La Mili, Spain’s Former Compulsory Military Service

Long, historical post about Spain’s military service, coming right up!

La Mili Spain

Source

In March of 2001, Spain’s then-Minister of Defense Federico Trillo, made a huge announcement: “Señoras y señores, se acaba la mili.” My husband, Mario, was then in his first year of university, studying translation and interpretation—he hadn’t had to do the formerly obligatory military service, nor had his brother. As for me, Spain was the last thing on my mind: I was in eighth grade and planning on taking Japanese, not Spanish!

But for over 200 years, Spain’s young men were expected to their duty and spend just over a year in the military, ever since King Carlos III introduced conscription in 1770 (the idea came before him, however). He issued an order in which one in five young men of military age would be conscripted. These names would be drawn from a list, a census, of young men.

And so it was for a long time. Although my husband and his brother were not affected, my father-in-law did indeed serve. I decided to interview him. When I sent him a list of a few brief questions, he replied with a four-page document. (He is nothing if not diligent and studious!) I will include his answers in Spanish, which I will then translate for my non-Spanish-speaking readers, of which I have a few.

¿Con qué edad tenías que alistarte? How old were you when you had to sign up [for the military]?

En el año que cumples los 18 años. Cuando vivías en un pueblo (mi caso) se hacía en los Ayuntamientos y de una forma automática. El secretario del Ayuntamiento preparaba la relación de “mozos” reclutados o quintos.

The year in which you turned 18. When you lived in a village (like me), this was done in the town hall. The town clerk prepared it all for the young men who had been recruited (called quintos).

Después venía el momento de “tallar” a los quintos. El médico del pueblo hacía un reconocimiento general, medía la estatura o talla (de ahí “tallar”), pesaba y medía el perímetro torácico. ¿Por qué? Porque la Ley contemplaba una serie de medidas mínimas, por debajo de las cuales quedas incapacitado para ir a la mili. Y también una serie de defectos que incapacitaban (miopía, pies planos…) por citar dos muy comunes.

Then came time to “size up” the recruits. The village doctor carried out a thorough examination, he measured their heights ( he “sized them up”), weighed them, and measured their chest circumference. Why? Because the law included a series of minimum measurements, below which one would be considered unfit for military service. There were also a number of defects that would incapacitate someone—myopia and flat feet, to name two quite common ones.

Se clasificaban en aptos (se decía “útiles”) y no aptos y posteriormente se celebraba el sorteo. Allí tenían ya asignado el cupo (cantidad) de reclutas que tenía que aportar esa provincia. A esto se llamaba “entrar en caja”.

The possible recruits were classified as fit (or as they used to say, “useful”) and unfit, and later they held the draw. The quota (quantity) of recruits for that province would have already been allocated. This was called “entering into conscription.”

El sorteo consistía en extraer una bola con un número y a partir de ése se hacían grupos de igual número de reclutas para cada llamamiento. En mi época había 4 llamamientos que se incorporaban en enero, abril, julio y octubre. Y contaban… tantos para la Península, tantos para África (Ifni, Sáhara; pero en mi época sólo Ceuta y Melilla), tantos para Canarias…o para aviación, o para la marina.

The draw consisted of drawing a ball with a number and from that number groups of equal numbers of recruits were made for each call. In my day, there were four calls, which incorporated in January, April, July, and October. And they counted so many for the Peninsula, so many for Africa (Ifni, Sahara; but in my day only Ceuta and Melilla), so many for the Canary Islands … as well as for the air force or the marines.

Jesus Mili

My father-in-law in his uniform

¿Era totalmente obligatorio? Was it totally mandatory?

En mi época sí era obligatorio por lo que había dos posibilidades:

  • Esperar al proceso normal (que ya te he contado).
  • Alistarte voluntario a la edad de 17 años (no antes, pero tampoco cuando ya estuviera en marcha el proceso ordinario). Éstos tenían la ventaja de no sufrir el sorteo y podían pedir dónde hacer la mili. Recuerda la distribución del territorio y los tres ejércitos que había.

In my day, it was indeed mandatory, and there were two possibilities:

  • Wait for the normal process (that I’ve already told you about).
  • Enlist voluntarily at 17 (not before, but also not when the ordinary process had already begun). These recruits had the advantage of not having to go through the draw, and they could pick where to carry out their military service. Remember the different destinations and the three branches.

