ForcesWatch comment

30/08/2017

Poppy Kohner

Poppy Kohner examines the Army@theFringe season at the Edinburgh Festival and asks what becomes censored when elite institutions take on the programming and hosting of the arts.

The Fringe festival has always been eclectic. Not an inch of Edinburgh is wasted as the whole city becomes a stage and all the people, merely players. But this year, on its 70th anniversary, the well-regarded Fringe venue Summerhall collaborated with a newcomer: the British Army. The Army Reserve Centre and Drill Hall in East Claremont Street transformed into a performance venue that was programmed and staffed by serving soldiers. This was billed as an opportunity to demystify the military, but should we be concerned that this particular kind of militainment is only the beginning of the Army’s engagement in the arts in Scotland and the UK?

I’m an anthropologist of militarism and a theatre-maker, so I felt I had to wonder down Leith Walk and make a visit to the drill hall-cum-theatre venue to take a closer look.

Many of the shows programmed by Army@theFringe dealt with subject matters such as race, gender, disability, mental illness and even imperialism. But here I am not interested in reviewing the shows as much as I am reviewing the politics of the Army hosting audiences at the Fringe.

 

On entering the drill hall I am greeted by soldiers. Lots of soldiers – more than are necessary. There is a relaxed, jovial, slightly disorganised atmosphere that is fairly welcoming. From the research I have done inside military bases the playful banter between soldiers on shift feels fairly familiar to me. Contrary to the marketed image of travel and adventure, being in the army usually entails a lot of waiting around.

I chat to a small crowd of friendly soldiers loitering in the entrance by the makeshift box office. I ask if they are paid any extra on their normal salary to staff the venue. “No,” they tell me, “but we volunteered to do it.” A Superior Officer catches wind of our conversation and strides between us with a brisk yet casual air of importance. He extends his finger in the air and without stopping or looking in my direction he bellows, “All our British soldiers are volunteers! Every single one of them wants to be here!” and continues to walk out the front door.

Compared to a larger conscription army, a volunteer force is easier to train, discipline, and retain. A smaller army also allows for public perception to be controlled by the military public relations team, as a smaller percent of the population actually experience army life. This notion of a professional army full of patriotic volunteers bolsters the cogency of the hero myth that makes up a central tenant of militarism. Once inside the military, individuals have a different (and limited) set of rights compared to civilians, and it is extremely difficult to leave once a contract is signed. In an era of austerity, increasing precarity, and the privatisation of social services such as higher education and healthcare, the army successfully presents itself as a fast track means towards social and economic mobility. So in response to the Superior Officer, how free is a choice between a vanishing number of options?

Inside the drill hall’s Mess there are Chesterfield sofas, a long table complete with tartan tablecloths, cut glass, candelabras, statuettes, trophies and other silver ornaments. The massive stuffed head of a caribou stares over us with glazed eyes and sprawling antlers, framed either side by pictures of Queen Liz and Prince Phillip. Despite all the twee, it feels sterile, solemn and stuffy.

Focusing on the person behind the uniform diverts the audience’s attention away from the Army as an institution. “Don’t worry about what we might be doing in the Middle East,” it says, “just remember: we’re people too.”

The exhibition at the venue was a celebration of soldiers in both training and operations, including a bigger-than-life-sized photograph of a small child in army camouflage crouching in long grass, without explanation. The Army were keen to assure me that this endeavor was not a recruitment exercise but about public engagement. Lt Col Jo Young, the British Army's Officer for the Arts commented, “The impact of this is not something we can measure in terms of how many more people will join us as a result.” Lt Col Gordon McKenzie, head of public engagement, described it as “deepening the public understanding of who we are and what we do. So that people can know that behind the uniform we are also human beings”. But focusing on the person behind the uniform diverts the audience’s attention away from the Army as an institution. “Don’t worry about what we might be doing in the Middle East,” it says, “just remember: we’re people too.” In this way, the army’s engagement with the arts is a means to depoliticise the image of a soldier; a deeply political and strategic move.

