ForcesWatch comment


Joe Glenton

While some may find it gratifying to see young people – who are often unfairly portrayed as listless and sluggish – moving around with purpose and urgency, military conditioning can have damaging long-term effects.

This article was first published in The Independent

Channel 5's Raw Recruits: Squaddies at 16 shows a key phase of any military career – the training. You go in as one person and come out as another, often in ways you don't understand until long after you leave the forces.

As a veteran, it has been interesting to watch these 16 and 17-year-old kids being shaped into soldiers. It reminds me of the long-term impacts of the training process, and the political system and social structure framing people’s motivations for enlisting.

There is a theory developed in Australia from the experience of Vietnam, that it is training rather than war which leaves military and ex-military personnel profoundly altered. You can see that process playing out before your eyes on Raw Recruits.

Anyone who knows veterans knows they tend to run hotter than civilians in terms of a general sense of urgency, an aggressive approach to problems and a low tolerance for what they may term “bullsh*t”. This is a key aim of basic training. It is clearly demonstrated in this series, as the teenage participants are accelerated towards the degree of urgency, aggression and unquestioning obedience expected by their instructors.

While some may find it gratifying to see young people, who are often unfairly portrayed as listless and sluggish by preceding generations, moving around with purpose and urgency; military conditioning can have damaging long-term effects.

After army training, recruits tend to become more belligerent, authoritarian and conformist, and less emotionally aware. They are also more likely than civilians to become anxious or depressed, to drink heavily or behave violently. This is unsurprising for those who are aware of the intense – and some would say abusive – nature of military training and culture.

recruitment age

Marketing careers which involve unique risks should be approached with a sense of social responsibility, acknowledging what is in the best interests of the target audience as well as the recruitment interests of the military.

This article was originally published in The Metro

The 'Your Army Needs You' campaign is the British Army's latest attempt to salve an ongoing recruitment crisis and update its image.

The aim, as ever, is to recruit both literally, in terms of getting people through the door, and ideologically, by shaping public perceptions of what the army is and does.

The latest campaign also comes as ForcesWatch and our partner organisation Medact prepare to release a new report highlighting concerns about military marketing techniques. One issue is that these marketing campaigns are most persuasive to the young with no discernible attempt to acknowledge the well-understood risks that military service poses to those under the age of 18.

The new productions are as slick, high-value and eye-catching as we have come to expect and the new 'millennial' focus seems to explain the several weeks General Nick Carter spent last November, and the year before, teeing-up this new recruitment formula.

This is an odd position given it is so-called millennials, those borne from roughly 1982 onwards, who have fought Britain's recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, conflicts which Carter and his peers in the senior ranks of the military helped oversee.

Like its predecessors, however, these new offerings are skewed, propagandistic and continue to skip over fundamental truths about the nature of military service in their concern to emphasise that only in the army can you 'be the best'.

Firstly, this latest appeal to a generation of so-called 'snowflakes', 'me me me millennials' and 'binge gamers' frames military service as a sure route to fulfilment, satisfaction and advancement despite substantial evidence that joining up does not necessarily provide those things.

This is according to the military's own figures, with the most recent Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey indicating that levels of satisfaction among non-commissioned personnel have plummeted by 20 percent since 2010; in 2018 only 40% said they were satisfied with service life.

The MoD's latest survey of recruits shows that only half felt that they had an accurate picture of army life before joining. This speaks to the gap between reality and the fantasy of a service career portrayed by the marketing adverts and recruitment process more widely.


ForcesWatch comment

There were two British military centenaries in 2018. One, in November, commemorated the end of the First World War. The other, officially in April but marked by events across the country all year, recalled the 100 years since the founding of Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF). Implicit to this other centenary is the recognition of a key development in modern war-fighting which has come to play a key role, almost without exception, in wars fought since 1918: air power.

The RAF is the youngest of the UK's three military services, having been formed from the British Army and Royal Navy as the bloody deadlock of the Great War drove the search for new ways of winning on the battlefield. Like the British Army and Royal Navy, the RAF has distinct sense of itself and occupies a unique place in the public consciousness. A place where technical skill and flexibility is favoured over the tough top-down discipline of the other parts of the military and where there is still space for a certain amount of dash and flair.

While accounted a critical voice within defence, former RAF officer, scholar and author Frank Ledwidge, whose 2018 book on air warfare was timed for the centenary, echoed this sentiment when he described the branch as being 'less rigorous, less rigid, and allowing a little bit more for questioning than the other two services.'

He added that 'flying still has a certain amount of glamour about it and I think the RAF still has a certain touch of that and it is quite conscious of that as well, and rightly so.'

The case is regularly made that the RAF has been on the whole a force for good, with particular attention paid to its role in fighting fascism in the Second World War. But, as with all the UK military services, there is another side to the RAF.

It is of particular importance to the ForcesWatch mission that people are equipped to take a nuanced view and understand that while the RAF itself tends to lead with the sepia tones of the Battle of Britain, and leans heavily on the kind of mystique posited by Ledwidge, there is more to be said about the service. This is especially important for people who might join the services but also for the rest of the population.

RAF100 timeline

In the years after the First World War the RAF quickly found a role as an airborne imperial police force, taking part in a series of operations in support of colonial aims including quelling local resistance in locations as diverse as Somaliland, Mesopotamia, Waziristan and Afghanistan.

