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Will the government stop recruiting adolescents to the armed forces?

David Collins, a Committee member of the Movement for the Abolition of War of Friends of Le Monde Diplomatique and of Veterans For Peace UK, has drawn attention to a video on VfP’s website, “Made in the Royal Navy”, published by Child Rights International Network (CRIN). The film charges the British army with intentionally targeting young people from deprived backgrounds for the most dangerous front-line jobs. It plays on the natural anxiety in boys and young men about how they are going to become a man and go out into the world. Its message is that the Navy will remake the raw youth into a heroic version of the inadequate boy that they once were.

The actual experience of most of these youngsters is set out in a report published in August 2019: Conscription by Poverty? Deprivation and army recruitment in the UK.

This is a long-standing concern of many on our mailing list. In 2011, Britain’s child soldiers – 2 reminded readers that, twelve years earlier, the BBC had reported the British Army was being urged by the United Nations to stop sending young soldiers into war.

Following Symon Hill’s work in The Friend, the Ekklesia website, and a Nato Watch article, an article by Michael Bartlet, Parliamentary Liaison Secretary for Quakers in Britain, pointed out that “with the exception of Russia, and apprentices in Ireland, the British Army is unique in Europe in recruiting at the age of 16. Of 14,185 recruits into the army last year, 3,630 or over 25%, joined under the age of 18 . . . Deprivation and army recruitment in the UK . . . Those joining the army at the age of 16 often come from the poorest and least educated backgrounds. Some have reading ages of a child of half that age. They lack the confidence to seek a change in their career in the same way as those training for professions.” 

Ian Davis, the Director of NatoWatch, sent a reference to the post by Symon Hill, now placed on its website. He added that the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, together with War Child, UNICEF UK, the Children’s Society, and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England are calling for the Armed Forces Bill to be amended to end the “outdated practice” of recruiting soldiers aged under 18, a call backed by Amnesty International UK and the United Nations Association.

Five years later Quakers in Scotland and ForcesWatch presented a petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for greater scrutiny, guidance and consultation on the visits of armed forces to schools in Scotland. Over four-fifths of state secondary schools in Scotland were visited by the armed forces in a two-year period, according to a 2014 ForcesWatch report.

A 2016 report by public health charity Medact found that soldiers recruited aged 16 and 17 were twice as likely to be killed or injured when in combat compared to those enlisted when aged 18 or over. Medact also found that they were more likely to commit suicide, self-harm, abuse alcohol and develop post-traumatic stress disorder than older recruits

In May this year, the BMI Journal reviewed an article: Adverse health effects of recruiting child soldiers, published in February. It rejected the main justification resting on fears of a ‘recruitment shortfall’: saying that given the extensive harms described in its report, to put recruitment figures above the health and well-being of children and adolescents seems misguided and counterproductive for both the Ministry of Defence as a governmental body and wider society.The second justification alleging economic and occupational benefits to recruits, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds was also rejected:

“(W)e have seen that it is precisely child recruits from disadvantaged backgrounds who are at highest risk of adverse outcomes in the military. Furthermore, figures from 2017 show that those recruited under the age of 18 constituted 24% of those who voluntarily left the Armed Forces before completing their service—this also increases the likelihood of lower mental health outcomes”.

It supported the views of those of the fourteen organisations mentioned here, recommending that the UK end its practice of recruiting adolescents to the armed forces.






Long overdue: counting just one of all the unacceptable costs of war

In 2004. Mark Tully (New Delhi) inspired a report counting the costs of our economic system. Molly Scott Cato made a major contribution to the report and obliquely supplies an answer to the madness of embarking on military ventures: ‘Counting is what capitalism is good at, what it thrives on. Counting is what the accountants and management consultants do, and they now decide how businesses and indeed government should be run”.

Warfare is undoubtedly good for the aggressors’ business, whether it be through manufacturing arms, securing resources or seeking contracts to rebuild damaged infrastructure.

harry patch quote

A reader sent a link to an account by Guardian journalists Simon Hattenstone and Eric Allison which counted just one of the costs of warfare: post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other costs include:

  • the social and economic cost of diverting resources to warfare,
  • the environmental damage done by warfare
  • and the human and infrastructural devastation in the attacked countries.

Simon Hattenstone and Eric Allison report that in 2009, the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) recorded 8,500 veterans serving sentences in UK prisons, and a further 11,500 on probation or parole and estimated that half of veterans in prison had depression or PTSD (compared with 23% of the male prison population). They give accounts of several cases of former soldiers eventually diagnosed with combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

Denial and delay by the MoD keeps costs down

Those diagnosed with combat-related PTSD are entitled to a disablement pension, while victims of the crime could also potentially claim compensation. Between 2005 and March 2014, 1,390 claims were awarded under the Armed Forces and Reserve Forces Compensation Scheme for mental disorders (including PTSD). The NAPO figures indicate that half of the former soldiers currently on probation or in prison (at least 4000-at most 10,000) could make a case for compensation, as could any victims attacked by them.

In America, 20% of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have been diagnosed with PTSD; in 2011, 476,514 veterans were treated for it. At least 191,000 soldiers have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, so according to the estimate made by forensic psychiatrist Dr Deirdre MacManus, in the next decade or so there could be more than 13,000 ex-service personnel returning from combat zones with mental health problems.

The British criminal justice system should learn from America, where veterans who are arrested are put through a different legal process and given access to psychiatrists, psychologists and lawyers who specialise in combat-related PTSD.

Above all, Britain and America should learn from Bruce Kent and Harry Patch: abolish war – it is barbaric, destructive, wasteful and futile.