Army recruitment methods are preying on the vulnerability of adolescents, promising them a false sense of belonging and camaraderie, in order to address the crisis of falling retention of recruits, according to a new report.
Selling the Military, a report by military watchdog ForcesWatch and global health charity Medact, exposes how the military uses sophisticated marketing techniques to exploit adolescent psychology for their own ends, promising self-fulfilment “without concern for the wider purpose of military institutions.”
The ongoing neurological development of 16-17 year olds suggests they are more likely to be respond to emotive appeals and adopt risk-taking behaviours. They are more likely to react to high- stress environments, leading to longer term mental health problems. This is even more the case for recruits who have suffered childhood adversity, whom the army systematically targets. Current military recruitment focuses disproportionately on schools in areas of the greatest deprivation.
The report recommends raising the minimum age of armed forces recruitment to 18, to safeguard many of the most vulnerable recruits and developing marketing practices that are accountable to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
In February, I chaired a meeting of our local anti-war group which focused on these themes. Former soldiers sombrely recounted their experiences in war and the trauma they have suffered as a result. They were keen to point out that their own experiences and their lasting impact were by no means the worst, but they were nonetheless chilling. Ben Griffin had to quit the job he took as an ambulance paramedic after leaving the army, because it triggered flashbacks of the night raids he had been on in Iraq.
The ex-soldiers at the meeting were from Veterans for Peace UK. They too recently produced a report The First Ambush? Effects of army training and employment. Drawing on veterans’ testimony and many earlier studies, it highlights how army recruiters, here and in the US, systematically target poorer neighbourhoods and underage children, sanitising and romanticising war. It details how recruits are isolated, disorientated and indoctrinated, with humiliation and violence routinely used to instil unthinking obedience and aggressiveness. This dehumanisation is preparation for dehumanising the enemy.
At the start of his basic training for the paratroop regiment, Ben Griffin said, there were 35 recruits, with 35 reasons why they joined the military. At the end, those left - around 35% of infantry recruits are discharged during training - had just one motive: to go to war and kill the enemy. This is the function of training, he emphasised: to encourage loyalty and obedience and remove the barriers to killing.
The Q and A was refreshing for its frankness. What did he think of the new Labour leadership’s ideas about refocusing the army’s work onto disaster relief and nation-building, I asked. The answer was blunt: “If you want to do disaster relief, do it. Don’t train people to kill first.”
Both reports examine the traumatic effects of military service. Ironically, the military is often sold as a route out of social deprivation. This is less true than ever. Many technical skills learnt in the army are non-transferable and the experience of combat is more likely to leave veterans unemployed, mote violent and with multiple mental health problems. Young veterans, aged 16-24, are more than twice as likely to kill themselves as non-veterans of the same age.
“We can’t dissuade kids from joining the army,” Griffin said, “but we can win the broader defence argument.” This means withdrawing the troops from their military bases in 14 countries in the world and concentrating instead on defending Britain, which is currently not defended against where most modern-day attacks are likely to come from. This requires restructuring and repurposing the UK’s armed forces to focus on defence.
These arguments become all the more urgent in the context of Labour Party policy. Re-reading our 2017 general election manifesto, it is clear that the section on defence policy is one of its weakest chapters. The commitment to NATO and to renew Trident nuclear weapons - costing at least £31 billion - is at odds with our overall principles and threatens to financially undermine our domestic goals. Talking about defence takes many on the left out of their comfort zone, but there are critical arguments to be won both in the Party and on the doorstep. Come the next election, both the media and the voters will ask us some serious questions about this and we must have coherent answers.