Orbán outlined the plan for a territorial Honi Gárda, if they settle for that name, which will consist of at least one company of reservists for every “járás.” Currently there are 174 “járások” in Hungary. A Hungarian company (század) consists of 3-5 platoons (szakaszok), which consist of 30 men and women. Therefore, even if we assume only 3 platoons to a company, we are talking about 15,750 new recruits who will have to be trained, armed, and paid. However, I assume that the companies will consist of four platoons because Orbán specifically talked about 20,000 men and women. This plan, under the present circumstances and given the limited funds available, sounds like a pipe dream to me. But Orbán indicated that the ministry will begin the organization of these territorial units on January 1, 2017. These territorial companies will be attached to the ten already existing garrisons.

Some military experts might be skeptical about the viability of setting up such an ambitious alternative army, but the government has already approved the plan. Only the details remain to be worked out. Apparently by setting up such local units the government “would like to strengthen the patriotic commitment and generosity of the population.”

A network of military sports clubs will also be established through which the army will try to reach youngsters at a very early age. Simicskó was talking about seven-year-olds.

The government also wants more school children to acquire basic military knowledge. Simicskó claims that they don’t intend to introduce militarism into the educational system. Rather, they would like to instill “a value system, a cast of mind that is based on patriotism.” As he said, “our task is difficult because in a sense we represent a counterculture.” He complained about “children sitting in front of the computer whose social responsibility is minimal.”

Some people, including me, would call Simicskó’s plan brainwashing. Instead of beefing up the army, which at the moment couldn’t resist an invading force even for the short period required before the arrival of NATO forces, the government will now spend who knows how much money on the indoctrination of the youth. Everything is subordinated to political considerations by the Orbán government. Even the security of the country. Under the guise of military preparedness the government will be spreading the “values” of the illiberal state to a new generation of cadres. Another shameful move on the part of Viktor Orbán.

October 17, 2016

The Hungarian army will soon receive its marching orders

It looks as if the Orbán government will introduce a state of emergency on September 15, when a new era will begin, at least according to Viktor Orbán.

I wouldn’t venture to predict what exactly that state of emergency will entail because the Hungarian government doesn’t seem to be in control of the situation. A decision that was made yesterday is often scrapped today.

The idea of having transit zones on Hungarian territory that are open toward Serbia but impassable toward Hungary was considered to be a capital idea. The great legal wizard of Fidesz, Gergely Gulyás, in a lengthy interview assured the public that this plan couldn’t possibly be challenged by the present laws of the European Union. But then someone with more legal acumen came to the conclusion that since these transit zones will be built on Hungarian soil, they cannot be considered extraterritorial areas as another great legal expert, László Trócsányi, the minister of justice, claimed.

The picture that is emerging of Viktor Orbán not just in Hungary but in the world

He brought shame to the country: The failed immigration policy of Viktor Orbán

So, no more transit zones, only the fence where the thousands who arrive every day will be stopped by Hungarian police and, from September 15 on, by the Hungarian army. The refugees will, I guess, ask for asylum across the fence. The Hungarian authorities will then decline their requests within three days. There will be no exceptions because none of those who are trying to enter Hungary from Serbia are considered to be refugees. Serbia is, according to the Hungarian government, a safe country that could provide them asylum. There is no need for them to cross into Hungary. The whole thing will be a charade. The scenes the world can watch online of Hungarian police chasing refugees around the refugee camp don’t bode well for the future. But the government hopes that the army’s presence will achieve miracles.

And that brings me back to the sudden resignation of Csaba Hende, who had served as minister of defense since 2010. In the past he was often the butt of jokes because of his less than military physique and his lack of knowledge about military matters in general. His critics considered him incompetent. They were certain that he would not be reappointed when Viktor Orbán formed his third government last year. But Hende remained in his post. Orbán couldn’t have been that dissatisfied with him. But then why the decision to resign? It happened right after a meeting of the ministers directly involved with national security issues.

There are at least three stories circulating in Budapest about the circumstances of Hende’s resignation. The first is that Viktor Orbán fired him because the fence that was supposed to keep the refugees out of the country was not ready by August 15. The second story goes something like this: during the meeting Hende received a lot of criticism of his handling of the crisis and, after a heated debate, Hende decided that he had had enough. The third explanation is that Hende, being a lawyer by training, objected to the use of the army for domestic purposes without amending the Hungarian constitution. In addition, his generals also objected to the government’s plans. Hence, the resignation. My hunch is that there is a kernel of truth in all three versions.

So now Hungary has a new minister of defense, István Simicskó, whose encounter with Celeste A. Wallander, currently special assistant to President Obama and senior director for Russia and Eurasia on the National Security Council, I recalled two days ago.

Simicskó, I’m sure, feels on top of the world at the moment. I don’t know how long he has been dreaming about this job, but at least since 2002. In 2010 he was sure that his dream would be fulfilled, but then he ended up as the second man under Csaba Hende. The two of them didn’t get along, and after two years Simicskó resigned and became undersecretary in charge of sports in the ministry of human resources. He is an avid practitioner of martial arts.

In Simicskó Hungary will have a minister of defense who is very taken with the military. Although his college degree was in hotel management, he subsequently got a degree in economics and finally a Ph.D. in military science. So, he seems well prepared for the job, at least on paper.

There are, however, a couple of things in his bio that should give us pause. Simicskó was the only member of parliament of the 365 present who voted against Hungary’s joining the European Union. Mind you, Viktor Orbán simply didn’t show up that day.

For years Simicskó has been a dogged promoter of a Hungarian equivalent of the U.S. National Guard. Originally, he proposed calling it “Magyar Gárda,” but that name was subsequently taken by Jobbik’s paramilitary organization, which was eventually banned. In 2004, after compulsory military service was abolished, he campaigned for summer military training for eighteen-year-old boys. In 2007 he changed the name of his proposed organization to Honi Gárda (Home Guard), which he wanted to employ in the fight against terrorism. It is possible that now, as minister of defense, Simicskó will be able to achieve his goal.

Last year journalists noted that not all was well with the figures in Simicskó’s financial statements. According to journalists who pay attention to such matters, among Hungarian politicians Simicskó is the sloppiest. When they inquired from him about the discrepancies, he was rude. He accused them of besmearching his good name and of taking instructions from above–that is, from politicians of the opposition.

Simicskó was also accused of buying votes by distributing 10 kg sacks of inexpensive potatoes. And he was caught handing out orange-colored gym socks with bars of chocolate in them. All in all, he is considered by many to be a shady character.

His work is cut out for him. One just hopes that no tragedy will befall the frustrated asylum seekers at the hands of the armed military.