ForcesWatch comment


ForcesWatch Comment

Are 16 and 17 year olds developmentally mature enough to make rational decisions about enlisting and once they have joined? The Chair of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania says: 16 years olds "may be more prone to being stressed, to maybe malfunctioning under stress and also not using more rational a decision making approach when they are in that split second."

As we report elsewhere, this week has seen media coverage and discussions on the age of recruitment to the UK armed forces, sparked by the open letter to the MoD signed by 20 childrens rights organisations. The letter noted how the youngest recruits are 'actively sought' for frontline roles and that, "Since the mental health effects of childhood adversity can be aggravated in a military environment, the effects of enlisting too early can be particularly harmful for some young people."

The BBC and others covered the story in several places including this Radio 5 Live panel discussion (from 2 hours: 41 minutes) which had an interview with Dr Frances Jenson, a brain development specialist and Chair of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania (author of The Teenage Brain and this TED talk) whose work focuses on the differences between the adult and teenage brain. She said:

"It turns out that the brain is the last organ in the body to develop, and it takes until the mid to late 20s to finalise itself. And the period between 13 and 20 is a very rapidly progressing developmental curve. So there are big changes between even 2 years, 16 and 18. Of course, it is not a mature brain at 18 either.

Presenter: what kinds of issues would a 16 year old not be able to deal with that an 18 year old would deal with better?

"One of the main differences that is occurring in this window of development is connection of the different parts of the brain to each other. It goes from the back of your brain to the front and that process to finalise the connectivity of the brain takes all the way through your teens into your mid to late 20s. The last place to connect is your frontal lobe, which is above your eyes, and is the part of the brain that controls executive function, impulse control, judgement, empathy, planning, risk-taking.

Presenter: that must be developed, so its just the speed of thought in those frontal areas?

"They do have a frontal lobe but the connections have to be insulated by a fatty substance called myelin, which takes a long time, so it is the speed of the connections. Once it is insulated, it goes much faster. So the split second decision making is relatively compromised in the teenager compared to the adult, on average.

Presenter: From what you know, is a 16 year old capable of taking that decision and carrying it through?

"The 16 year old is going to have less access to their frontal lobe telling them that this isn't a good risk to take, this is an emotional decision that I am making rather than one that is rational. Their emotional areas are very attached at that point, in what we call the limbic system. In fact, they are more emotional than adults, when you look at things like functional imaging, functional MRI, when you look at parts of the brain that turn on with stressful experiences. The teenager had much more activity compared to the adult and its probably because they have more connectivity to their emotional areas than their frontal lobes at that point.

"So it would suggest that they may be more prone to being stressed, to maybe malfunctioning under stress and also not using more rational a decision making approach when they are in that split second."

The presenter pointed out the incongruity between the age of recruitment, which suggests that 16 and 17 year olds are fully competent, and the special measures needed to protect young people in the armed forces.

Another guest, Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Blair-Tidewell, suggested that one of the key reasons for the policy continuing is that it was the 'tradition' of the army to recruit at 16. He presented a better case when he said that, "There is a need for something like the army to offer young people, who are perhaps not particularly interested in going down an academic route, of coming into the workforce...coming into a service where they can do something for their country."

That young people could do with an economically viable alternative to academic education may well be the case. However, the price paid for the career and sense of service is often too high. Young people need to be encouraged to explore the full range of options, with the knowledge and critical awareness that maturity brings, before signing up to a very risky career.


ForcesWatch comment

June 2016 update: Read the Committee on the Rights of the Child recommendations on the recruitment of under-18s to the UK armed forces and recruitment activities in schools.

This week the long-awaited consideration of the UK's implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child takes place. There are numerous issues being discussed, including many ways in which the rights of children are compromised or not adequately recognised by UK authorities.

Also under scrutiny is the recruitment of 16 and 17 year olds, who are still legally children, into the UK armed forces, and UK's lack of education provision on peace and human rights.

These are both issues on which the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child made recommendation the last time they reviewed the UK compliance of the Convention in 2008.

They are also issues on which ForcesWatch and others have made submissions to the UN because the UK is failing to implement the UN's recommendations and abide by the sprit of the Convention.

Our report on Peace education and the promotion of the armed forces in UK schools highlights not only the lack of provision of peace education for young people but also that there is increased promotion of the military within schools - through the Department for Education's 'military ethos' programme and free military-related learning resources, and as the armed forces continue to conduct a substantial 'youth engagement' programme.

