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Spain's Youth Ask: `Why Compulsory Military Service?'

UNDER fruit-laden orange trees in one of this city's many small squares, a group of young men discusses the country's one-year obligatory military service. ``I think it's a lost year of my youth,'' says Antonio, a compact young man with three months left of his mili, as it is called here. ``I spend my time learning to shoot a machine gun. But they don't tell us who the enemy is.''

``Maybe Morocco,'' another young man offers desultorily. Like Antonio, he refuses to give his full name.

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Across Spain, discussions like this are going on among young people. Political parties, seeking to attract the youth vote in Spain's elections last Sunday, fueled the debate with calls for reduction or replacement of required military service.

The conservative Popular Democratic Party called for an initial reduction to eight months, with measures to encourage a shift to volunteer service. The Democratic and Social Center wanted a reduction to three months with an eventual switch to a professional army. The communist United Left favored a national referendum on the issue.

After these parties began drawing attention to their proposals, Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez M'arquez of the ruling Socialist Party came out in favor of reducing the service to nine months.

``This is an issue that is growing in all the countries of Europe where there is required service,'' says Philippe Moreau Defarges, a specialist in Western European affairs at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. ``The young people think it's a waste of their time. They ask themselves, `Who is my enemy?' and they can't answer the question. They don't see a purpose in what they're doing.''

Earlier this year, former French President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing came out in favor of replacing the 12-month required service with an all-volunteer military - as Britain, Luxembourg, the United States, and Canada already have.

In West Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl last spring rescinded plans to extend his country's required service from 15 to 18 months, after confronting intense resistance. The plan was intended to help meet Germany's obligations to NATO manpower.

In Spain, the issue takes on an emotional dimension among tight-knit families whose young sons sometimes experience depression or get into trouble - especially when pulled from insular rural surroundings. Over the past six years, more than 160 Spaniards have committed suicide while completing their military service, and hundreds more have tried. Last year there were 124 deaths among more than 250,000 drafted soldiers - of which 24 were officially listed as suicides.

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``I know of three people who killed themselves, everybody knows of at least one case like that,'' says Antonio. ``They're sad because they can't see their family, and they've often left a girlfriend at home. Usually there's only one leave per year,'' he adds, ``which is very difficult.''

The thought of a professional army is anathema to many adult Spaniards, who remember Francisco Franco's military dictatorship. Additionally the government, which spends nearly 2 percent of gross national product on national defense, or about the same percentage as does Italy, is anxious to avoid the extra costs of a professional military.

Beyond that there remains in Spain, as in France, an attachment to the notion of military service as builder of national conscience.

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