Theatre is always in danger of becoming an apparatus of the state. Theatre operates on our sensibilities in ways that can evoke deep emotional responses and has the potential to change perceptions and consequential actions (or inaction). Aristotle called this catharsis: an empathetic connection towards the protagonist of a story, which, as the play comes to a resolution, arouses a potent mix of pity and fear in the hearts of the spectators.

09/08/2017

Join us at the Medact/International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War Health Through Peace conference in York from 4-6 September, where ForcesWatch are part of a roundtable discussion on British Military Recruitment and Marketing strategies and part of a workshop on challenging military influence in universities and schools.

Click here to find out more and register for the event.

Deciding to enlist into the military is an extremely important, life-altering decision. Not only can it have serious social mobility and health implications, but it should also entail moral and intellectual interrogation; into the ethics of the wars you would be supporting or fighting, the conduct of them, and whether or not you are willing to kill and injure.

Enlisting should therefore be a fully informed choice; not one made due to perceived want of other options, nor made at an age when you can still not legally smoke or play violent video games. Neither should recruitment and military marketing glamourise warfare - particularly to impressionable children and adolescents - nor present an imperialist, revisionist view of history.

Many British army recruits are young and vulnerable. 22 out of every 100 UK army recruits are under eighteen – children, by international standards. At enlistment, British recruits are more likely to be 16 than any other age. Military influence in education is increasing, along with more and more visible military presences in cultural events and on the streets - with young children introduced to weaponry, tanks and simulated warfare.

For these reasons and more, there is a campaign in the UK for the minimum age of recruitment to be raised to eighteen. Multiple organisations, academics and campaigners are concerned by military recruitment and public image drives in schools, and problematic military recruitment marketing campaigns, both of which target working-class children and young people.

10/07/2017

ForcesWatch comment

In a powerful Guardian piece (Sunday, 9 July), damning evidence was revealed demonstrating that British Army recruitment marketing deliberately targets working-class young people. While it is not a surprise that the Army are targeting economically disadvantage parts of the country, they have always denied this.

The evidence is a marketing brief attained through Freedom of Information. The brief was given by the Army, and their recruitment agency Capita, to the advertising agency Karmarama. It spells out the key target audiences for the 2017 ‘This is Belonging’ Army recruitment marketing campaign, which we discuss here.

The ‘core regular target audience’ is described as:

“16-24, primarily C2DE. Mean household income 10K. High index for social, mobile, cinema Not heavy TV viewers. Interested in sports and spending time with friends.’

The brief also makes it clear that specific areas of the UK - poorer, northern and Welsh cities - are targeted by Army recruitment

The brief also makes it clear that specific areas of the UK - poorer, northern and Welsh cities - are targeted by Army recruitment:

“Please see below for highest indexing army locations, please consider to use these across all media channels. Leeds, Cardiff, Cleveland, Belfast, Nottingham, Manchester, Doncaster, Birmingham, Sheffield, Newcastle, Liverpool.”

The Ministry of Defence has responded to these revelations both by denying the evidence of targeting and by claiming that, in fact, it provides social mobility opportunities for young people.

04/07/2017

ForcesWatch comment

New findings highlight the need to protect young people from harsh military training environments and inadequate safeguards in cadet forces.

Many British army recruits are young and vulnerable. 22 out of every 100 UK army recruits are under eighteen – children, by international standards. At enlistment, British recruits are more likely to be 16 than any other age.

While multiple reports and studies demonstrate the dangerous long-term impacts of early enlistment and relate this to combat itself, little research has been done on the impacts of military training.

A new report from Veterans for Peace UK, released today (4 July 2017), tackles the nature and effect of military training using veterans’ testimonies and around 200 studies (mainly from the UK and USA).  


The First Ambush? Effects of army training and employment
 is an in-depth exploration of the nature of training and what it does to recruits.

In short, the purpose of that training, from the initial stages onwards, is to mould young civilians as soldiers; to follow orders by reflex and to kill on demand.

That, the report explains, demands unquestioning obedience, aggression, antagonism. Normal inhibition to killing must be overpowered through a dehumanising training regime. The lasting effects of this training are many and set out thematically across the 72-page report in terms such as ‘forced change’ and ‘moulding the soldier’.