This policing role is one the air force has reprised many times since those formative years and continues to carry out today in some of the exact same locations. The middle parts of the RAF century were marked by a different approach to air power, most obviously massive bombing operations against German cities, and then, during the post-war stand-off with the Soviet Union, as a force ready to deliver nuclear devastation.

ww1 commemoration

ForcesWatch comment

The century since the end of the First World War has seen significant development in thinking around war trauma. We explore what the current lack of recognition of moral injury and the part it plays in mental health says about our attitude to war and serving personnel.


'I have spent a quick life and my run is finished,' wrote Machine Gunner Frank Leyes, aged seventeen, at Parkhurt, Isle of Weight, before shooting himself in the barrack room. The deceased joined up when fifteen, and had been sent to the Western front, where he was gassed... The jury returned a verdict of suicide whilst temporarily insane.' The Sunday Post, 18 February 1917.

'Dreams mainly of dead Germans... Got terribly guilty conscience over having killed Huns.' Medical Case Note from Lennel Auxiliary Hospital, a private convalescent home for officers during WW1.(1)


These stories are just a few among many soldiers returning from the First World War suffering from severe mental trauma. The horror they endured, from daily death and injury, to poisonous gas, to killing other humans, led to the development of symptoms like nightmares, tremors, impaired sight and hearing, fugue states (confused wandering) and an inability to function. It was known as shell shock.

To begin with, physicians connected the symptoms with physical brain injury from exposure to repeated explosions;* but before long military and medical authorities saw the predominant problem as 'nervous' or psychological, and many considered this to be a sign of individual weakness.

One notorious form of treatment involved snapping people out of their condition by torturing them, for example with electric shocks and burns, as well as other forms of discipline and punishment.(2) However, some medical professionals and facilities increasingly developed psychotherapy and occupational therapy.(3)

Shell shock was a pressing problem for the British Army by the winter of 1914, a few months into the war, and when its ending had once been anticipated.(4) The war would in fact last until 1918, by which time at least 80,000 men were diagnosed with some form of shell shock.(5)

The number may in fact be much larger as many soldiers were not treated, and when it became clear shell shock was not always directly related to brain injury, use of the diagnosis was increasingly reduced.(6) The psychological theory was preferred by the British Army to the brain injury theory, because it was easier to return 'uninjured' soldiers to active duty; and they were increasingly short of front-line troops.(7)

The 11th Borders Battalion, for example, suffered one of the highest casualty rates of the Somme when they went over the top one day, and the survivors refused to go again a few days later as so many of them were traumatised. They were accused of being cowards and lacking 'any soldierly qualities', were humiliated and disciplined, and their medical officer was sent home in disgrace for saying they were suffering from shell shock.(8)

By the end of the Battle of the Somme, the Royal Army Medical Corps banned medical officers from using the term shell shock – they were instead to be classed as 'Not Yet Diagnosed Nervous' before being diagnosed by doctors in specialist centres.(9) In 1917, medical authorities 'deliberately discouraged use of the term [shell shock] and suggested an association with malingering.'(10)

Many people suffering shell shock may even have been executed; 306 British and Imperial soldiers were shot for running away or refusing to keep fighting.(11)


ForcesWatch comment

Militarism is subject to many different definitions. This can make it hard to characterise for those seeking to expand their understanding of what is an important aspect of social culture.

Militarism, and the process of militarisation, is a broad and complex issue involving a diverse range of different groups and interests. While it has long been a central dynamic in British history, it has current manifestations that are particular to the present day.

ForcesWatch has found the following to be a useful starting definition of militarism:

  • the normalisation of war and preparation for war
  • prioritising the needs and interests of military institutions
  • extension of military culture and influence into everyday life such as in education, central and local government and business, charities and other organisations

The following quote by Cynthia Enloe is also useful for thinking about how this is taken on and internalised by individuals:

“To become militarised is to adopt militaristic values and priorities as one's own, to see military solutions as particularly effective, to see the world as a dangerous place best approached with militaristic attitudes.” (Globalization and Militarism:Feminists Make the Link, 2007)

From the Take Action on Militarism resource pack. Image courtesy of Quakers in Britain.

In our view there is a substantial body of evidence that these aspects of militarism have become intensified over the last decade or more. This 'new tide of militarisation' can be traced through policy and practice and adds up to a concerted effort by government and the armed forces, and supported by others, to promote the military and to make sure that it has enough recruits to fight its battles and enough support to go to war.

One example of this effort was the report published by the Labour government on National Recognition of our Armed Forces in 2008, which stated that:

“Public understanding of the military and recognition of their role will always determine the climate within which the Forces can recruit, and the willingness of the taxpayer to finance them adequately.”

There have been many subsequent initiatives that have also worked to promote the interests of the military in wider society, including 'military ethos' (from 2012) and other military activities in schools, Armed Forces Day (from 2009) and other activities in public spaces, and the Armed Forces Community and Corporate Covenants (from 2013).

We have also seen how military interests are more represented in culture generally – in the media, in sport, at public events - and how military ceremonies such as Remembrance have been escalated in their level of public presence.

The 2018 feature documentary War School from POW Productions explores how a militarist message it sold to the public and young people in particular.