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Kids With Toy Guns

  • Opinion

Maddy Ridgley, BA International Relations

When I was 14 I was part of a small group from my high school that went on a weeklong ‘Army Insight Course’ in Oakhampton. We were promised a week of high ropes, obstacle courses, paintballing, meeting soldiers and generally running around and having a laugh – and it was all paid for by the Ministry of Defence (MOD).

I absolutely loved it, we got to dress up in camo and roll around in mud while carrying guns in the beautiful countryside with a group of lovely funny people. Compared to wearing a tie and blazer while struggling with trigonometry in a class, this was the life! I loved it so much I went on a Royal Marine Insight Course a few months afterwards and genuinely considered a career in the army.

The courses that I went on were part of a wider strategy to recruit young people into the armed forces while also instilling a positive image of the army in school kids. In fact, Colonel David Allfrey, former head of the Army’s recruitment strategy, says their approach is to “build interest by drip, drip, drip” starting from “a seven-year-old boy seeing a parachutist at an air-show and thinking ‘that looks great’”.

As the only country in Europe to enlist 16 year olds, whilst specifically targeting disadvantage schools for recruitment, the British army can offer young people a stable and exciting career before they’ve even completed their GCSEs. Yet those who sign up at 16 with few qualifications are only able to join the most dangerous sections of the army such as the infantry. It is largely because of this that those who joined the army at 16 were twice as likely to die in Afghanistan as those who joined above 18.

As I can ascertain from personal experience, the picture of the British Army painted by the recruitment officers is completely void of violence, killing or death. Many of the young people who sign up are unaware of the political and moral minefield they must navigate for up to 6 years. In 2011-12, the majority of state schools in the UK were visited by the Armed Forces and, to a lesser extent, private schools. These visits are mainly careers events, but military personnel also give assemblies/talks or conducts team building exercises. These personnel have been described as “skilled salesmen” – they talk about the friendships, the money and the ‘banter’ that the army can offer. They promise a happy, secure career with a starting salary of £18,000 and free dental care, university funding, non- contributory pensions, subsidised food and housing and the ability to travel around the world with close friends.

School cadet force training in UK secondary school. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown....BHEM48 School cadet force training in UK secondary school. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.

Presented like this the army can be a ‘way out’ for young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who feel like just another brick in the prescriptive and constraining capitalist system. To complement school visits, the MOD has sent the “British Armed Forces: Learning Resource 2014” to every school in the UK. This booklet is framed as a teaching supplement for History, English and Citizenship, aiming to educate children as young as 5 about the past and present deployments of the military. Opening with a statement from David Cameron that calls the British Armed forces “the finest and bravest in the world”, this document continues to present an entirely one-sided view of the military and is premised on the notion that “Britain prepares for war because we want peace”.

In fact, the word ‘peace’ is mentioned 33 times whereas “death” is referred to only once. “Colonialism”, “imperialism” or “kill” go unmentioned. Over 400 years of colonialism are ignored in the ‘History’ section and instead the booklet only discusses Britain’s ‘victories for freedom’ – the Napoleonic wars and the two World Wars. Nuclear weapons are presented solely as a deterrent, justified through the assertion that “some argue the West’s nuclear weapons have saved millions of lives and billions of pounds by preventing major war from the 1960s to the 1980s.” No counter argument is given.

With violence, killing, death, trauma and amputations ignored, this booklet sanitises war and ultimately legitimatises every past and future British military operation. As a learning resource, it is so inappropriate that the former Director of Curriculum Resources at the Citizenship Foundation said: “this is the kind of resource one gets in countries with less-than-democratic structures where civic education is used by governments to manipulate citizens into an uncritical attitude towards the state.”

This resource perfectly complements the school visits by happy-chappy Army men and exists within a wider societal environment where the military penetrates daily life via X Factor charity singles and Help For Heroes egg boxes and boy-gets-a-gun-and- becomes-a-man advertising campaigns funded by the MOD. The result, more often than not, is an un-critical teenager that sees the military as a noble career and war as a justified pursuit. Like me, they may want to sign up to this seemingly thrilling career, or at least stay benignly supportive to British military deployments.

Yet war itself, as a political and violent process, is barely discussed – despite it being fundamental to the existence of the military. World War One veteran, Harry Patch, famously said that “war is organised murder and nothing else”, yet on the Army Insight course we were told not to ask about killing or death. School resources and recruitment officers bypass the injury, mutilation, burning or suffocation that may be inflicted upon your body. They ignore the crucial detail that in war you must inflict pain or death upon another person. The psychological and physical wounds that can result in your dismissal from service, and the little support offered if this occurs, is also overlooked.

As said by veteran Kieran Devlin, who signed up to army at 15, “The recruitment adverts conceal the deadly possibilities of military service from children and their parents”. Veterans for Peace know this all too well, and their satirical film “Action Man: Battlefield Casualties” highlights these experiences by showing a post-battle action man addicted to drugs and wheelchair-bound.

The violent experience of war is an unfortunate, inconvenient detail for recruitment officials who want to present an army career as wholesome and bloodless. This detail may seem more relevant when an 18 year old finds themselves surrounded by blood and bullets in a war zone, but by then it is too late to quit.

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