ForcesWatch comment


ForcesWatch comment

This article is published in The Morning Star on 2 July 2018

Militarism on the streets and in the corridors of power


Kids encouraged to play with military weapons
and vehicles at the national Armed Forces Day
event in Llandudno, north Wales, in June 2018

As support for the military is paraded in streets across the UK at Armed Forces Day events, politicians charged with fighting the military's corner are waging their own war on public and political opinion.

The public row between Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and Downing Street over defence spending has caused many to question his political judgement but his calls have been backed by other parts of the defence establishment. The House of Commons Defence Committee last week pre-empted the Modernising Defence report of inquiry due next month with a demand for 'beyond 2%'.

Williamson's unwillingness to wait for that report is partly because the UK’s contributions to global defence objectives will be discussed at the NATO summit in July. Donald Trump's repeated 'requests' for hundreds more British troops in Afghanistan is also likely to be on the agenda.

The government is reported to be reluctant to capitulate to these demands. Chancellor Philip Hammond is said to have told ministers that with further money needed for the NHS, the budget cannot withstand increased spending on defence.

Williamson has threatened to bring Theresa May down if defence does not get an extra £20 billion. In his desperation to win more assets he recently suggested that without them, Britain may be forced to use its nuclear deterrence in future battles. At the same time, there is a 'tug-of-war' between those who want smaller, tech focused forces (mainly in Whitehall) and those who do not want to let go of the means of conventional warfare.

These current tensions are put into context in a new report by Professor Paul Dixon. 'Warrior Nation: War, Militarisation and British Democracy' explores how the military's conduct around defence issues since Iraq and Afghanistan has played out 'on the home front'.

Dixon explores how, as a result of the unpopularity of the UK's wars of choice in the Middle East, various actors - including politicians, the media and military elites - have promoted military interests within civil society and politics to the extent that there has been a 'militarisation offensive'. This has enhanced the military’s power in society while not succeeding in dramatically increasing public acceptance of UK involvement in armed conflict.

The report also describes how the military pushed for greater involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, believing that they must ‘use or lose’ their assets and that active warfare would increase their resources and personnel.

Dixon suggests that we should all be concerned about the effect of this heightened power of the military on democracy. The constitutional convention that they do not openly criticise politicians has been broken with public attacks on successive governments since 2006. A week after Corbyn's election to Labour leader, a ‘senior serving general’ publicly said the armed forces would take ‘direct action’, ‘effectively a mutiny’, to stop a Corbyn government – using ‘whatever means possible, fair or foul.’


ForcesWatch comment

The apparent threat by the Defence Secretary to bring down the Prime Minister should she fail to stump up more billions for the armed forces formed the background to the launch of a major new report on 25 June.

Warrior Nation: War, militarisation and British democracy examines the relationship between recent conflicts and the wider power of the military in society and politics.

Written by leading defence academic Paul Dixon, of Birkbeck, University of London and published in the run up to Armed Forces Day on 30 June, the study considers how a 'militarisation offensive' has increased the military's influence on British politics and society in recent years.

From left to right: Professor Joanna Bourke, Marigold Bentley (from QPSW and chair of the event), Professor Paul Dixon and Emma Sangster.

Speaking during the launch at Friends House in London Paul Dixon explained that the Armed Forces Covenant – a moral contract between British society and the military - was 'an invention by the military in the year 2000', which has since been used to promote military interests in wider society such as support for the Afghan war from 2006.

The study looks at how the military actively pushed for escalation of Britain's involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but then deflected responsibility for their failures onto politicians.

It focuses on how successive governments have struggled to contain the power of the military and how senior military figures have broken with convention to publicly criticise politicians – and in particular Jeremy Corbyn, since his election as leader of the Labour Party.

Paul pointed out that under Corbyn Labour has now committed to a 2% target on defence spending, but said that 'having achieved that the next goal (for the military and its supporters) is to push it up to three per cent.'

What he called 'the hidden power of the military' had been with us for the long time but has 'bubbled to the surface a bit more since 2003.' For evidence he points to the Chilcot Report which investigated the decision making around the UK's involvment in the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. This report 'produces evidence of the power of the military in pressurising governments to do its bidding.'