¿Dónde tuviste que ir tú? Where did you have to go?

A mí me tocó en el sorteo ir a Ceuta (norte de África).

I was chosen to go to Ceuta (northern Africa).

Ceuta España

Source

Nos llamaron a la Caja de Reclutamiento en Zamora y nos entregaron el petate (bolso grande para guardar las pertenecías). Nos llevaron a la estación de San Fernando (Cádiz) y desde allí nos subieron en camiones militares y nos llevaron al C.I.R. 16, (Centro de Instrucción de Reclutas nº 16). en Camposoto.

They called us to the Conscription Office in Zamora and they gave us the petate (a big bag in which to store our belongings). They took us to San Fernando station in Cádiz and from there they put us on back military trucks and took us to the CIR 16 (Recruit Training Center 16) in Camposoto.

El período de instrucción es un número de días fijo y después “juras bandera”; acto esperado por los padres para ver a sus hijos “hechos unos hombres”, como se decía. Para ellos era un orgullo, ya que si eras apto es porque no tenías alguna anomalía. En mi caso, como estaba muy lejos, no pudieron ir, pero allí estuvieron mis tíos, los padres de los primos de Chiclana, que por aquellos días estaban allí.

Después la jura de bandera nos dieron aproximadamente 10 días de permiso para ir a casa. El día antes de venir con ese permiso asesinaron al Presidente del Gobierno y, evidentemente, tuvimos miedo de que nos quitaran el permiso. Afortunadamente no fue así, tan sólo retrasaron la salida de los autobuses unas 8 horas.

The training period was a fixed number of days, and then there was a ceremony to swear allegiance to the flag, an event long awaited by parents to see their boys “made into men,” as it used to be said. For the parents it was an honor, because their boys were fit and had no abnormalities. In my case, as it was far, my parents couldn’t attend, but my aunts and uncles, cousins, and cousins’ parents from Chiclana were there.

After the swearing-in ceremony, we were given approximately ten days to go home. But the day before we were to go home, the prime minister was assassinated, and—obviously—we feared that we would not be allowed to go home. Fortunately, our fears were unfounded, and the bus’s departure was just delayed eight hours.

Después te asignaban a una especialidad dentro del ejército y al regresar del permiso nos fuimos a nuestro destino, Ceuta, en el barco, para nosotros La Paloma, por su color blanco y por aquello de la esperanza de regresar a tu pueblo. Eso fue el 1 de enero de 1974.

¿Qué se hacía en el CIR (vulgarmente llamado campamento)? Gimnasia, clases teóricas y servicios mecánicos (limpieza y cocina), pero no de armas.

Recuerdo que en gimnasia, algunos días nos llevaban a la “pista americana”, llamada así, según nos dijeron, porque era similar a las que tenían en tu país para los marines. El tiempo de gimnasia me gustaba más que la instrucción, especialmente la pista americana. Recuerdo que tenía mucha fuerza.

Then they assigned you to a specialty within the army, and upon return from my leave home, we went to our destination, Ceuta, by ship. We referred to the ship as The Dove for its white color and for our hope of returning home. This was January 1, 1974.

What did we do in the CIR (which we ordinarily called just “camp”)? Calisthenics, theoretical classes, and mechanical services (like cooking and cleaning), but not weapons. I remember that during calisthenics times, some days they took us to the “American track,” which was referred to as such because it was similar to what the marines had in your country [USA]. I liked calisthenics time more than classes and instruction, especially the track. I remember being very strong.

Cuéntame de tus experiencias. ¿Era divertido /aburrido? ¿Aprendiste algo? Tell me about your experience. Was it fun/boring? Did you learn anything?

La vida era muy monótona. Diana (levantarse), aseo, desayuno, gimnasia, instrucción, clase teórica / práctica y comida. Pasó la mañana. Tiempo libre, que gastabas leyendo, oyendo música, escribiendo cartas, jugando a las cartas o en tu cama. Después, clase teórica y tiempo libre; en éste podías quedarte en el cuartel o salir de paseo, tras pasar una inspección para ver si estabas correctamente uniformado y afeitado.

