ForcesWatch comment


ForcesWatch comment

With recent announcements about cadets in schools and Cyber Cadets, we critique government commissioned research and political thinking that could lead to a far wider introduction of cadets and the harnessing of young people into 'tackling security threats'..

Over the last two weeks the MoD has made various announcements relating to armed forces cadets. These include 30 new cadet units in schools, referring to a new social impact report, and the extension of the Cadet Expansion Programme with cadet numbers in schools rising to 60,000 by 2024. They also unveiled a new Cyber Cadet scheme and a National Cadet Week.

Previous high profile announcements have surrounded this part of the 'military ethos' programme, indicating the status that the government are giving it. The driving factors are an ideological belief in the power of cadets, and the military, to transform young people's lives, and the need to generate new recruits in the midst of a recruitment crisis. Given Gavin Williamson's penchant for taking things further than other defence secretaries, this raft of new measures is not surprising.

As our partner organisation Quakers in Britain note, advice given to ministers in how to deal with press questions at the Conservative party conference shows the government is aware of public unease about militarism in schools which 'expose(s) children to militarism without any exploration of the morality or danger of war.' 

Flawed evaluations

To justify a policy which has seen the number of cadet units in schools rise to 472 since 2012, the government are utilising 'independent' research (commissioned by the MoD, Combined Cadet Force Association and CVQO) on the social impact of cadets - from the University of Northampton Institute of Social Innovation and Impact. Our critiques of the first interim report can be read here and here.

The findings presented this year are also 'interim' and, as with last year's report, raise questions about both the research design and conclusions and about using it to retrospectively justify government policy.


ForcesWatch comment

The BBC drama Bodyguard misrepresents the actions and concerns of veterans working for peace.

The recent BBC drama Bodyguard, featuring a ‘troubled veteran’ recently captivated on average 10.4 million viewers, reaching a peak of 11 million as it ended. It is the BBC’s most watched drama since 2008.

While there has been some important debate around Islamophobia and Bodyguard, given the way in which the series depicts a female hijab-wearing suicide bomber, there are also concerns about its portrayal of veterans, militarism and security.

One of the media articles about Bodyguard that mis-named the fictional veterans group, calling it by the name of the real-life group Veterans for Peace.

The hero, David Budd, is a veteran. He is from the outset clearly disillusioned with the war on terror, suffers from PTSD and resents those who sent him and others to war. He now works for the police force. One of the earliest, most gripping scenes sees him trying to talk to a jihadi suicide bomber and persuade her not to detonate. He says to her:  

‘You’ve been brainwashed. He has. [referring to her husband] You have. And I know. I was in Afghanistan. I saw mates get killed. Nearly got killed myself. For what? Nothing. Politicians. Cowards and liars. Ours and theirs. People full of talk but will never spill a drop of their own blood. But you and I, we’re just collateral damage.’

As a Principal Protection Officer for the London Metropolitan Police, David Budd is given the task of protecting the Home Secretary, Julia Montague. We see his internal conflict with this work, given his dislike for politicians like her who voted in favour of the war on terror and is pushing through tough new surveillances laws. However, he puts these feelings aside – despite the dismay of his similarly disillusioned friends from the ‘Veterans Peace Group’, and ends up having an affair with Julia Montague, mourning her death and fighting hard to find out who was responsible.

This places him in stark contrast with a nefarious veteran from the ‘Veterans Peace Group’, seen first speaking in one of their meetings where he says:  

‘For decades, the West has been inflicting suffering on the poor and powerless. The war in the desert, in the oil fields, we’ve brought it back to the streets of Britain. There’s kids growing up over here, all they hear is what’s being done to family and friends over there. Who can blame them if they want to push back?

This same veteran then turns out to be behind a terrorist attack on the Home Secretary’s life – he shoots at her car from a building, and kills several people. While the veterans motivation is rooted in his aversion to the war on terror which has – visibly – scarred him, and consequent loathing of the politicians who endorsed it; he is in fact recruited to kill her by shadowy figures from organised crime. His attempt fails, and he kills himself before being captured. Just before he kills himself, David Budd finds him – and the terrorist veteran attempts to pass the baton on, saying essentially that David must now be the one to kill the Home Secretary.