The Quakers report, Peace Education or Militarisation? also raises these concerns, as well as a number of concerns about the Prevent strategy. It states:

Peace and human rights remain fringe subjects in practice in British schools. Yet UNICEF has noted that peace education is not a peripheral need, but “an essential component of quality basic education”. Quakers see peace education as a corpus consisting of the values, skills and understanding to effect justice and peace. This covers layers beginning within individuals’ emotional and mental wellbeing, extending outwards to interpersonal conflict and relationships and beyond to peace and justice in the wider world......British children and young people are increasingly exposed to military involvement in their lives, both in school and beyond. We fear the militarisation of children’s lives normalises violence as an approach to conflict. Ultimately this undermines the conditions for peace and the realisation of children’s rights.

The report of Child Soldiers International, Recruitment, use and treatment of children by the British armed forces, details the many concerns in relation to both the UK's compliance with the Convention and the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (OPAC). The report states that,

With one exception, the Committee on the Rights of the Child ’s recommendations regarding armed forces policy made in the Concluding Observations on the UK’s OPAC Report of 2008 have not been implemented . One of the developments warmly welcomed by the Committee at its 2008 session has now been reverse d by the UK, significantly worsening conditions for child recruits.

The report also reports that,

The UK does not prohibit military exports to country situations where children may be used as soldiers or are otherwise affected by armed conflict . Indeed, t he UK routinely exports arms and dual - use goods (i.e. civil or military) to such country situations.

We expect the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to present its Concluding Observations and recommendations on the UK's position on childrens rights next week.

Youngest recruits 'actively sought' for frontline roles

To coincide with the UN session, an open letter to the MoD signed by 20 childrens rights organisations again called on the UK to stop recruiting children. At the letter notes, while the UN requires states to prioritise older recruits for enlistment, the UK has admitted that it intends to increase the number of children it recruits, in order to compensate for recruitment shortfalls. The letters says:

Although minors are no longer routinely deployed, they are actively sought for frontline roles, particularly the infantry, where the risks in war are highest over the course of a military career. Since the mental health effects of childhood adversity can be aggravated in a military environment, the effects of enlisting too early can be particularly harmful for some young people.

See here for more on child development concerns around recruiting under-18s into the armed forces.


Lauren Bryden & Poppy Kohner, from Resist Militarism

While captivating and enlightening, does placing the body at the centre of the narrative of war obscure political comment on what these bodies do and, crucially, why they do it? The support of the production by the British Army and their presence at the event raises important questions about the role of the military in public arts spaces.

On the evening of Friday 29 April in Tramway 1 – one of the most impressive, and experimental, theatre spaces in Scotland – we found ourselves captivated by Rosie Kay’s production of 
5 Soldiers: The Body Is The Frontline; a show that, in Scotland, is supported, part-funded and produced in association with the British Army. 

Kay’s 5 Soldiers is not an anti-war dance piece, nor is it intended to be. Instead, Kay’s focus for the performance is the ‘physicality’ of war, and offers a parallel between dancers’ and soldiers’ bodies, inspired by Kay’s personal experience of long-term injury and the arduous regime demanded of a professional dance career. As Kay and Brigadier Gary Deakin, Command Head of the British Army in Scotland, reminded the audience before the performance at a wine reception, “Soldiers and dancers both must have courage, discipline, physical fitness and loyalty; both must train in competitive environments; both risk serious injury”.

The defining question of the evening emerged therefore: when did the performance begin, and when did it end?

Did it begin when guests were greeted outside the Tramway by the sight and sound of a military pipe band? Or when programmes were distributed from soldiers in uniform instead of Tramway staff? Was it at when Brigadier Deakin gave a rousing speech before the show? Or, did the performance begin when Rosie Kay was embedded in the 4th Battalion the Rifles for two weeks to research the piece? 

photo credit: Maria Falconer

To some extent, the performance itself provided a breathing space from all of this. The physical parallels between solider and dancer were expressed deftly and the five dancers did not just capture the bodily techniques involved in soldiering, but enhanced them, proving themselves to the audience, many of whom were military members. The stage was stripped back aside from 8 tyres used shrewdly as props throughout the performance. Dancers performed military drills in double-time around the bare stage, exhausting themselves before the show had even begun, and sweat flew off their bodies as they took on multiple roles in scene-after-scene, making for a visceral and varied performance. The piece ambitiously tried to deal with multiple struggles and strains involved in the experience of being a soldier: the removal of identity, belonging, women in the military, sexual abuse, masculine vulnerability, sacrifice, and injury. 

A projected painted mountain scene - conjuring up a fantastical, imagined, version of Afghanistan - was the backdrop to a gracefully choreographed parachute jump, which was immediately followed by an action-packed scene of the unit on deployment. A bomb detonates, leaving one solider badly injured. The dancer momentarily lifts his arms in a Christ-like pose to Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, before his top half is stripped naked and his legs strapped behind him, as if they have been amputated below the knee. The chaotic action of the five bodies on stage is juxtaposed with a haunting image of him, alone, attempting to march as the lights slowly fade out. 