Leicester for Peace


This year in Leicester Armed Forces Day was 23 June whereas in most other places it will be 30 June. Those of us concerned about these public displays and the militarisation of young people had received assurances from our City Mayor that children would not be allowed to handle guns at these events (see details here). and so a group of us spent two hours in the city centre at the display of weapons and big trucks and recruitment games.

Seventeen of us held a silent vigil facing the army in a long line, some holding the Peace Pledge Union cards which said ‘War is not Family Entertainment.’ Some held a Quaker banner. On a table in the middle a large placard said ‘War Hurts Everybody’.

We also had beforeyousignup cards on the table and other information about under-18 recruitment.

Many passers-by thanked us for being there.

Meanwhile we had someone taking photographs of what the armed forces were doing, especially when they allowed children to handle the guns. 

An army officer told our photographer he did not like the photography and would ask the police to move him on. The police then came and told him the army were uncomfortable with photographs being taken and the photographer explained he was breaking no laws as this was a public event and he, and many others, were uncomfortable with the army allowing children to handle guns. Would they please pass this on?


ForcesWatch comment

Concerns we have raised with the Scottish Parliament about armed forces activities in special schools have been picked up by The Daily Record newspaper.

Their piece, Army recruiters accused of targeting vulnerable children at Scottish special schools, is based on research we did on visits to special schools over recent years: 'In 2016-17 alone, there were six visits by forces personnel to special schools around Scotland. The schools included Edinburgh’s Gorgie Mills School, Willowbank School, ­Coatbridge, Kear Campus in Blantyre and Westmuir High School, Glasgow.'

The question is why such a massive remit would be given to an organisation whose primary purpose is defence rather than educational, if no ­recruitment outcome was expected?

While giving evidence to the ­petitions committee, the Army confirmed they “support” schools with special needs, along with other schools: the Army's aim, is 'to support all schools, whether independent, state sector or special needs and regardless of postcode area.' As we said to the committee in our submission: the question is why such a massive remit would be given to an organisation whose primary purpose is defence rather than educational, if no ­recruitment outcome was expected?

We commented that: 'We feel that it is unacceptable for the Army to visit special schools and primary schools, as younger pupils and those with additional needs are particularly vulnerable to ­sophisticated marketing messages.

'Research shows young people with the greatest pre-service ­vulnerability are likely to fare least well when they enlist.'

Recent research about adolescence as a developmental stage indicates that not only is this an extended period - going into the early 20s - but that young people are particularly vulnerable to long-term risks and the marketing messages that inform taking those risks. More details on the implications of this for recruiting under-18s into the armed forces can be found in this report by the public health charity Medact.


With the publication of the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee report on our petition on armed forces visits to schools, there has been substantial coverage in the news (see our round-up).

After several years of work from ForcesWatch and Quakers in Scotland, the Scottish Parliament recognised child rights and welfare concerns around the activities.

The Ministry of Defence have said a number of things in response that are very disputable – this blog outlines some of the evidence.

Engaging with young people via Armed Forces Day events - one of many ways in which the armed forces seek to interest kids in signing up - this time from a primary school.

An MoD spokesperson said today that school visits ‘are not done for recruitment purposes.’

The Ministry of Defence deny and play down the recruitment agenda of their visits to schools repeatedly in order to mislead and placate the public and prevent public unrest. They are documented as stating that there is a need to distance ‘recruiting’ from other ‘youth and curriculum activities’, and for ‘recruiters’ to ‘package their work as citizenship programmes rather than pure recruiting’ – because of the risk of schools being uncomfortable.

The MoD insists that it cannot be said to recruit in schools as this would constitute the final act of signing on paper. Yet they are documented as saying that they in fact define recruiting as a process from initial interest to enlistment with the involvement of recruitment staff.

There is clear documentation of the Army saying they aim to ‘attract potential recruits over the long-term’ with their visits to schools; and of the Ministry of Defence citing recruitment and the ‘continued support of the population’ as the two key objectives of its work in schools.

The Ministry of Defence have said their rationale with school engagement is to ‘provide positive information to influence future opinion formers’ and ‘enable recruiters to access the school environment’.

The House of Commons Defence Select Committee has referred to military personnel going into schools as recruiters, and has talking about establishing a more systematic approach to engaging with school pupils for the purpose of recruitment.

The UK Government has stated that the Army’s ‘recruiting initiatives’ include presentations in schools by Army career advisers’ as well as a number of other activities that form part of their school engagement.