ForcesWatch comment

18/01/2017

ForcesWatch comment

This is a longer version of an article first published by The Huffington Post

A young boy shivers, the steady rain dripping through his hair and down his mud-streaked face. His eyes are wide and fixed. But then, he's not alone. Another joins him, also dressed in combats, and pours him a cup of tea from a flask. More come, and he's surrounded by comrades, sitting silently, checking their rifles. One ruffles the top of the boy’s head affectionately, and he grins.

'This is belonging' says the screen. 'Army: Be the best. Find where you belong, search Army Jobs.'

Another scene follows, with a line of soldiers traipsing up a desolate, snowy mountain slope. The camera zooms in on the line - one trips, and another helps him up. One begins whistling, then sings, 'I'm having the time of my life.' 'You sound like a dying cow,' jests a comrade in a Scottish accent, and they all chuckle, trudging on together.

'This is belonging' says the screen. 'Army: Be the best. Find where you belong, search Army Jobs.'

These mini videos form part of a £3m advertising campaign launched by the British Army at the start of 2017, in an appeal to children (any under eighteen year olds by international standards) and young people.

The theme is belonging, a theme also emphasised for recruitment purposes by sports teams, religious groups, gangs, fraternities and sororities, political organisations and other entities in which conformity and distinction are key. It appeals in particular to adolescent children who are undergoing the most intense phase of their process of social identity formation.

All the confusion, instability and changes adolescents face, are compounded by their under-formed personal and social identities, resulting in their tendency to over-identify with others or with groups in order to gain a sense of security and belonging. These might take the form of love interests, cliques, or even gangs or extremists.

By appealing to the adolescent child's need to belong, the army have therefore latched onto a very popular recruitment tool, powerful in particular among those who feel isolated or marginalised, or who have a sense of non-belonging and potentially low self-esteem.

The army website says: 

'A sense of belonging may sound like a small thing. Yet it fuels you as much as food and water, because it doesn't just feed your body, it feeds your mind and soul.

The stronger the sense of belonging - the stronger you become.

 Sure, you could look for belonging in a football team or a club, but the sense of belonging you'll find in the Army - well, that's the next level...'

The promised reward of signing up is 'belonging' to the army is becoming stronger and stronger by virtue of ‘belonging’. This is tempting indeed for adolescents who tend to crave social acceptance and a feeling of importance in a group context.

The army also claim to offer a sense of belonging stronger and more powerful than any other: 'When you've trained together side by side, learnt things no classroom can teach you and fought with each other, for each other - that creates a bond like no other. A bond that lasts a lifetime.'

But telling adolescents that they can resolve their need to belong by joining the Army is simplistic and one-sided. The reality is many aspects of army life are potentially harmful, especially to vulnerable individuals. The other side of the story needs to be told.

09/12/2016

A history teacher from Coventry got in touch with ForcesWatch to share her experience of teaching Remembrance to year nine classes this year after reading the resource Rethinking Remembrance in Schools.

Teaching about Remembrance this year was a vastly different experience for me than previous years.

The main reason for this was my own change of attitude towards war and militarism. No longer content to just teach about what happened and to employ the tired exhortation of viewing the ‘fallen’ as heroes who did not die in vain, who died for our freedom, and other platitudes, I dug deeper. What did I really want my students to get out of this?

I realised that, more than anything, I wanted them to no longer view war as inevitable. I wanted them to question: why? During my lessons, I made sure I was asking “why?” at every opportunity. Why were these soldiers sent to fight? Were the reasons the same for all the wars we remember?

When learning about the causes of World War One, one of my students wrote that if it had not been for the alliances system, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand would have remained a dispute between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and there would have been no resultant World War.

I found the testimony of Harry Patch very useful as he was a World War One veteran who refused to join in with traditional Remembrance, and this provided very interesting discussion points for the students.

The most thought-provoking part of my lessons was the discussion that followed watching The Unseen March by Quaker Peace and Social Witness. One of my students said that she had never realised it before, but there is an unspoken obligation to think of soldiers as heroes, and never to question that. Many were in agreement that the creeping militarisation in UK schools is wrong. One student wrote:

‘I don’t agree with militarism being introduced to schools because it isn’t school education. It is the military trying to gain more people to join the army.’

 Overall, it felt like a more fulfilling and thought-provoking experience to teach Remembrance with an emphasis on questioning both the causes of the wars we remember, and militarised approaches to conflict today. 

30/11/2016

ForcesWatch comment

Members of the Scottish Parliament have agreed to seek further evidence on our joint petition – with Quakers in Scotland – calling for greater scrutiny and guidance around military visits to schools.

The Public Petitions Committee met at Holyrood on Thursday 24 November after receiving responses from a number of interested parties and a further submission from ourselves in which we urged Members to consider the petition from a child welfare and rights perspective.

As a result the five MSPs will now obtain more views in order to give them a fully rounded picture on the issue. Parents, teachers, schools, child rights organisations, young peoples’ organisations, veterans and careers services are expected to contribute.

There was strong support for the petition from SNP MSP, Rona Mckay, who told the hearing “to say it (the military) is a career like any other career is disingenuous because it has risks that other careers don’t have.”

Her party colleague, Angus MacDonald, referring to submissions by the Children’s Commissioner for Scotland and the Scottish Government, said there “was clearly a suggestion that there may be undue or inappropriate influence being exerted” over visits.

The Convenor of the Committee, former Labour leader Johann Lamont, in summing up said the focus should be on whether the military were visiting schools on “a transparent basis and everyone has confidence that they are not targeting particular groups.”

