Britain’s kids with guns

United Kingdom
Military

A catchy drum ‘n’ bass sound blasts in the background, while soldiers are driving military vehicles, shooting their rifles or blowing things up in slow motion, just like action-movie heroes would. The viewer is encouraged to ‘be the best’. In the comment section of this YouTube video, somebody writes: ‘I thought this was the new Call of Duty teaser trailer.’

The striking resemblance with the popular war videogame is probably no coincidence.

In another video, a young man in his twenties is pictured working in a warehouse. He is invited to have ‘a life without limits’. Action scene rolls in; choppers take off and bullets fly.

Both videos end with a voice-over saying ‘Search Navy/Army jobs online.’

As a sign of changing times, the British Armed Forces have taken to social media to boost their recruitment campaigns and target young people.

‘The army does not lie’

‘Remember that the army does not lie’, John*, an ex-British Army soldier in his forties, told me back in June. ‘They are just showing the bright side of it. Behind there is more.’

John served in the British Army for more than 20 years. He enlisted at 17 and was stationed in places such as Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan. He developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at a young age, after what he experienced during the Northern Irish Troubles.

John is also right. There is more behind those high-octane ads.

Britain is one of the last countries in the world to enlist people with the minimum age of 16, alongside Mexico, El Salvador, North Korea and Iran. In Europe, no other country allows enlistment under the age of 18.

Today, almost 20 per cent of new British recruits is made up by underage ‘juniors’ – the so-called young recruits – according to the UK Armed Forces Personnel Review released by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in April 2014.

What the recruitment videos do not show is the risks a ‘junior’ can meet on their path.

According to pressure groups Child Soldiers International and ForcesWatch, young recruits are exposed to higher risks of PTSD, other mental-health issues, sexual harassment, bullying and physical injuries during training.

Higher chances of alcoholism, substance abuse and unemployment after discharge have been linked to early enlistment too. About 26 per cent of young recruits aged between 16 and 19 have been found to have harmful drinking habits.

In 2000, Britain signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPACCRC). The treaty prevents the conscription of people under the age of 18 in the armed forces. Despite signing the document and despite the known risks for young recruits, the Ministry of Defence has not raised the minimum age required to join the Armed Forces.

Recruitment on a budget

The recruitment crisis faced by the armed forces is definitely no secret. In the past few years, attempts to boost the number of people enlisting in the army haven’t been successful and austerity cuts certainly haven’t made the situation any better.

In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron announced an 8-per-cent cut to the defence budget, which forced the Armed Forces to slash 12,000 jobs across the Army, Royal Navy and RAF within five years.

In times of shrinking budgets and crumbling recruitment figures, juniors are a resource for the British Army. In the calendar year 2013/14, 12 per cent of new Army recruits were under 18, says Forces Watch. That represents a 3 per cent increase compared to 2012/13.

‘While the MoD is panicking about the collapse of adult recruits, enlistment of people under 18 is stable,’ said David Gee, a member of the ForcesWatch steering committee.

‘The government is insisting early enlistment is necessary, but they were not able to explain why. The MoD is worried they will no longer have one quarter of the yearly recruit intake and they will lose the support of young people.’

The effects on the physical and mental health of young military personnel are not the only setback of early enlistment. Allowing 16-year-olds to join the army is twice as expensive as recruiting adults. Juniors are the category with the highest drop-out rate in the armed forces: nearly 36 per cent of them leave training, making the first months of service completely useless and costing the Army £90 million ($150 million) a year. Those who stay are not strategically deployable until they are 18.

An issue of representation

According to Gee, the issue has a lot to do with the image the Armed Forces tries to promote among young British people.

‘Life in the Army does involve camaraderie, travel and other things. But there is also the regimentation of military discipline and unhesitating obedience to other people’s orders. There is the psychological training regime; there is the traumatic stress of deployment,’ he explains.

Last May, an MoD spokesperson told The Independent that ‘a career in the Armed Forces provides young people with benefits and opportunities, equipping them with valuable and transferable skills for life, so it is encouraging that young people continue to recognize this and are coming forward to serve their country,’ dismissing the barrage of critics to junior recruitment as ‘nonsensical’.

The recruitment crisis faced by the armed forces is definitely no secret.

This narrative has been heavily criticized by pressure groups opposing MoD recruitment tactics.

‘The recruitment campaigns tend to target the poorest parts of the country – South-West, North-West, North-East, Wales and Scotland – where there are few civilian jobs available. For many young people, the options are joining the dole queue, working at McDonald’s or joining the Army,’ Gee states.

‘The government says people from disadvantaged backgrounds would become unemployed or criminals if they did not join the Army. But they can’t prove that. Most people would end up starting an apprenticeship or doing their GCSEs. In the Army, that is not going to happen.’

From cadets to veterans

In June 2014, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a £1-million ($1.6-million) bursary scheme to allow state-school pupils to join new cadet units. The scheme aims at fulfilling Cameron’s pledge to create cadet units for at least 100 state schools by 2015. This is the second funding wave aimed at bringing a military ethos to state schools, after a further £10.85 million ($11 million) was invested in 2012.

Several watchdog organizations have criticized this as an attempt to militarize the British school system and build support for the Armed Forces among young Britons.

Whether stepping up the cadet scheme is just a PR move or not, the Armed Forces are luring British teenagers to join the military.

According to David Gee, ‘the real obstacle is in the MoD itself, because it is always the slowest department to change. It doesn’t like civilians to decide what it should do.’

‘You know, when I saw unpleasant things I used to put a sort of armour on to protect myself. Stiffing the upper lip is useful. But you have to be really careful about what you feel. If you ignore the trauma, it will come out anyway, sooner or later,’ John tells me, recalling his time in the army and his experience with PTSD.

‘The thing is that young kids, juniors, don’t always know how to deal with possible traumatic stress cases. Despite slight changes in the ethos, the Army itself is unable or unwilling to treat them.’

That means that new generations of veterans with potentially serious issues will appear if the Armed Forces don’t protect younger recruits and reform their enlisting practices, currently driven by a numbers panic.

That’s something slick recruitment videos never show.

*names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

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