The correct piece of paper

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The General noticed that one of his soldiers was behaving very oddly. Over several days on the parade ground, in the office, in the barrack-rooms, the soldier would pick up every piece of paper that he could see. He would look at the paper, read it carefully, then frown and say: “That’s not it!” before putting it down again.

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The General arranged for the solider to have a psychiatric test. The psychologist concluded that the soldier was suffering from a mental illness and might be a danger to his fellow soldiers. The doctor immediately filled out and signed a form discharging the soldier from the army.

The soldier picked up the form, read it, smiled and said: “Ahhhh! That’s it!”

The story

That one turned up a few years ago in one of those international polls of different countries’ favourite jokes. In this case it was the favourite in Germany.

It’s odd nowadays how the compulsory military service which was once a part of the lives of most young men in Europe has been almost completely forgotten. Perhaps it’s because most men who went through it would prefer to forget the whole thing as – at best – a waste of time.

Britain had phased out National Service by 1963 for a variety of reasons. There was Britain’s traditional preference for a professional volunteer army. The forces also took the view that an annual intake of tens of thousands of reluctant conscripts who would only be around for 18 months were a useless encumbrance. Despite endless letters to the press demanding the return of National Service, every government knew it was a non-starter, and probably electoral suicide.

In Europe, though, young men continued to get their call-up papers until very recently. It remained in France until 2001, and in Germany (with various complicated legal and conscientious get-out clauses) until 2011. By the 1960s it had become a political hot potato in many western European countries, especially West Germany where many youngsters mistrusted anything that smacked of the militarism of the Nazi era. At election times, opportunistic politicians would try and attract the youth vote by pulling such stunts as demanding that conscripts be allowed longer hair. Military service was likewise compulsory in Eastern Europe (it still is in Russia) where it was no more popular.

Here’s another one. This time from Belgium (Belgian jokes are the Marmite of humour; you love ’em or hate ’em … )

A young man gets his conscription notice, reports to the doctor for medical tests and deliberately mis-reads the chart when his eyesight is being tested. He gets every letter wrong. The doctor falls for it, and recommends him as unfit for military service.

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The young man leaves, feeling elated. He has a nice meal in a cafe and decides to round off a perfect day by getting the bus into Brussels to see a comedy film. He’s happily watching the film, laughing with the rest of the audience when, halfway through, the cinema lights come on for the interval. He now realises that in the seat right next to him is the same doctor who had tested his eyes that morning. Thinking quickly, he turns to the Doctor and says, “Please tell me, are we going to Antwerp? I’m worried that I might not be on the right bus.”