ForcesWatch comment

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.

21/09/2016

ForcesWatch comment

Things have really moved on since ForcesWatch and Quakers in Scotland lodged a petition earlier this year with the backing of over a thousand signatures at the Scottish Parliament concerning military visits to state schools.

Back in March we asked Holyrood to ensure ‘guidance is provided to schools', ‘information is collected to provide public monitoring’ and ‘parents/guardians are consulted’ when it comes to visits by the military.

This reflected the work done with the Welsh Assembly in 2015 when Assembly Members in Cardiff agreed to support, in principle, greater oversight, guidance and balance in relation to how the armed forces operate in secondary schools. This decision was made in recognition of the unique nature of an armed forces career.

Last week we got the chance to put our case to the Public Petitions Committee in Edinburgh. We answered questions on how visits to schools is part of the armed forces long-term recruitment process, about the level and distribution of visits, and the lack of clarity and coordination between institutions and authorities responsible for education and careers as to how, and even if, the visits should be overseen and parents consulted.

We raised concerns about the role of Capita, the private company that holds the army recruitment contract, in visits to schools. Part of the remit of their Outreach teams is to 'promote Army Careers by going to schools'. We hope that an inquiry by the Scottish Parliament would shed light on what they actually do.

We were delighted that the five members of the Committee agreed that there now needs to be further examination of the issue.

During the hearing, the Committee asked us what the chances of the armed forces presenting a balanced view, and we replied that currently we do not believe they do at all, and that school staff or other organisations might be best placed to offer alternative perspectives.

When the Committee suggested that the armed forces might be offering balance by discussing peacekeeping work through the UN, we were able to point out that militarised peacekeeping is not the only response to conflict that children might learn. To provide real balance, they should also be educated about nonviolent responses such as peacebuilding and conflict transformation.

We also shared with the Committee our concern that the realities of violent conflict and combat situations are hidden beneath marketing strategies aimed at pulling in young people, such as a focus on skills development and fun outdoors activities.

Committee Convenor, Johan Lamont MSP, said after hearing our evidence, that petition (PE01603) should be taken forward because Members needed to “get a sense of where people are on this and that dilemma between on the one hand particular communities being targeted but also recognising that for some young people there’s potentially some good recruitment outcomes.”

The Convenor also made the point that young people should perhaps have the right to opt out of activities with the armed forces in their schools themselves, a point which we agreed with.

The Committee, made up of two SNP, two Conservative and one Labour Member, agreed they would now contact a number of public bodies asking for current advice, information and guidelines on military visits to schools. These include the Scottish Government, local authorities, the Armed Forces Careers Office, Skills Development Scotland, the Association of Heads and Deputies in Scotland, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland and the Scottish Youth Parliament.

The Scottish media took up the story with gusto. Our appearance in Edinburgh was featured in two national newspapers and online, with major broadcasters weighing in too.

23/06/2016

ForcesWatch Comment

This letter from ForcesWatch staff member Douglas Beattie was first published in the Camden New Journal on 23 June 2016

It was with deep unease that I learnt Camden had raised the Armed Forces Flag earlier this week in support of Armed Forces Day.

The borough, I’m told, is required to hoist the flag because in 2013 it signed the Armed Forces Community Covenant; a mistake in my view.

Armed Forces Day has been described by the Quakers as “a glossy front behind which sits a deliberate strategy to manipulate the public”. Celebrating our armed forces in this way suggests an uncritical acceptance of military approaches to conflict resolution.

The clear aim, led by the defence ministry and the Tory government, is for the UK to become more militarised in an everyday sense; adopting militaristic values and priorities and to see military solutions as particularly effective. 

Since 2012 the government has committed over £90million for new programmes in schools with “a military ethos” while slashing Education Maintenance Allowance, Disabled Students Allowance and mental health services for young people.

Military-led activities in national education policy include aggressive plans to spread Army Cadet Forces to state schools (over 500 by 2020); arms companies and the military sponsoring new academies and influencing what they teach, plus military personnel being brought ever more into classrooms.

Where is the public debate about any of this?

ForcesWatch – an organisation I work for and which scrutinises the military – makes the point that getting young people to sign up is a long-term process rather than a single event, and much of it takes place in the classroom. It’s a point hard to deny when examining the array of evidence.

AFD itself has been criticised in recent years for holding events in which children not yet old enough to go to school are allowed to handle guns as part of the “fun”.

Readers may not be aware that the UK is one of just a handful of countries in the world which still recruits at 16 years of age. It is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council, member of the EU and NATO to do so. Children’s commissioners, children’s charities, teaching unions, veterans groups and parliamentarians are now calling for the age of recruitment to rise to 18.

In the last month the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child again called on this country to “reconsider its active policy of recruitment of children into the armed forces and ensure that recruitment practices do not actively target persons under the age of 18 and ensure that military recruiters’ access to schools be strictly limited”.

As long as we have PR events such as AFD the military will continue its unseen march into the heart of our communities. 

It is peace we must strive for, not increasing militarisation which can beget nothing but more violence and a more dangerous and aggressive world.

Councillor Douglas Beattie
Labour, Kilburn 

25/05/2016

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.