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On 3 November, the National Audit Office released its report on "Recruitment and Retention in the Armed Forces". While most of the mainstream media focused on the "Two-thirds of teenagers too fat to be soldiers" story, peace activists should read this report very critically. It gives us an idea of what lengths the armed forces will go to in the future to fill their ranks - and what we need to respond to. Andreas Speck reports.

A new strategic focus for the peace movement?

Let's start with the good news: currently, the British armed forces are under-staffed. They are 5,170 soldiers short, which is equivalent to 2.7%. However, this isn't much of a shortfall, and does not endanger the military's ability to wage war. My question is: why is this so, and what can we do to change that?

An understanding of the way the armed forces recruit is crucial to the development of a successful counter-recruitment strategy. There are several key factors in armed forces recruitment that we need to consider.

Get them young

The NAO report (1) says: “The services also target marketing activity at young people before they become eligible to join the Armed Forces at 16 years old” (p32). I don't want to get into the discussion about the minimum age of 16 here. More reason for concern is that the armed forces target people even younger -- and that goes down to 13 years “old”: a special “Army Student Presentation Team” targets young people aged 14-21 at schools, colleges and universities. It promotes itself to schools saying that their “presentation also complements Key Stages 3 and 4 of the Citizenship element of the National Curriculum” -- especially attractive to under funded schools.

The armed forces maintain a special website -- http://www.mycamouflage.co.uk - which targets 13-17 year-old youths, which offers a “members area”, featuring “games, videos and other cool features”. Young people who sign up also “get ARMY magazine three times a year -- packed with exciting articles on army life, quizzes and competitions”. As sign-ups for the website are controlled by the armed forces, I'm not sure peace activists will be able to do so - but maybe someone can ask their son or daughter to act as an intermediary...

Cadet Forces (CCF): There are presently 253 of them at UK schools. Importantly, “a school cannot run a successful CCF without the full support of the Head” -- which gives parents who oppose militarism plenty to do at their kids' schools, especially as “time for CCF activities must be scheduled into the school programme”. This means that the existence of cadet forces at a school has a direct impact on students who are not part of it.

Making (false) promises

The “youth work” of the military is aimed at creating a positive attitude towards military solutions and at creating a climate among youth which is favourable to the military. This alone should be of concern to any peace activist. However, the next step for the military is to actually get young people to join. Not only do all three services have their dedicated recruitment websites, they also have a range of mostly combined recruitment offices (find out where your nearest recruitment office is at http://www.armyjobs.mod.uk/InYourArea.htm) and mobile Armed Services Recruitment buses reach out directly to potential recruits. In addition, the armed forces will be present at job fairs or school career days, to catch potential recruits.

Not surprisingly, the armed forces target poorer and rural neighbourhoods, where their promises of an “interesting” career in the army, or money for education, might net recruits more easily. One of the things the military tells you is: “However long you spend in the army, you'll learn skills for life. Training and learning with the army sets you up for life.” This is accompanied by promises of “travel” and adventure. However, there is little truth in this. The training people receive in the military is for military jobs, and often not transferable to civilian professions. According to the Royal British Legion, unemployment among 25-49 year-olds in the ex-Service community is higher than the rate nationally -- almost double compared to the general population. A disproportionate number of homeless people have spent time in the armed forces. One in four homeless are former members of the armed forces. One in five homeless ex-Service-men claim they had no transferable skills on discharge (2).

Training for civilian jobs is problematic when the right to leave at the minimum age of twenty-two years, or after four years service, whichever is the later, is forfeited if a soldier engages in an education or training course other than purely military training.

Equal opportunities?

When it comes to “equal opportunities” it looks even worse. On 1 April 2006, only 5.5% of all UK military personnel were from ethic minorities. However, among officers, this percentage was just 2.4%, while other ranks' personnel consist of 6.2% from ethnic minorities.

Women make up about 10% of the strength of the UK military. Ninety-nine per cent of servicewomen say they have been sexually harassed, or witnessed sexual harassment. “Over two thirds -- 67% -- of survey respondents had also encountered, in the previous 12 months, sexual behaviours directed at them personally. These varied from making unwelcome comments, sending sexually explicit material and unwanted touching, through to sexual assaults”, the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) said in its March 2006 report (3).

Counter-recruitment

All these issues give plenty of scope for activities. Counter-recruitment is more than just attempting to prevent the military from recruiting young people -- it involves challenging the military wherever it promotes itself, in the public domain, in schools and universities.

Counter-recruitment work aims to bring together a range of activists and activities:

  • Youth are at the heart of counter-recruitment. Be it at schools, colleges, or universities, young people are the ones who will encounter the military directly in their recruitment and “outreach” efforts. This can be about military presence in the school, about cadet forces, or “peers” showing a pro-military attitude.
  • Parents have to play a role too. Together with their kids, parents can influence the headteacher of their school not to cooperate with cadet forces, or to not invite the army's “Student Presentation Team” to the school -- and if they do, to also invite peace movement representatives to provide an alternative view.
  • The peace movement is important, as it can give the information needed to young people and parents, and support their organising efforts. Also, it is important to challenge military recruiters in public places -- be that at events organised by the general “Army Presentation Team”, recruitment offices, or special events such as “London Soldier” (every two years) or other “open days” or military events.
  • Veterans, of which the British peace movement is in pretty short supply, would be the most effective means to counter the military propaganda in schools and in the general public. Nothing has a stronger impact than a former soldier speaking out against the use of military force, and against joining the military.

Opportunity for action

To be honest, there is no such thing as a counter-recruitment movement in this country. There are however, sporadic, isolated, counter-recruitment activities, and these are on the increase. The NAO report says: “A number of recent events have attracted negative publicity and have impacted on the wider public perception of the armed forces and their ability to recruit sufficient numbers. These events include the Iraq war, events at Deepcut Barracks, and allegations about the treatment of prisoners in Iraq. Research conducted by the Services indicates that these events have adversely affected the views of potential recruits and, more especially, of parents and gatekeepers.

”The army's research found that 42 per cent of parents would be less likely to encourage their children towards a career in the army because of operations in Iraq while 27 per cent said they were put off by events at Deepcut. Other research found that 33 per cent of parents were likely to discourage their children from joining the Royal Air Force due to the `Iraq factor'.”

So, we have something to build on. But if we don't do it now, then we will miss a very important opportunity. Activists have started to put a website together with resources and information to help develop a stronger counter-recruitment network: http://counterrecruitment.org.uk. Use it!

Notes

  1. National Audit Office, Ministry of Defence - Recruitment and Retention in the Armed Forces, 3 November 2006, http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/nao_reports/05-06/05061633-I.pdf

  2. Royal British Legion: Profile and Needs: Comparisons between the Ex-Service Community and the UK population, 2006, http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/uploads/documents/Final%20comparisons%2001.06.pdf

  3. Equal Opportunities Commission: Quantitive & Qualitative Research into Sexual Harassment in the Armed Forces, 22 March 2006, http://www.eoc.org.uk/Default.aspx?page=18799

Andreas Speck works for War Resisters International.