The two Conservative members, Brian Whittle and Edward Mountain were less favourable to the aims of the petition. Whittle said “the army has as much right as anyone else to describe a career in schools.”

Footage of the hearing can be found here http://www.scottishparliament.tv/Search?Keyword=petitions&keyword-submit=Search and begins at 40 minutes and 30 seconds.

12/11/2016

ForcesWatch comment

It may be a surprising message on the face of it, but the Royal British Legion is asking the public to 'Rethink Remembrance'.

That does not, however, suggest we will see the Legion advocating growth in peace studies, or calling for more debate around how the military operates in public life and beyond.

Instead, via their 'Rethink Remembrance' Poppy Appeal, the Legion is asking us to focus not only on the dead and the veterans of two world wars but also those of today's generation.

In terms of the Legion as a welfare charity, this is uncontroversial. What is more unsettling is how the British Legion seeks to define public remembrance, determining who it is for and how we should engage with it.

Furthermore, the militaristic dimension of remembrance is problematic for many; this has been nurtured by policies and public relations that promote support for the military in the aftermath of the controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a consequence, the level of debate over recent years about 'poppy politics' has grown significantly, reaching fever-pitch in some quarters; the nature of public remembrance changed long before we were asked to 'rethink' it.

Where once poppies were worn only on Remembrance Sunday, there is now something of a 'poppy season' from late October, accompanied by a full-scale advertising and fundraising campaign.

Remembrance is no longer a shared moment of private reflection. It is now characterised by corporate logic and exceptionalism. The former puts fundraising targets above ethics as ittakes money from arms companies and allows them to use the poppy appeal to buy legitimacy; the latter sees the charity treated as different from others as they fundraise on public transport, in schools and elsewhere.

The British Legion may deny the political nature of the poppy and state that it can mean different things to different people, but most of us are able to see that the politics of 'wear your poppy with pride' is different to the politics of 'reflect on the suffering caused by war'. Those whose history has been on the sharp end of British warring will know that better than most.

While the British Legion, with its too-close links to the military and arms industry, is the 'national custodian' of the poppy, any official 'rethinking' of remembrance will remain neutered. The series of short films for this year's Poppy Appeal highlight the point.

Words are spoken by WWII veterans, but the twist is that the stories are those of recent combatants who have suffered trauma, both mental and physical. While these are important and moving accounts, they make no reference to learning from the mistakes of the past, to the realities of violence both for military personnel and civilians, nor to the importance of peace-building and peace education.

An official 'rethink' of remembrance is not able to accommodate fundamental questions about the validity of military approaches or the poppy appeal's sub-texts around Britishness, national pride and support for the military.

18/10/2016

ForcesWatch comment

This article was first published in the Morning Star.

The Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, recently announced that 25 out of 150 proposed new school cadet units would soon be opening. (1)  Despite the presentation of this development as new policy, the Cadet Expansion Programme (CEP) promoting cadet forces in state schools, was first announced in 2012.(2) Its first phase received over £14 million funding. (3)

In the 2015 budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced £50 million of second phase funding from Libor fines, increasing the number of state school cadet units to 500 by 2020. (4)

In 2016 he announced a further half a million from Libor fines, to support seven Cadet 'linked detachments' in Scottish schools as well as £3.3m for Cadet Forces qualifications. (5)

While the Government heralds the cadets as a silver bullet in terms of improving pupil attainment and development, the sight of ranks of pupils as young as 12 in military gear and handling weapons will ring alarm bells for many.

That this is happening within education raises additional concerns.

Cadet forces in schools are not new of course. Many independent schools have long run Combined Cadet Forces (CCF).

Now, it is the Department for Education (DfE) rather than the Ministry of Defence (MoD) promoting cadets and 'military ethos' in schools.

Figures suggest that 69 new units have been set up in state schools, with MoD funding, other bursaries and assistance of a partner CCF in an independent school. (6)

The 'military ethos' in schools programme also includes the far-from-successful Troops to Teachers scheme which fast-tracks veterans into teaching, and 'alternative provision with a military ethos'.

The latter has led to privately run agencies being given public funds to provide military-style activities and 'uniformed early intervention' to both pupils at risk of disengaging from education and to whole classes, sometimes with a frequent presence in the school. (7)

The government argues, rather one-sidedly, that 'military ethos' is particularly able to instil 'character' and develop leadership and resilience in young people.

While there are undoubted benefits to students of being provided with well-funded resources to enrich their education, there is scant independent research into the efficacy of these schemes in relation to others that don't happen to promote the country's armed forces.

With the stated policy objectives of student and social development and its promotion by the DfE, it is easy to lose site of the ways in which school cadet forces allow the MoD to pursue its defence agenda amongst a captive audience. Why otherwise would the Government be particularly keen to support new cadet units in 'areas where the MoD wants to raise awareness of the armed forces'? (8)

The MoD's Youth Engagement Review of 2012 recognises the value of cadets in furthering both defence and 'cross-government' outcomes; as such they are more acceptable than armed forces visits to schools to promote careers. Despite protestations the 'this is not about recruitment', cadet units do serve as a channel for potential recruits into the regular and reserve forces. (9)

Cadet units also serve as a way to create 'positive awareness' about the armed forces in a far wider group of young people. Concerned about the growing unpopularity of military approaches to conflict resolution in the population at large, the military focus on those too young to have developed a critical awareness around such issues.