by Rhianna Louise, ForcesWatch*
The military, particularly the Army, actively targets the most deprived areas in the UK and the most disadvantaged families in their recruitment drives, which are aimed at young people from the ages of 16 to 24.
This is despite the fact that in 2008 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended that the UK government reconsider recruiting under 18s into the military and ensure that recruitment does not target ethnic minorities and children of low income families.
I want to frame today’s discussion about military recruitment in the context of militarism in the UK and the militarising shift that we have seen in recent years. I want to talk particularly about why it is important to challenge militarist discourse, and why we should be promoting full and balanced information about military careers rather than propagandistic material aimed at vulnerable young people.
Then I’m going to discuss some of the ways in which military recruitment marketing is designed to target working class and marginalised young people, and what the effects of this are. I’ll share some thoughts on the perceived ‘recruitment crisis’ the UK is facing, and on how the way we recruit could and should be changed.
Military recruitment in the context of militarism in the UK
Militarist discourse dominates key spaces in the public imaginary in the UK.
We rely heavily on military action, values and worldviews for our national identity and our foreign policy. A militarist outlook is embedded in traditional perceptions of British nationhood and its security, in political orientations and the policies that come from them, in our fears and hopes for the future, in the language we use and the stories we tell about the way the world works, and in our entertainment, arts and media productions.
David Gee, Spectacle, Reality and Resistance: Confronting a Culture of Militarism, 2015.
Key spaces in the public imaginary that are dominated by militarism are perceptions of:
- Britain’s historical and contemporary relationship with the world
- requirements of national and international security
- social and personal identity, such as power, belonging, gender, aggression and violence.
The domination of militarism over the first two spaces is evident in the drivers and justifications behind recruitment trends and popular narratives around recruitment; and of the third, in recruitment marketing campaigns.
Challenging militarist domination over perceptions of Britain’s historical and contemporary relationship with the world, is important because:
The legacy of Britain’s empire and its imperialist history ripples across the world today, and is poorly taught and understood in the UK itself, where revisionist, imperialist pride continues to be prominent. Militarism goes hand in hand with strong uncritical national pride, which prevents people from interrogating openly their country’s past. This can lead to racism, marginalisation and an inability to deconstruct power and privilege – essentially having a stagnating effect, countering social progress.
Militarist discourse glorifies past military endeavours as one, using generalised terminology (died for our freedom, sacrifice). This can be a-historical and can result in past military operations being used to stifle critique about current or future military operations.
Challenging the domination of militarism over perceptions of national and international security is important because:
Militarism, with its emphasis on military might, can prevent discussion and thinking around security from being wider and more informed. This is dangerous given the power vacuums, election of populist leaders, rise in nationalism and increased strain on international cooperation that we see today. In this climate of increasing insecurity, it is concerning that security as a concept is not widely defined or discussed in public and political debate in Britain. (See https://rethinkingsecurity.org.uk/)
Instead our whole debate about security is reduced to simplistic assumptions fed by militarism – that security can be achieved by: seeking power for the UK at the expense of security for people elsewhere; advancing ill-defined ‘national interests’, often disconnected from the real security needs of people and communities; prioritising short-term threats over the long-term systemic causes of insecurity (climate change and scarcity, economic inequality, social and political marginalisation, the global arms trade and violent conflict); and extending control over the strategic environment, achieved principally through offensive military capabilities, a superpower alliance and restrictions on civil liberties. This security discourse is flawed and is manifestly not working; yet heavily embedded militarism stands in the way of alternative discourses. (Again, see https://rethinkingsecurity.org.uk/)
Finally – and this is my focus here today – it is vital to challenge the domination of militarism over perceptions of personal and social identity.
Militarism is strongly connected with hegemonic masculinity. In Leicester itself you have seen how it is normalised for children, in particular young boys, to handle deactivated weapons used in contemporary warfare, while dressing up as soldiers during public military recruitment and PR drives. Machismo is dominant in military culture, and young men in particular are targeted by appeals to their desire to be seen as possessing ‘masculine’ power. For example, a young teenager was recently told by recruiters visiting their school in Scotland that enlisting would make them a ‘proper man.’ Related to the notion of hegemonic masculinity equating power is the idea that a military career guarantees a sense of belonging, and a secure, empowered personal identity.
