Army under fire for recruitment that glamourises war

By staff writers
7 Jan 2008

Representative's of Britain's armed forces are reacting with fury to a report which says that some of their recruitment advertising is giving young people, in particular, a misleading and glamourised picture of military life.

'Informed Choice? Armed Forces recruitment practice in the United Kingdom', by David Gee and a team of researchers, has been published by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. It contains detailed analysis and proposals for change.

The report says that inadequate information is given to some potential recruits about army policies, physical risks and ethical dilemmas. Britain remains the only European country which recruits youngsters into the armed forces from the age of 16 years, though they cannot be deployed on operations until they are 18 years.

The Ministry of Defence defends its efforts to compete in the commercial and ideological battle to attract school-leavers, but today's report says the armed forces draw non-officer recruits mainly from among young people with "low educational attainment and living in poor communities".

Over £2 bilion is invested annually in recruiting and training some 20,000 new personnel to replace those who leave. "The primary target groups for armed forces marketing are children and adolescents."

The report refers to remarks made last year by Colonel David Allfrey, head of the army's recruitment strategy. "It starts with a seven-year-old boy seeing a parachutist at an air show and thinking, 'That looks great'," he told the New Statesman magazine. "From then the army is trying to build interest by drip, drip, drip."

Marketing to children below the recruitment age commonly "glamorises warfare", 'Informed Choice?' says. It cites an army website, Camouflage, aimed at 12- to 17-year-olds, which encourages youngsters to participate in games.

Instead of current uneven and unaccountable practice, the report proposes an armed forces recruitment charter setting out the state's responsibilities. This should include "unambiguous information about legal obligations" and the "need to consider ethical issues such as killing."

The MoD has accused the report of being ill-informed and out-of-date, but those involved refute these suggestions and a leading peace campaigner told Ekklesia that "the defenders of the armed forces are throwing up an immediate smokescreen of bogus outrage to try to discredit an uncomfortable light thrown on to their activities."

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, which funded the report, has a facility on its site for corrections to its published documents - subjectin to checking - in order to maintain fairness and accuracy. None have been registered so far, in spite of MoD protests.

This evening the Royal Navy continued its TV advertising campaign under the slogan "live a life without limits".

Those seeking independent information are being encouraged to visit the webiste www.beforeyousignup.info - a new resource for young people, presenting information about the benefits, risks, and terms of service of a career in the armed forces.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the think-tank Ekklesia, which focusses on religion and society, but has a particular interest in promoting alternatives to violence and armed conflict, welcomed the new report.

He said: "Perhaps predictably the Ministry of Defence and the armed services are defensive and dismissive towards critical research highlighting questionable and undesirable aspects of their recruitment policy. But this should not be allowed to detract from the need for a serious public debate about security and the role of force in a world threatened by escalating violence - and the need to offer positive alternatives to young people who often look for a career in the military because of perceived lack of prospects elsewhere in society."

The author of the new report, David Gee, is a researcher based in London. He worked for eight years in Quaker Peace & Social Witness managing a programme dealing with international peace and security topics. He is author of several reports and briefings including US Missile Defence: Ten Reasons for UK Concern (with Helen Hughes), Peace and Security in a Nutshell, and US Military Bases in Britain.

This project was wholly funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. The JRCT (www.jrct.org.uk) describes itself as "an independent, progressive organisation committed to funding radical change towards a better world." It makes grants to individuals and to projects seeking the creation of a peaceful world, political equality and social justice. The Trust was awarded Most Admired Charity in 2007 by Third Sector Magazine.

The full report and/or an executive summary may be downloaded here: http://www.informedchoice.org.uk/

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The full outline of 'Informed Choice?' is as follows:

1. A career in the armed forces brings opportunities and risks. Benefits can include challenging work, discipline, physical fitness, self-development, a sense of belonging and global travel. Risks include bullying and harassment, career dissatisfaction, the ‘culture shock’ of changing to a military lifestyle, mental health and relationship problems, serious injury or death, social and economic disadvantages after discharge, and unexpected ethical challenges.

2. Non-officer recruitment draws mostly on young people from 16 years of age living in disadvantaged communities, with many recruits joining as a last resort. Whilst this group may gain from an armed forces career, they are generally most vulnerable to its risks.

3. Career information provided to potential recruits and their parents is selective and often misleading. Recruitment literature for the army glamorises warfare, poorly explains the terms of service and largely omits to mention the risks of the career. It is common for recruits to enlist without knowing the risks or their legal rights and obligations.

4. The terms of service are complicated, confusing and severely restricting. New recruits may discharge themselves within a few months of enlisting but otherwise have no legal right to leave regular service for up to six years in some cases; reserve service liability follows, usually lasting at least six further years. The restrictive terms exacerbate the effects of low morale and magnify the risks of a forces career.

5. This report proposes improvements to recruitment practice in order to protect the rights of potential recruits more effectively. These include: improving information for potential recruits; de-linking military outreach to children from recruitment activity; and relaxing and simplifying the terms of service. To achieve these changes, it would be necessary to: emphasise retention over recruitment by improving the service conditions of existing personnel; reduce the number of soldiers discharged for ‘service no longer required’; and reduce bullying and harassment. A new Armed Forces Recruitment Charter could codify best practice and lay out the state’s legal and moral responsibilities to potential recruits.

6. The UK is increasingly at odds with the growing international consensus that minors should not be exposed to the risks of an armed forces career; existing safeguards for minors are only partially effective. It might be possible to phase out the recruitment of minors without affecting staffing levels; a feasibility study is needed. While minors continue to be recruited, safeguards need to be improved; in particular, it should be a requirement for recruiters to involve parents in the recruitment process more fully.

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