But while the dance was done, the performance was not. A post-show panel of 9 speakers, including two representatives of the British Army, took to the stage. During this discussion one dancer spoke of their time embedded in the military as, “one of the best times of my life”, while another offered, “it has completely changed my perception of the military”, which elicited a clap from the audience.  Kay and Brigadier Deakin continued the performance in a choreographed duet that would have made the army recruitment public relations team proud. 


ForcesWatch comment

Before the closing date of our petition to the Scottish Parliament on military visits to state schools in Scotland, the ForcesWatch team went on the road to spread the word and raise awareness of the issue.

What we discovered, after public meetings in Edinburgh, Glasgow and in Aberdeen in mid-March, was a clear appetite for change. Many in Scotland - teachers, students, parents and others - are uncomfortable with the status quo of armed forces visits to Scottish schools. The country’s largest teaching union – the Educational Institute of Scotland – has opposed military recruitment in schools and colleges since 2007. The Executive of the National Union of Students Scotland decided in 2015 to oppose armed forces recruitment in colleges and universities, a policy due to be ratified by the full conference this month. The Scottish Parents Teacher Council worry that students are encountering a sanitised image of the armed forces, and say parents must always be consulted about the visits.

Overall there is a willingness to see – as our petition states – ‘greater scrutiny, guidance and consultation on armed forces visits’. We heard many testimonies, expert views and opinions. We were joined by members of the public and peace groups, and by military veterans and political activists including members of the Scottish Green Party and the SNP.

At each event our five key areas of concern about military visits were outlined, namely: the level and distribution of visits, types of activity – careers awareness or recruitment, lack of a balance of views on the armed forces, insufficient consultation with parents and guardians, and lack of transparency.

Owen Everett from ForcesWatch speaking in Glasgow.

In Glasgow our meeting was held at the home of the Scottish Trades Union Congress. The Quaker Meeting House played host in Edinburgh, a stone’s throw from the Scottish Parliament. There it was decided that a local group would be formed to challenge military visits to local schools, and militarism in the area more broadly. In Aberdeen, Conor Watt from ForcesWatch spoke. The audience included Maggie Chapman, co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party.

At each gathering there was a discussion about the petition and the concerns about military visits which lie behind it. As Owen Everett, ForcesWatch Education worker, pointed out: “Scotland receives a disproportionate number of these visits compared to constituent parts of the UK.... The most complete available data shows there were 1445 visits by the military to schools in Scotland in the two year period between 2010 and 2012. Strikingly in 2003 there were less than 15 visits [by the Army]." He went on to say that, despite this, “There is currently no specific guidance on military visits for local authorities or for schools.”


ForcesWatch comment

This article was first published on the White Feather Diaries website"Publishing the diaries of conscientious objectors of WWI. To refuse to kill is a cause worth dying for."

ForcesWatch is a research and campaigning organisation which challenges military recruitment practices in the UK that are not in the best interests of young people. They are currently working on raising the age of recruitment to 18, in partnership with Child Soldiers International, and challenging the growing presence of the military in the education system, along with Quakers in Britain. Emma Sangster from ForcesWatch discusses their work.


It is hard to believe that 100 years after a quarter of a million boy soldiers signed up to fight in the First World War that we are still working to ensure that vulnerable youngsters are not seduced into enlisting. ForcesWatch research has looked at how, from almost every aspect, the best interests of 16 and 17 year old recruits are not served well by this policy, despite the prevalent narrative that the armed forces provide a valuable route out of disadvantage.

The UK is the only country in the EU to still recruit into the armed forces at 16. This is despite being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. However, public opinion is definitely on the side of children’s rights and we believe it is only a matter of time before this anachronistic policy changes.

Military engagement with young people

The military are keen to ‘engage’ with young people in as many ways as they can, not only for recruitment, but also to create a ‘positive awareness’ about the armed forces amongst the next generation. The advance of social media has opened up new avenues for them as have the Armed Forces Day and other annual celebrations and commemorations around the armed forces.

Of particular concern is the array of military-related initiatives in education, including the Department for Education’s promotion of ‘military ethos’ in schools. The plan to expand cadet forces into more secondary schools and military-themed activities as ‘alternative provision’ for those at risk of failing are also a concern. The armed forces are becoming more involved in partnering education institutions, particularly the University Technical Colleges (UTCs). UTCs provide employment-focused curriculum for 14–18 year olds. Currently, about half of these colleges have links to either the military or the defence industry, sometimes both.

Although there are many good peace-related initiatives that schools are embracing, education for and about peace is not part of the structured curriculum, despite recommendations from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. The balance is very much in favour of promoting the military.