As the armed forces try to recruit more women, ‘Be a man’ has morphed into ‘Be a hero’ (and the ‘making of a man’ idea has been euphemised in ‘made in the Army’, or the Navy, or the RAF) but men and traditional masculine norms still dominate military life.
It’s important to think critically about the ethics of military recruitment, because enlisting in the military is a life-altering decision with long-reaching social and individual consequences. It is vital that people are equipped to see through military marketing campaigns and think critically and carefully about a decision to enlist. They should have a full understanding of the potential personal impacts of a military career as well as the agendas they would be serving, and be empowered to continually interrogate these agendas with conscience and with intellect.
Today, the development of militarism in our society is taking on new and significant forms. Despite media propaganda, the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan have been unpopular. Abuses of human rights, the conditions of military life and widespread cynicism about the efficacy, necessity and purpose of recent wars, have slammed into the limits of public support for the armed forces.
The British general public have maintained their strong support for the troops, but less so for military operations and even the military as an institution. In recent years, in an attempt to recapture or reinforce the sanctity of the military in the public imaginary, sections of the military, political and media elite have launched or supported a range of initiatives to build support for the armed forces, sustain morale, improve recruitment and increase sympathy and support for current wars. (Paul Dixon, 2017. See upcoming (2018) paper by Paul Dixon in collaboration with ForcesWatch).
The special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom also influences modern militarism in the UK; and this is likely to be particularly significant in post-Brexit Britain given our perceived increased dependency on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States.
How military recruitment targets socio-economically disadvantaged and marginalised young people
There are lots of different ways in which the military seeks out young people for recruitment purposes. I’m going to talk mostly about their marketing campaigns and look at some specific recent campaigns. But firstly I want to mention that the armed forces also visit schools in the UK for the purposes of recruitment and PR. Most visits are explicitly careers related, and most are to state schools.
The MoD is constantly denying that its school visits have anything to do with recruitment. But Select Committee and Ministry of Defence documents make it clear that service personnel go into schools as recruiters and engage with schools for the purpose of recruitment and PR. Dr Jonathan Parry, who is a Birmingham Fellow in Global Ethics and Director for the Centre of the Study of Global Ethics, has described military influence in education for the purposes of recruitment as ‘moral exploitation’ .
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have expressed concerns that armed forces recruitment activities do not specifically target children of low-income families. Research indicates that not only are the youngest recruits at the highest risk during their training and careers, this particularly affects those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Furthermore, the high drop-out rate suggests that many young people sign up without sufficient awareness of armed forces life. Once they have dropped out, they find they are no longer in the education or training system and are without a job.
In general, information about military careers provided by the armed forces does not provide a realistic assessment of the risks involved, yet the unique risks of an armed forces career demand that young people sign up with a significant level of awareness of what they will encounter.
Military Marketing campaigns
Early this year, ForcesWatch and Medact, a public health charity, will be publishing a report analysing four recent military recruitment marketing campaigns, looking particularly at how they target the psychological vulnerabilities of disadvantaged young people. I’m going to share with you some of the findings and analysis we’ve been working on with regards to the Army’s latest recruitment campaign, which is called This is Belonging.
We know from Freedom of Information inquiries that the Army targets a core audience of 16-24 year olds. We now also know that the Army targets in particular such young people across the UK who are working class, with specific interest in Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Cleveland, Doncaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield. They focus on lower income earners whose adult children are striving to gain independence, meaning space is limited, and those with an average household income of £10,000.
Every year, the British Army launches a recruitment campaign with a new theme. While the British Army predominantly attracts young, white male, there is evidence that it is aiming to widen its recruitment strategy and diversify its intake in terms of gender and ethnicity. The core audience remains young (16-24 year olds from working class families).