Life was very monotonous. Reveille (get up), shower, breakfast, calisthenics, instruction, class, and lunch. Morning over. Free time, which you spent reading, listening to music, writing letters, playing cards, or in your bed. Later, more class and free time. In this free time, you could stay in the barracks or go out for a walk after passing inspection to see if you were uniformed properly and shaved.

Los que éramos maestros o profesores a la hora del paseo teníamos 1 hora de clase para los soldados que no tenían los mínimos conocimientos en las instrumentales (leer, escribir y las cuatro operaciones fundamentales). Esta actividad, curiosamente, se llamaba “extensión cultural” y estaba organizada por un Comandante. Cuando salíamos de paseo visitábamos las tiendas de los “indios” (hindúes) para comprar relojes de pulsera, radiocassettes, tapices, tabaco rubio, whisky, cerámica de Macao … Alguna vez íbamos al cine o merendábamos en alguna taberna.

During the afternoon free period, those of us who were teachers had one hour of class with soldiers who did not have the minimum-required abilities in reading, writing, and the four fundamental operation. This activity, curiously, was called “cultural outreach,” and it was organized by a commander. When we went out walking, we visited the “Indian” (HIndu) stores to buy watches, radio cassettes, tapestries, blond snuff, whiskey, ceramic from Macau … Sometimes we went to the movies or had a bite to eat in some tavern.

Como se ve en las películas, todas las actividades rutinarias se ordenaban o comunicaban con una corneta que tocaba un soldado, a quien llamábamos el corneta (como no podía ser de otra manera) o el turuta (nombre más onomatopéyico).

Toda esa actividad diaria rutinaria era obligatoria para todos, pero había “cargos” que no podían asistir a algunas de ellas, especialmente la instrucción y la clase teórica/práctica. Los cargos principales y permanentes  eran: furrieles (*), oficinistas, oficina técnica, bibliotecario, vestuario, cocineros y ayudantes, armería, lavandería, cocheras, la banda.

Like you see in the movies, all these routine activities were cocmmunicated by a soldier with a bugle, which we called “the bugle” (how could it be otherwise?) or turuta (a rather more onomatopoeic name).

All these daily activities were mandatory for everyone, but there were those with special “posts” who could not attend everything, especially classes. These were quartermasters*, office workers, technical office workers, librarians, dressing room, armory, laundry, depot, and the band.

*The quartermaster was the person responsible for the distribution of supplies to his company as well as staff appointments for his group. I was quartermaster from April until I finished. Since I had free time, I would go to the library and read and summarize; I wrote summaries of … everything I could find. There I made friends with Antonio, the librarian, from Hellín, the place of the delicious sweets.

Además, cada día el furriel nombraba los servicios para el día siguiente: guardia, refuerzo, retén, cocina, lavandería. Por la noche, el oficial de guardia de cada compañía  pasaba lista y leía la Orden para el día siguiente. A su vez, el furriel leía los servicios que había nombrado.

Aprender, aprender… yo siempre aprendo. Aprendí a sentir orgullo de nuestra bandera y nuestro ejército, a conocer intensamente a otros y a respetarlos,  pero también a tener paciencia y resignación, a compartir, a ayudar, a ser solidario, a obedecer y a ser disciplinado. Valoras el tiempo, pues allí se pierde mucho, pero haces amistades que duran para siempre, y recuerdos, que, con la distancia que impone el paso del tiempo, te resultan agradables o, al menos, curiosos.

In addition, every day the quartermaster would appoint the services for the following day: guard duty, reinforcement, reserves, kitchen, laundry. At night, the on-duty officer from each company would do roll call and read the order for the next day. In turn, the quartermaster would read off his list.

Learning, learning … I’m always learning. I learned to feel proud of our flag and our military, to really get to know other people and respect them, and also to be patient and to defer to others, to share, to help, to be supportive, to obey, and to be disciplined. You value time, and in la mili you lost a lot, but you also made friends for a lifetime, and memories that, with the distance imposed by the passage of time, you find pleasing or—at least—interesting.

¿Hablabas con tu familia? Did you communicate with your family?