At any time - and for any reason - training instructors can deprive recruits of sleep, food, shelter or permission to go the lavatory. Harsh treatment known as beastings are commonplace. These involve insults and shouting as well as physical violence aimed at recruits in order to humiliate.One section – entitled ‘Stripping the Civilian’ – focuses on the basic components of army training. This aims to suppress and overpower recruits’ civilian identities; in effect stripping these away.

This begins with isolation – for the first few weeks trainees, heads shaved and in uniform, have no right to see family or friends; they are not allowed to leave base and cannot terminate their contract. That is the case even when the recruit is under 18 years of age.

The military also dominates recruits by denying them any choice of personal affairs; their daily routine is controlled totally down to tiny details such as the right and wrong way to stand, make a bed or fold clothes.

At any time - and for any reason - training instructors can deprive recruits of sleep, food, shelter or permission to go the lavatory. Harsh treatment known as beastings are commonplace. These involve insults and shouting as well as physical violence aimed at recruits in order to humiliate. 

Instructors will punish a struggling recruit who is, as British Infantry veteran James Florey has characterised it, 'singled out for weakness, humiliated, and isolated.' The purpose is to instil fear in the group and the individual so as to bring about compliance. It builds the unitary nature of the group because often the whole group is punished for ‘the individual’s apparent failure’.

The First Ambush shows that military training and culture can be harmful, with health implications even before a soldier reaches the frontlines - such as substance abuse, mental illness, domestic abuse and sexual harassment.

The youngest and most disadvantaged recruits are the most vulnerable to these issues. Further, the Army likes to present itself as a social mobility boost for young people, but in fact the youngest and most disadvantaged are also the most likely to drop out of the army early and be at risk of unemployment and deprivation. We discuss this further here.

The First Ambush also demonstrates that the risk of violent offending and heavy drinking rises after joining the army. A study in 2013 found that enlistees were less likely to commit crime in general after enlistment, but more likely to commit violent and sexual offences. After deployment, the risk is doubled relative to the pre-enlistment offending rate.

24/06/2017

ForcesWatch comment

This article was first published in The Morning Star

This weekend, celebrations of the British armed forces will take place across the UK. Councils up and down the country are organising and supporting military parades, displays of weapons and 'military assets' and military-themed family entertainment.

The national Armed Forces Day event will be held in Liverpool, with city centre and waterfront events including Army, Navy and RAF 'villages', family zones, fly-pasts and a gun salute.

The event is a big one. Its promotion by Culture Liverpool puts it on par with Mersey River Festival, Liverpool International Music Festival and SGT Pepper at 50.

Activists from Merseyside Peace Network with John Lennon's famous call for peace outside The Cavern Club. They will be holding a peace vigil at Liverpool's Armed Forces Day.

It is a day to reflect on how we got to the point where the armed forces are singled out from other public service professions – some of whom also face everyday danger – for a day of national celebration. What are the long-term implications of further entrenching militarism into our culture and equating armed service with 'family-fun'?

The first Armed Forces Day took place in 2009. It was instituted on the basis of government fear that the military were losing the battle for public opinion after it failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The day is billed as, 'a chance to show your support and salute our forces for all they do.' Any concern that what the armed forces do should be open to debate is blotted out. This demonstration of public support for serving personnel is then transformed into support for the institutions of the military, as councils and partner organisations become its promoters and its recruiting sergeants.  

How much does this cost the nation, and local councils each year when other services are facing cuts and closure? Recent evidence suggests that councils have to dip into their reserves, sometimes digging deep, to fund Armed Forces Day.

Despite a grant from the Ministry of Defence and some commercial sponsorship, the day is likely to cost a significant amount of money for Liverpool City Council who has to underwrite it and find the extra funding needed.

In fact the MoD grant for this national event is only £25,000. Whether or not they wish to attend or support the military, the people of Liverpool will be paying and, quite possibly, seeing cuts to council services deepened as a result.