Last summer the first Armed Forces Day was marked in the UK with over 200 nationwide public events including a military parade in Chatham, Kent attended by the Prime Minister. According to the official Armed Forces Day website the event “is an annual opportunity for the nation to show your support for the men and women who make up the armed forces community” who are “busy working around the world, promoting peace, delivering aid, tackling drug smugglers and providing security and fighting terrorism.”
And yet, to paraphrase the philosopher Michel Foucault, wherever power asserts itself there is always resistance. Thus in 2009 Peace News launched Unarmed Forces Day. Held on the same day as the Government’s Armed Forces Day this initiative aims to remember those – like Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi and Rachel Corrie - who have dedicated their lives to non-violent social change.
Established in April 2010, Forces Watch, a non-profit networking organisation, aims to continue challenging initiatives such as Armed Forces Day as well as the “largely unethical” recruitment policies of the military. Speaking to me in a north London café Emma Sangster, the Co-ordinator of Forces Watch, argues that such displays of uncritical support for the military are “an attempt to shore up support for what is happening in Afghanistan and what happened in Iraq.” She also maintains “it shuts down any debate about alternatives to conflict and war” and deliberately conflates issues “so if you criticise the recruitment of under-18s then somehow you are criticising the whole foreign policy.”
Sangster, an experienced peace activist, tells me that the UK is the only state in the European Union to recruit 16 year-olds, with the general EU trend being to start recruitment at 18 years. “If someone does join the army at 16 they are trapped in the army until they are 22, and even then they have to give 12 months notice”. She qualifies this noting that a new recruit can leave during the second and sixth months if they are under 18, but it becomes very difficult after this. “They have very restrictive employment practices. Where else would you become part of something which you weren’t able to leave?”
Along with Sangster, four other volunteers are currently involved in Forces Watch including an ex-serviceman and David Gee, the author of Informed Choice?, a comprehensive report on armed forces recruitment published in 2007.
“The primary target for armed forces marketing are children and adolescents”, Gee’s report notes. This involves school visits, literature and internet resources and local cadet forces - all of which aim to “capitalise on the impressionability of young people by presenting a glamorous view of armed forces life”, according to Forces Watch. “Younger and younger groups are being targeted”, explains Sangster, pointing to the MoD-sponsored ‘HM Armed Forces’ action man-style figures that were launched last year. “They are based on Iraq and Afghanistan – they are marketed at 5-year olds!”
For the older child – that is 13 years and up - there is Camouflage, the programme which is at the heart of the army’s youth marketing strategy. Those who sign up receive a start up pack in the post, a regular magazine, access to a website with interactive shooting games and a Christmas card from the local recruiting office. Upon leaving school there is an invitation to pop in to an Army Careers office for a chat. By mid-2007 approximately 250,000 young people were enrolled with Camouflage – approximately 15 percent of whom will end up enlisting according to the army.
In 2007 the then head of the army’s recruitment strategy had the following to say about targeting children: “We have to cut through branding clutter with real efficiency. Our new model is about raising awareness, and that takes a ten-year span. It starts with a seven-year old boy seeing a parachutist at an air show and thinking ‘That looks great.’ From then the army is trying to build interest by drip, drip, drip.”
As well as targeting and recruiting children, Sangster argues the UK armed forces’s recruitment initiatives are aimed at those who live in “economically deprived areas”, pointing to how the recently opened army showrooms are often located in shopping centres in poor areas such as Dalston in east London. This focus on young people with limited career opportunities won’t surprise anyone with a passing knowledge of British military history, but it isn’t something the armed forces are keen to acknowledge. However, Alistair Loudon, the colonel then in charge of army recruitment, let the cat out of the bag in 2004, telling the New Statesman the army actively recruited in working-class areas in the north-east, north-west, Midlands and Scotland. “Where do doctors come from? Where do farmers come from? They all come from particular backgrounds. It’s a matter of market forces”, he noted.
Wanting to give the armed forces an opportunity to reply to Forces Watch’s criticisms, I contacted the Ministry of Defence asking for an interview with someone directly involved in recruitment. Unfortunately, due to the bureaucratic and uncooperative nature of the MoD’s media relations department, I have been unable to secure a face-to-face or written interview with anyone from the armed forces. The first person I spoke to answered my interview request with what he called “the $64,000 question - will the article be supportive?” I persisted and was put in touch with a press officer for recruitment, who after telling me he was “happy to assist”, suddenly closed down our correspondence when I emailed my questions over to him. Puzzled by this sudden about turn, I picked up the phone and was curtly told “we don’t target particular social groups and we don’t target children”. In particular he said he took exception to my “accusation” asking why there was no mention of the fact recruits may be involved in killing people or in serious danger of death or injury in any of the recruitment literature I had read.
The unwillingness of the press officer to answer basic questions is itself a damning indictment of present recruitment practices, as is his denial of targeting children or specific social groups in the face of the testimony from the senior recruitment officers above.
But however dishonest and secretive armed forces recruitment is, with just five volunteers challenging an £80 million a year recruitment machine with over 125 careers offices and more than 1000 paid recruiters, Forces Watch are involved in a struggle of David and Goliath proportions.
“We want to be effective so there is no point arguing for the demise of the army”, Sangster says. “It is important to have achievable goals” to engage a broad spectrum of people. For example, she believes “it is a realistic objective” to end the UK’s recruitment of 16-year olds. Public opinion appears to be with Forces Watch on this issue, with a March 2009 ComRes poll finding 71 percent of Britons thought the minimum age for joining the armed forces should be raised from 16 to 18.
“I’m thinking of young people who haven’t been properly informed, who perhaps have not thought about the ethical issues or how it is going to affect them later on in life”, she says. “My motivation is that people like that are not caught up in the system and made to fight the country’s wars.”