Both the police and frequently, the viewer, have suspicions about David as the series goes on – clearly struggling with his mental health and well placed to harm the Home Secretary. Is he at the heart of the series of terrorist attacks including the one that takes her life?

In the end however David is redeemed. He manages to piece together the whole picture and find both those responsible for killing the Home Secretary and the individual within the state security apparatus that is leaking information. He finally seeks help for his PTSD and a possible reconciliation with his estranged wife.

This whole narrative is a clumsy and inimical foray into the public imaginary with regards to veterans’ welfare including PTSD and moral injury, as well as conscientious objection, critical debate about war and security, and crucially, a very real veterans’ movement.

This veterans’ movement is Veterans for Peace, an organisation which was founded in the US after the Vietnam War. A UK group has been steadily growing since it started in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.. The motto of Veterans for Peace UK is ‘war is not the solution to the problems we face in the 21st century.’ Their members are all veterans of the armed forces who have fought in conflicts from WW2 to Afghanistan. They affirm: ‘We are not a pacifist organisation, we accept the inherent right of self-defence. We work toward increasing public awareness of the cost of war and to restrain our government from intervening in the internal affairs of other nations, for the larger purpose of world peace.’

culture, veterans

ForcesWatch comment

The Public Accounts Committee have today published their report Skill Shortages in the Armed Forces. The report is narrowly focused on how to solve the problem of the recruitment shortfall and it makes a number of problematic recommendations that put the military's operational needs over other considerations.

There is an implicit suggestion in the report that the 'recruitment crisis' can be solved if only the MoD reached out far enough and strategise better. This does not recognise societal changes, particularly amongst young people, that make the armed forces, with all its attendant risks, obligations and ethical considerations, an unattractive career for many.

The report shows little in-depth consideration of the methods of recruitment and gives no space to the ethics of how young people are marketed to, and recruited into, what is a career with unique risks and moral implications. Very disappointingly, it suggests even more marketing and STEM activities in schools.

'Innovative approaches to recruiting' will undoubtedly mean that the armed forces will seek to use other education and youth organisations as a channel for building interest. Another recent report on the 'recruitment crisis' also suggested 'innovative' ways of interesting young people such as putting the armed forces onto the curriculum and actively encouraging cadets to enlist into a forces career.

Despite criticism of other traditional recruitment practices, the report does not examine the continued recruitment of 16 and 17 year olds and whether this is effective, even within narrow operational terms of improving retention.


ForcesWatch comment

Last week the Coroner at Working Coroner’s Court delivered the findings into the circumstances of Sean Benton’s death at Deepcut Barracks in June 1995. Sean was the first of four soldiers to die there between 1995 and 2002. ForcesWatch have been monitoring the inquest; this article shares our records from the inquest and notes on the final findings.

It was only on certain days of the inquest – for example, when Sergeant Andrew Gavaghan took the stand, and for the verdict, that the small room at Woking Coroner’s Court was full. On most days, other than lawyers for Sean’s family, for the Ministry of Defence and for Surrey Police, there were few attendees: members of Sean’s family, their legal representatives from Liberty, an independent journalist dedicated to covering Deepcut, and the mother of Geoff Gray, another young person who died there.

Diane Gray was there without fail, listening like the Coroner to evidence from former Deepcut recruits and military personnel who knew Sean. The inquest into her own son’s death will begin next year; the second pre-inquest hearing also took place last week.

Speaking with Diane showed her to be a person with an extraordinary capacity for strength and resilience, fighting to get justice for her son and for others who suffered like him. There was frustration from years of fighting, the failure to get a jury, and the disappointing probability that the inquests will not go to a criminal court. The overwhelming sense was of the exceptionalism of the military with regards to justice and human rights, the feeling of powerlessness and the immense impact of the Deepcut abuse and deaths on individuals and families.

