ForcesWatch comment



The UK armed forces visit thousands of schools each year. They offer school presentation teams, 'careers advisors', lessons plans, away days and more. While they claim that this is not recruiting, the Ministry of Defence itself states that the activities enable them to "provide positive information to influence future opinion formers, and to enable recruiters to access the school environments." Their youth policy, including school-based cadet forces, aims to create "the conditions whereby recruiting can flourish." This is a long-term approach to recruiting young people both as supporters of the armed forces and, for some, softening them up for actual enlistment.

An injection of ideology

The Government has recently indicated that there will be an expansion of cadet forces within state schools to encourage the 'spirit of service' and they have established a number of schemes such as ex-services mentoring and 'troops to teachers'.

Another recent development is the Pheonix Free School, to be run entirely by ex-military. With a 'zero-tolerance' approach to discipline, the proposed head teacher of the school states that it "will discard moral relativism and child-centred educational theory. 'Self-esteem' training is out.... in." (1) Proposed by the right-wing policy think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, there is clearly an ideological political agenda at work which pays no attention to professional concerns that military values may not be appropriate within the educational system. Another right-wing think tank, ResPublica is advocating the development of military-sponsored academies, "officially backed by the Armed Services and delivered by the Cadet Associations". (2) The proposal was presented as a response to the 2011 riots and has been condemned by the NASUWT, the largest teaching union in the UK, as 'national service for the poor'.


ForcesWatch comment

The deaths of 6 soldiers recently in one incident was particularly tragic because of how young some of them were. Four of the six who died were under 21 years old; one was only 19.

Looking at the statistics of UK fatalities in Afghanistan, 67 under 21’s have been killed since 2001. That is 17% of the 404 total UK fatalities. Of countries which have lost more than 50 service personnel, the UK has by far the highest proportion of young people receiving fatal injuries. Under 21s make up 13% of US deaths, 9% of French deaths and only 3% of Canadian deaths while Germany had no deaths in the 18-20 age group.

In fact, the UK accounts for 20% of all 18-20 year old fatalities, despite making up only about 7% of all troops in Afghanistan. Of the 20 fatalities of 18 year olds, 11 have been from the UK and 9 from the US.

This is perhaps unsurprising. Soldiers from the UK start younger than almost all other coalition countries, recruiting youngsters only 16 year old. Canada, which contributed 3000 troops to Afghanistan but have now withdrawn from combat duties, also recruits 16 year olds but the vast majority go into the reserves. In fact, the UK is one of less than 20 countries worldwide to sign recruits up at this young age. No other EU country or UN Security council permanent member finds it necessary to do so.

A number of the other main coalition partners recruit 17 year olds including the US, France and Poland – the UK and all of these countries are out of step with international standards which have seen a growing number of countries increase their minimum age of recruitment to 18, under the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (part of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child).

Although the UK is a signatory to the UN protocol, it refuses to raise the minimum age of recruitment, arguing that if the armed forces are unable to enlist potential recruits at 16 and 17 year old, they would be ‘lost to the services’.

The UK is far from leading the way in prioritising children’s rights over state needs.


recruitment age, risks


On the 9 April 2012 the UK group of Veterans for Peace was launched. The movement has been long established in the US – ‘exposing the true costs of war and militarism since 1985’.

There are reasons why VfP UK has taken longer to start – the culture and regulations around speaking out are different in the US. It has also been more active in post WW2 conflict (notably in Central America during the 1980s) but also the US military is a massive institution, involving a huge number of people with around 11/2 million active personnel and a similar number of reserves.

However, after ten years of active conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, British ex-service personnel are starting to come together to voice their concerns about the conflicts and what it does to everyone involved.

Ten veterans attended the inaugural meeting. At the public launch they each spoke of what had led them to this point. Barry Ladendorf came all the way from San Diego where he is active in VfP. His chance meeting with Ben Griffin at a ForcesWatch event was instrumental in getting the UK group started. From his experience, the existence of a movement of veterans talking about peace gives others hope. 

Barry emphasised that honouring the service of individuals does not have to mean supporting the wars they are engaged in. Veterans know better than anyone the chaos and devastation that war brings that lasts a lifetime. In the US, a third of the homeless are veterans, while the astronomical cost of war create a lack of public funds for welfare and basic infrastructure to help those who most need support. Suicide and mental health problems amongst veterans are at record high levels but inadequately acknowledged or addressed.



ForcesWatch comment

Poetry about war is perhaps the most immediate way of understanding what it is to be involved, or caught up in, conflict.

The War Poetry website is a great resource, listing famous poets from the first world war alongside little known contemporary poets with much to say about modern warfare. Most of the poems on the site are written by people who have experienced conflict, many from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Falklands war.

Below is a favourite by Danny Martin. See here for more or Danny's poems.


My thanks to Hollywood
When you showed me John Rambo
Stitching up his arm with no anaesthetic
And giving them “a war they won’t believe”
I knew then my calling, the job for me

Thanks also to the recruitment adverts
For showing me soldiers whizzing around on skis
And for sending sergeants to our school
To tell us of the laughs, the great food, the pay
The camaraderie

I am, dear taxpayer, forever in your debt
You paid for my all-inclusive pilgrimage
One year basking in the Garden of Eden
(I haven’t quite left yet)

Thanks to Mum and thanks to Dad
Fuck it,
Thanks to every parent
Flushing with pride for their brave young lads
Buying young siblings toy guns and toy tanks
Waiting at the airport
Waving their flags

poetry, veterans


Michael Gove is again talking about extending the cadet forces within schools (see article), this time with the support from the Schools Commissioner (and a senior advisor to the Education Secretary), in comments about broadening the curriculum within state schools (see article).

Before being elected, the conservatives ‘pledged’ to involve armed forces personnel more in schools to serve as role models for young people (see article).

In 2011, the Education Secretary announced that expanding cadet forces would instil a ‘spirit of service’ in young people (see article)– a turn of phrase that in itself suggests ‘the military spirit’ and the associated values that go along with it.

Why is the military considered uniquely able to develop a ‘spirit of service’ or promote a disciplined approach? Why does the Schools Commissioner regard Cadet forces amongst a small handful of activities that are seen as broadening the curriculum and offering more opportunity with state schools? Who is being served by children in schools doing drill in the school playground or taking part in adventure activities? There would seem to be many other opportunities available for young people to experience a more direct connection with the concept of ‘service’, through developing extra-curricular activities that engage with the wider community or through activities that reply on team work and shared responsibility. If, however, it is actually service to the country that is being promoted, encouraging the widespread development of cadet forces feels more about serving the needs of the military and state than those of children. Educational establishments are not the place for this.