By Michael Gray
"WON’T somebody please think of the children?!” is the satirical catchphrase of Helen Lovejoy, a character in The Simpsons TV show, who repeatedly invokes the emotional state of children in any given political situation.
It’s understandable. Anyone can relate to the strongly felt desire that children are cared for, that they are safe and happy. How the state treats young people can bring with it deeply held passions about what is, and is not, appropriate – especially in schools.
Teaching union the Education Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Parents Teacher Council, for instance, have previously raised concerns over military visits to schools, which represent a mass war recruitment drive aimed at young pupils.
There were 1,783 such visits from 2010 to 2012, a period monitored by military reform group Forces Watch. Targeting 83 per cent of all state schools, 35 per cent of visits were termed “careers-related” activities. Peace campaigners, concerned that the military targets young people with a sanitised version of war, have launched a petition to the Scottish Parliament urging that a more balanced approach is taken to military promotion in schools. This includes calls for guidance surrounding military visits, for political balance, and consulting parents on school activities with the armed forces.
That’s moderate, given UK military extremism. The UK has the youngest military recruitment age of any European country, at 16, and various school-based cadet units operate as military springboards for teenagers. Tory plans to expand school cadet units were rejected in Scotland, with an SNP source condemning the “cannon-fodder scheme”.
War, particularly in the context of the exploits the UK military is ordered to undertake, is a particularly sensitive political issue. It makes sense that the role of a soldier is presented to young people within a fair, wider context rather than through the propaganda lens of organisations that present conflict as glamorous.
When campaigners asked for similar changes in Wales and condemned disproportionately targeting poorer communities for recruitment, politicians described the military as a “unique career”. Enlistment is certainly unique. It brings the burden of fighting and potentially dying on behalf of the state. It brings the moral hazard of killing people or complicity in that killing, and complicity in the death of innocent people.
If we can pontificate on the need for “active learning” in schools or on the need to teach children how to cooperate rather than fight, then the chaos, violence and complexity of war cannot be dodged to preserve an illusion of Ministry of Defence kindheartedness.
Schools have a duty of care, and that extends to the nature of career advice and which organisations are granted access to influence the education system. Recent history provides a warning about welcoming the UK military into schools, unless the purpose is to educate and debate the avoidance of such folly.
All those who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, however noble their intent, were complicit in mass murder – and the occupation and brutalisation of those nations. And they were victims: discarded by an uncaring political establishment which failed to provide the basic kit for brutal desert warfare. Ex-soldiers are abandoned to post-traumatic stress, to homelessness and to suicide.
The intensity and futility of that suffering suggests the military can no longer be promoted so easily in institutions dedicated to learning – at least while the military and UK foreign policy remains as it is.
Could the same accusation be levied at other careers? The tobacco industry, due to its immorality regarding its health impact, is unlikely to be cheered into school employment events. The arms trade, corporate fossil fuel companies or exploitative banks bring their own complications. Yet the perpetual violence of the UK military sets it apart.
One day “punching above our weight”, to quote a myriad of cloned Unionist politicians, will end. The military, free from rusty colonial shackles, can serve a reformed purpose as the last resort of defence and in global peacekeeping.
The clearest template for a future Scottish Peace Force is in Ireland. Irish peacekeepers, alongside the UN, have contributed to peace and security in Lebanon for almost 40 years. Irish naval vessels saved hundreds of refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean in the last year. There is much to learn from such examples.
Of course an honest approach to the military in schools is no cure for all. The Quakers and Forces Watch, with their petition, have focused on a tiny improvement in transparency and scrutiny. It’s a small step but I hope they succeed and the public backs their petition. The issues it raises are far wider.
How, despite our rigged economy, can schools prepare young people for the financial and moral dilemmas they will face in employment? How can we transition from a society too complacent about war towards a country that strives for peace? Ultimately we must because it is our children that will live with the consequences if we fail.