This is Belonging
This is Belonging is a £3m advertising campaign launched by the British Army at the start of 2017, which includes a series of short films, as well as billboard advertisements, radio advertisements, recruitment literature and online material. Each film is 30 seconds or less, and ends with “This is belonging. Army. Be the best. Find where you belong, search Army Jobs.”
In the This is Belonging film stories, most of the protagonists (and all the main protagonists) are men, and all are young. Message strategy analysis shows that the target audience are expected to have an emotionally driven approach to the decision to enlist, to be motivated by the idea of finding friendship and belonging, and also by adventure and stereotypically male culture. All the protagonists’ voices have accents, and all the soldiering activities portrayed are manual/practical – the implicit messaging here is that the target audience are working class and prefer working with their hands or physical activity.
This is belonging positions a job in the Army as a unique experience through which lasting bonds of friendship are formed. The This is belonging recruitment page on the Army website, which is designed to match the marketing theme, says:
The benefits of belonging in the Army.
A sense of belonging may sound like a small thing. Yet it fuels you as much as food and water, because it doesn’t just feed your body, it feeds your mind and soul.
The stronger the sense of belonging – the stronger you become.
Sure, you could look for belonging in a football team or club, but the sense of belonging you’ll find in the Army – well that’s the next level.
When you’ve trained together side by side, learnt things no classroom can teach you and fought with each other, for each other – that creates a bond like no other. A bond that lasts a lifetime.
Belonging sees you through whatever life – on or off the battlefield – may throw at you.
This is belonging.
The ‘belonging’ portrayed through the films is a simple, ‘boyish’, playful friendship. Speech is limited and could be called ‘banter.’ The soldiers interact through shared activity.
The theme of belonging is also utilised for recruitment by other entities in which conformity and distinction are key, such as gangs, sports teams etc. It appeals in particular to adolescents and young people who are undergoing the most intense phase of social identity formation.
All the confusion, instability and changes adolescents face, are compounded by their under-formed personal and social identities, resulting in their tendency to over-identify with others or with groups in order to gain a sense of security and belonging. These might take the form of love interests, cliques, or even gangs or extremists.
By appealing to the adolescent child’s need to belong, the army have therefore latched onto a very popular recruitment tool, powerful in particular among those who feel isolated or marginalised, or who have a sense of non-belonging and potentially low self-esteem. As seen in the Navy’s Made in the Royal Navy campaign, this message strategy is normal in military recruitment campaigns – but it is the overriding message strategy in This is belonging
The promised reward of signing up is ‘belonging’ to the army is becoming stronger and stronger by virtue of ‘belonging’. This is tempting indeed for adolescents who tend to crave social acceptance and a feeling of importance in a group context. The army claim to offer a sense of belonging stronger and more powerful than any other
The domination of militarism over perceptions of social and personal identity is very evident in the Belonging advertising campaign. The Army is presenting itself as having ownership over belonging – there is no belonging like belonging to the Army. You gain social power through belonging to the military might of the British Army; in militarist ideology, the capacity for violent possession and domination is a key mode of power
Even though the Army is trying to appeal to more females, there is still an evidently gendered perception of personal identity they put forward: militarist power is intricately linked with hegemonic masculinity. Indeed almost all of the This is belonging characters are male, their interactions are stereotypically boyish – banter, a lack of conversation, and interaction through practical shared activity.
To ‘belong’ in the army has conditions which are not apparent in the This is belonging campaign. A recent report by Veterans for Peace called First Ambush shows that The erosion of self-determination, of autonomy of movement and of privacy and choice of personal appearance are all integral to the training regime in which recruits are anonymised and controlled. They are subject to relentless activity and the resulting fatigue, to authoritarian power and an absence of civilian norms and social support, which can cause anxiety and disorientation. Clearly, not everyone ‘finds where they belong’ given that bullying and harassment are endemic in the military according to countless reports.
The campaign presents this ‘belonging’ as life-long. But many veterans struggle to adjust to civilian life and can feel lonely and out of place. Isolation and loneliness are widely known to affect many veterans upon return to civilian life. Many are at risk of depression, self-harm and suicide – and the younger they sign up, the more likely they are to face mental illness later on.