La comunicación telefónica no la utilicé nunca. Ni siquiera recuerdo si entonces ya había teléfono en mi pueblo; pero en caso de que lo hubiera, era uno público, atendido por una persona (casualmente era mi madrina y tía) que tenía que ir a casa para avisar.

Por lo que nos limitábamos a las cartas y a las tarjetas postales. Aunque los envíos más sustanciosos eran los paquetes que, de vez en cuando, nos enviaban nuestros padres desde casa. El contenido ya te lo imaginas, lo que tenían de cosecha: chorizo, salchichón y alguna golosina. Cuando alguno de tu grupo más allegado lo recibía, lo compartíamos hasta que se acabara, merendando en la cantina del cuartel, regado con alguna botella de vino (aunque otros preferían whisky, ya que allí era muy barato). Todos coincidían: “el mejor embutido es el de Jesús”.

I never used the telephone. I don’t even remember if there was a telephone in my hometown, but if there were, it was a public one, attended by someone (coincidentally my godmother and aunt), who would have to go to your house and tell your family.

Thus we were limited to letters and post cards. Nonetheless, more substantial were the packages that, once in a while, our parents would send us from home. You can imagine what they contained, whatever they had: chorizo, salchichón, and maybe some candy. When one of my friends got a package, we would share it until it was all gone, picnicking in the barracks canteen, washed down with some wine (although some preferred whiskey, as it was cheaper). Everyone agreed that “the best embutido is from Jesús.”

What have you heard about la mili?

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16 comments

  1. I’ve heard a lot from my dad. He was sent to Toledo and has many fond memories, although he says la mili made him stronger; When there’s something to eat that looks disgusting, he would just eat it and say something like “you wouldn’t make those faces had you been in la mili like me”. But I can imagine it was a hard time and it depended on where you were sent to and how strict your generals were.

  2. Number one, WOW Mario looks just like his dad!

    Number two, my boyfriend is in the mili, and it has changed tremendously lately due to budget cuts and Spain being involved with NATO. They’re actually turning away people who want to enlist because they can’t pay them.

  3. Your father in law is such a fountain of knowledge (and looks very handsome in his uniform)! I would love to talk to him too! I did not know Spain had mandatory military service. France did too but it was abolished sometime in the 1980s I believe. My father had to serve one year–we found pictures of him wearing his uniform, it was pretty funny.

    Nowadays it is mandatory for French teenagers to go to a day called “La Journee d’Appel de preparation a la defense” which is basically a day held in schools in which they learn about the military and the different branches, etc. etc. I got my citizenship at 20 so the following year I got the official letter saying I had to go (they do workshops in the USA for French teenagers in select locations, I was lucky enough I lived close by to NYC where it was held at the Lycee Francais). So my sister and I went and it was a rather interesting experience… but I’m still not joining the military (French or American or otherwise).

  4. Hi, Kaley. I’m Spaniard and a fan of your blog.
    I had to serve in the ‘Mili’ too but many years after, in 1988, and my experiences and impressions are exactly the same described by your father in law, despite I serve in the Democracy and he served in the Dictatorship. I think this is interesting point. The ‘Mili’ didn’t change despite the democratical change. Probably, this is because it became so impopular and finally was abolished.

    By the way, let’s me correct a mistake. The ‘Marina’ is the Navy not the Marines. The Marines are named in Spain ‘Infanteria de Marina’. Unlike USA, in Spain they aren’t an independent corps. They are integrated as a part of the Navy. Historical fact. They are the oldest marines in the world, because the corps was created in the XVI century.

    Sorry if my English is bad

  5. Hi Kaley, I’m Spaniard and I follow your blog whenever I can. First, I’d like to apologize for my grammar and vocabulary mistakes.
    Speaking about Mili, in my case, I’ve heard a lot from my dad. That’s why I’d like to write here, so I can offer you another point of view of this service. In the case of my father, he had to serve in Melilla but he hasn’t many fond memories as your father in law. He served just after Franco’s dead and so the instruction was a mix of democratic and franquism ideas. The problem was that my father was sympathetic to leftist political philosophy at that time (he had indeed ran many times in front of the “grises” as he had told me) So you see, this was not the best situation for him as most generals didn’t share his views therefore he mostly spent his service either on duty in the frontier or in the cells (due to his defiance as he didn’t want to shot inmigrants on the frontier)
    An additional remark I’d like to comment it’s that due to his height, he was on the “gastadores” set. And they told him he could go to serve as gastador for the king(I don’t know how this group is called now, I’ll have to ask him about it). But in the end, he didn’t accepted because of his ideas.
    I’d also like to add ppl with less money were to spent the worse military service ever. According to my father rich ppl got to choose sometimes their destinations, confortable rooms… or even avoided the service…
    The one thing he agrees on with other comments I’ve seen, is that he says la mili made him stronger.

