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Opinion
So What’s This Lack Of Army I Keep Hearing About?

So What’s This Lack Of Army I Keep Hearing About?

Photos by
Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir

Published November 26, 2014

Iceland has no army. It does operate a Coast Guard, which does have four ships, three of which are combat-ready vessels. The Coast Guard has a wide variety of guns at its disposal, from cannons to handguns. But it is not really a navy in any kind of traditional sense. The National Police Commissioner also has a Special Unit of 50 police officers, nicknamed “The Viking Squad,” which has several units specialized in various aspects of armed conflict.

Viking Squad? Should monks in Britain and France start locking their doors at night and pray for safety from the wrath of the Northmen?
Just about the only thing the Viking Squad has in common with their namesakes, Actual Vikings, is that neither wear helmets with horns. That is about it as far as anything that could be called a militarized force in Iceland. With the best will in the world, it includes about 250 people—that includes those who answer the phones when you call the Coast Guard office. This is not a recent development. Unlike military-free countries such as Costa Rica or Haiti, Iceland never had an army to disband.

No army? So all these Vikings that settled Iceland gave up their bloodletting ways?
First of all, the actual Vikings who settled Iceland were only a small proportion of the original settlers. Second, no they certainly did not give up their bloodletting ways. In the first few centuries of its existence, Icelandic government had no executive branch. People had to enforce laws and court judgements on their own, which often meant doing so by force, which could lead to death and disfigurement. And if someone harmed you or your family, you had to retaliate in turn. It made for an unstable society, which was good material for saga-writing, but bad for getting through life with all your limbs attached.

I also sometimes do stupid things to get a good story, like when I stuck a baby eel up my nose.
After Iceland became part of Norway, and then of Denmark when Norway became subject to the Danish king, there was little or no effort made to create an army in Iceland. There was not much gained for the Danish state in having an army in a generally quite peaceful country, especially since transporting the troops to where they would be needed in mainland Europe would take months. This lack of army sometimes caused problems, such as in the sixteenth century, when English and German merchants fought for control of harbours in Iceland, with dozens of deaths. And, then, there was a mini-religious war between Catholics and Lutherans.

You see, the baby eel wriggled about for a while and then fell out. Maybe that’s not such a good story.
With Iceland’s lack of army, the occasional pirate ship could have free reign in the country, as could Danish adventurer Jørgen Jørgensen, who took control of Iceland for a couple of months along with a few British merchant buddies of his. However, mostly no one wanted Iceland badly enough to take it away from the Kingdom of Denmark, so an army was not needed. Though there was one instance of Danish authorities raising troops. Andreas August von Kohl, a captain in the Copenhagen University students’ militia, was appointed sheriff in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago in 1853. Seemingly out of a mixture of boredom and belief in the moral benefits of military training, he founded a battalion in Vestmannaeyjar.

Boredom is the most dangerous weapon. Genghis Khan got bored one day and decided to invade the shit out of everyone.
He sure did. Though I think boredom was not the reason. The Vestmannaeyjar battalion got a small grant from the Danish state as well as private funding, and at its height numbered about 100 people. But it did not last long after the death of its founder. Denmark had no interest in maintaining a military in Iceland, and on the rare occasion that it felt the need, it sent a ship over with some soldiers. There was an army of Iceland, it was the Danish military.

Ah, so a military culture never developed in Iceland?
Yes. Also, when Iceland declared independence from Denmark in 1944 it was under occupation by the US. The Icelandic army was the US military. After World War II ended, the US army left only to return in 1951 to set up a base, staying until 2006. Meanwhile, Icelandic authorities were happy to not have to spend money on a military, though the right-wing Independence Party long strove to found an official citizens’ militia to beat up left-wingers and poor people. Sorry, I mean the militia was supposed to assist the police in sensitive matters.


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