The evidence heard during the inquest included testimonies of abuse impacting many recruits other than Sean. While lengthy and thorough the inquest was far from all-encompassing. Only evidence of physical and mental bullying was heard; evidence of sexual abuse at Deepcut was not included in the remit of the inquest.1 It is also important to note that this inquest, while vital for uncovering and sifting through the evidence relevant to Sean’s death, was not a criminal investigation nor was it a public inquiry. The Coroner noted in his factual findings:

‘This is not a public inquiry into the training of RLC soldiers at Pirbright and Deepcut in the mid-1990s, let alone an inquiry into the wider state of the army at the time. It is not within the scope of my statutory powers to consider or address every alleged adverse event or shortcoming at Deepcut or to make detailed findings about responsibility for any identified or admitted failings in the systems and structures in place. Nonetheless, it is within the scope of this inquest to consider how army policies and systems operated for those entering the RLC in 1995 in so far as consideration of this wider background is relevant to my investigation into the circumstances by which Sean Benton came by his death.’ (p.9)

It was tragically clear that over twenty years later, many people are deeply affected by what they experienced as teenagers or young people in army training. One former recruit said during the Inquest: ‘I sometimes dream about not finding my uniform… once I didn’t have it and I borrowed someone else’s. It didn’t fit me and I didn’t have any tights. I still dream about it sometimes – the fear. It’s never gone away, I’ll never forget it… Not just the night [when Sean died] but the whole time there will stay with me forever. I think of it when I’m with my son, my daughter…they want to join the Army and I won’t let them.’ (ForcesWatch, notes from attending the inquest)

Sean himself, besides his disappointment and shame upon hearing he was going to be discharged, expressed discontent with his treatment in the Army in his final suicide letters. His letter addressed to his parents ended:

‘For ages I been trying to apply for a week’s leave but they wouldn’t let me have it… & they all knew that I needed a break from blackdown and that I was cracking up but they just said I wasn’t entitled to it, so can you see Gill Barwick & ask her if she could see a lawyer to see if you can get anything out of this, ask her to get the lawyer to have a look at my Army Medical reports, thanks. Love, Sean xxx’ (p.92)

Download the full notes

Also see Deepcut – another verdict; still more questions....


ForcesWatch comment

Today is a significant day in the Deepcut tragedy – when a family affected by the loss of their child during training at the army barracks may finally get some sense of understanding and justice after many years of battling against the military's lack of accountability. Attending the inquest it becomes rapidly clear that the army has all the resources on its side and that the Benton family has been up against a culture of secrecy from various authorities.

Two years ago the second inquest into Cheryl James' death delivered a verdict of suicide. While very disappointing for the James family, the coroner did also make extensive comment on the toxic environment at Deepcut and the serious failures in duty of care by the chain of command.

Today, a similar verdict has just been announced in the case of Private Sean Benton, who died aged 20 from gunshot wounds to the chest. News just in indicates that the family will be formally requesting that the police open a criminal investigation. We were at the hearing and will have a full report in due course. See our twitter feed and Notes on attending the inquest into Sean Benton's death at Deepcut barracks.

The two inquests and two BBC documentaries that followed the verdict in 2016 have brought to light the accounts of many current and former soldiers who claim to have suffered physical violence and/or sexual abuse at the camp. A group of the bereaved families and other victims have renewed calls for a public inquiry into the now large number of allegations made by army personnel about their treatment at Deepcut, the sexualised culture at the barracks, and the serious deficiencies in current legislation covering investigations within the armed forces.

In fact, it has long been known that potentially many more than the 'Deepcut four' were affected. The Deepcut and Beyond campaign group which gave evidence to the two Deepcut inquiries (The Blake Review and Parliament's Defence Committee's inquiry which produced their 2005 Duty of Care report) represented more than 50 families affected by inadequately investigated deaths at army barracks.

What becomes clear on hearing the testimony from individuals affected by the bullying or abuse inflicted on them or those they knew is the life-long impact. Many of the Deepcut recruits were young teenagers away from home for the first time.

Problems persist

While the scale of problems at Deepcut at the time of the four deaths was unusual and the army has instigated a number of reforms in the years since, it is also evident that some of the problems persist and are in fact endemic to a military environment.