    1. Hello! Thank you for your comment. Feel free to comment in Spanish anytime, creo que lo hablo perfectamente!

      Yes, I can see how a different political philosophy might cause problems. Mario’s father didn’t really mention it, but I think he was more centrist in his views, and he’s never been very political.

  6. Hi Kaley, I’m Spaniard and I follow your blog whenever I can. First, I’d like to apologize for my grammar and vocabulary mistakes.
    Speaking about Mili, in my case, I’ve heard a lot from my dad. That’s why I’d like to write here, so I can offer you another point of view of this service. In the case of my father, he had to serve in Melilla but he hasn’t many fond memories as your father in law. He served just after Franco’s dead and so the instruction was a mix of democratic and franquism ideas. The problem was that my father was sympathetic to leftist political philosophy at that time (he had indeed ran many times in front of the “grises”) So you see, this was not the best situation for him as most generals didn’t share his views therefore he mostly spent his service either on duty in the frontier or in the cells (due to his defiance as he didn’t want to shot inmigrants on the frontier)
    An additional remark I’d like to comment it’s that due to his height, he was on the “gastadores” set. And they told him he could go to serve as gastador for the king(I don’t know how this group is called now, I’ll have to ask him about it). But in the end, he didn’t accepted because of his ideas.
    I’d also like to add ppl with less money were to spent the worse military service ever. According to my father rich ppl got to choose sometimes their destinations, confortable rooms… or even avoided the service…

    The one thing he agrees with other comments I’ve seen is that he says la mili made him stronger.

  7. Hello!excuse my bad english,(i am student,is my first year with english).I´m spanish and I love the long Spain´s history.One curious date: the spanish army is created after 8 centuries versus muslim occupers of Iberian Peninsula,(Actually Spain and Portugal),this long period of war (711 a:C at 1492 a.C) advise the Spain´s Kings to create a mercenaries forces of infantry,for figth with french enemies in Italian Peninsula.With the expulsion of french armies of Italian lands,born the new army in Europe:the spanish infantry,called “los tercios”,a professional strike forces that dominate Europe versus French,Nederlands and English enemies,during the period of first battle of Atella(Italy)in 1496,with the defeat of french army vs spains troops,at 1643,when the french armies defeat the last spanish troops in Europe,in the battle of Rocroi,in 1643.In 1534 the spanish infantry is shipped in royal ships of king,for war vs turkish empire in mediterranian sea.This new infantry is the first navy infantry in the world,called “los marinos”(the seamen),and in present day,the infantry shipped of your country,the marines,owe their name at that distant infantry of a european country,spain.
    In present day,the spanish army is a professional force,with 3 arms,(land army,armada(navy) and air force).Congratulations for your blog.!!!

      1. Pues muchas gracias,como ya comenté,soy jovencito y estoy empezando con tu lengua.Básicamente decir eso,que “marines” viene de “marinos”,en español,sino,en inglés sería algo así como “seamen”,+ o -.Thanks…

  8. I had a student named Antonio who served in tge dame place amd time. He is also from Malaga. How wild would that be if he is your FIL’s friend. Is Antonio a rare Spanish red head?

    Also my husband managed to avoid the draft by going to school and then the US.
    Great post!

  9. Amelie88, I’m afraid you misunderstood the article. Spain has no mandatory military service.In fact, Spain was one of the first countries in Europe, together with France (both in early 1996) to abolish compulsory military service. Indeed, France never really abolished it completely (they have retained a one-day symbolic “draft,” which Spain does not). The fist countries to abolish it were Holland and Belgium in 1991. Then France and Spain in 1996. Years later, many other countries followed the lead, the latest being Germany in 2012.

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