Aside from the visible weaponry, there is no sign of fighting or violent conflict in this recruitment campaign or any other recruitment marketing campaigns. In This is Belonging, unlike in other campaigns which focus on diving, dolphins etc., there are harsh, exotic landscapes – but they emphasise travel and adventure without context of why the soldiers are deployed in those areas.
The army photography policy says that images should never show soldiers pointing weapons at the camera (because it seems hostile), or be shown as if they may be in any danger – in other words, the army does not want soldiers to appear either dangerous or in danger.
Aside from the immorality of recruiting people (particularly young people) who are not fully informed, recruiting people with expectations that may not fit the reality of a soldier’s life feeds into military retention problems.
This brings me to the perceived military ‘recruitment crisis’ that we hear about so much in the news.
The Ministry of Defence tells us that it is facing a ‘recruitment crisis’ – this is nothing new, it has been saying this for many years. I’m not going to focus here on the discussion we could have about Britain’s maintenance of an expeditionary force, the fact that UK already has the seventh highest military expenditure in the world – while measures to address long-term security threats are underfunded etc. etc., or even on the influence of militarism on our perceived need to feel constantly under threat and able to invade other countries. But what I am going to say definitively is that even if we accept the narrative of recruitment crisis, then rather than trying to make up for adult recruitment shortfalls by recruiting people who are legally children, the MoD could spend more on the welfare of personnel so that retention rates go up. The army has very high turnover, which means it constantly has to find new recruits. If soldiers were happier and stayed longer, recruitment wouldn’t be such an issue.
The Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey 2017 reported:
- 40% non-officers are actively looking for work outside the armed forces
- Only 39% of soldiers would recommend enlisting to a friend.
- Reasons for leaving: low morale, low pay, lack of job satisfaction and impact on family life.
High turnover in our Army is particularly a problem because we recruit so many under 18s and target people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Almost half of those who leave school at 16 to join the army have left it within four years. A third of all army recruits without core GCSEs at any grade drop out of training, a rate of attrition around 50% higher than among recruits with A*-C grades. This contributes to a high rate of unemployment among ex-soldiers, particularly if they left full-time education early. (See https://forceswatch.net/resources/does-military-give-young-people-leg-armed-forces-and-social-mobility)
In the US, Americans without a high school diploma are normally deemed too cost-ineffective to enlist and, compared to the UK, the US recruits relatively few minors. The British Army actively seeks adolescents in their mid-teens from deprived backgrounds and without GCSEs, particularly for infantry jobs. But young age and a background of disadvantage lead to a high rate of attrition.
There is an over-representation of younger, typically disadvantaged recruits in the infantry, where training is tougher and retention is poor. There is greater susceptibility to the stresses of training among younger adolescents from adverse childhood backgrounds,
Those most likely to suffer mental health problems enlist at a young age and/or are from a deprived background; are deployed to war in a front-line combat role, meaning one where the frequency of traumatic experiences is greater; and/or struggle to readjust to civilian life after leaving the forces. The youngest recruits face the greatest long-term mental health risks. There is a 64% increased risk of suicide among young men (under 20) in the Army when compared to the general population.
Research by the British Legion has found that the unemployment rate among working-age veterans is approximately twice the civilian rate; a lack of transferable, accredited qualifications acquired in service is a common complaint. Veterans who are most affected by deprivation are those who are youngest, who are Early Service Leavers, who have a lack of social support and who are Army veterans.
So, we should be calling on the Ministry of Defence to focus on retention: improve conditions for personnel, and stop recruiting and targeting children. And we should challenge propagandistic recruitment materials, particularly when they are aimed at vulnerable young people.
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Join a public Facebook group where people are recording the #everydaymilitarism they witness in the UK: https://www.facebook.com/groups/everydaymilitarism/
*This article is based on a talk Rhianna Louise gave at This is Belonging: Challenging militarism at home and abroad, an event that was held at the Secular Hall in Leicester as part of the 2017 Leicester Human Rights Arts and Film Festival.