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- Alex Comfort

The Army targets unsuspecting youth – the younger the better, as a softening up process before the 16th birthday


It is thirty years, a whole generation, since the Peace Pledge Union, and other organisations like the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Young Liberals, began campaigning against the draconian conditions under which youths under 18 are recruited into the Armed Forces.

Time to take stock, perhaps. In the 1970s the Army’s recruiting slogan was ‘Join the Professionals’. It was never made clear exactly what profession one was being urged to join, and perhaps because the slogan could be too easily, not to say appropriately, adapted to ‘Join the Professional Killers’, it was dropped in favour of the current ‘Be the Best’ – but best at what?

Leaving aside the possible answer ‘at killing’ – if the Gulf and Kosovo are anything to go by, it actually seems to be the RAF which does most killing these days – there is evidence of what the Army is not best at, and that is openness, truth, and responding to calls for international humanitarian norms for recruitment and deployment.

One of the major issues of the 1970s was the recruitment of boys as young as 15 – in certain circumstances it is possible legally to leave school before one’s 16th birthday – and tying them into contracts continuing until their 21st birthday. One minor ‘success’ of that early campaigning was to allow a window of opportunity for young recruits to leave by giving notice after the end of their first month and before the end of the sixth month. But the Army played down this facility in the recruitment process, and unhappy young recruits were often recommended to ‘soldier on’ until the six-month deadline had passed.
Now the Army, in response to more pressure, has raised the minimum recruiting age to the 16th birthday, but, in the interests of equality, the minimum recruiting age for girls, previously 17, has been lowered to match that for boys. No doubt also in the interests of ‘equality’, meaning taking away with one hand something to compensate for what is given with the other, the minimum contract period for which a boy or girl signs up at 16 has been extended to the 22nd birthday, rather than the 21st – ‘the 5-year trap’ for eager but unwary youngsters has become a ‘six-year trap’. Who of us at 16 really knew how we would feel about career commitment in two, three or four years’ time, let alone five or six years?

The Army targets unsuspecting youth – the younger the better, as a softening up process before the 16th birthday – in a number of ways: visits to schools, a website, television advertising, mobile stalls – not to mention cadet forces, visits to training camps, adventure courses for school leavers. Passing through a shopping precinct in Easter week I came across an Army stall set in mid-passage, the timing clearly chosen because of the school holidays, and it was indeed crowded round by youngsters, whom the young soldiers attempted to engage in banter about the wonderful life they led.

I picked up a couple of glossy brochures. One, offering ‘career opportunities for 16-26 year olds’, mentions ‘if a time comes when you want to leave the Army you will be equipped with life skills and real qualifications’. How these are to be equated with the cover picture of two men dashing into oblivion with fingers on the trigger of sub-machine guns is not explained. And there is no mention of the minimum period of contract, still less that if you try to walk out prematurely you can be arrested by the civilian police, handed over to the military for court-martial, and sent to prison – a sanction, fortunately, not open to the most obdurate civilian employer.

The other brochure ‘Career opportunities for young soldiers’, cover picture of a soldier again with a gun at the ready and yelling – whether it is fear or aggression, it is equally unpleasant – is about the two Army ‘Colleges’. It does have a section headed, ‘What happens if I decide I don’t like it and want to leave?’ This clearly is the response to years of campaigning, but suggests that there is a six-month ‘window’ after the first month, rather than the actual five months: a minor point, apparently – until you find you have handed in your notice one day past the deadline. More importantly, the brochure talks glibly in one place of the recruit being ‘guaranteed a job with the Army for a minimum of three years’ after finishing the College course (six months or a year according to College). Elsewhere it gets nearer the truth by saying ‘you will be required to serve a minimum of three years from the age of 18’, except that the brochure, being freely handed out in April 2000, is dated February 1999, whilst the five-year trap became a six-year trap from 1 November 1999.

It is said that shoddy work is the product of shoddy leadership. Who can blame the poor young soldiers misleading the poor gullible potential recruits when the shining new Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, fresh from the legal niceties of the Lord Chancellor’s Department, tells a monstrous lie in his first briefing to Labour MPs? Stung by adverse publicity about Britain’s intransigence over a Protocol on the recruitment and deployment of under-18 soldiers, Geoff Hoon circulated a defensive memo under his name to his Commons colleagues, stating in particular, ‘Sadly 92 personnel under 18 have died whilst serving in the Armed Forces since 1981 – but none have been killed in combat’. After much prevarication the MoD, but not Geoff Hoon in person, has admitted that no less than four men under-18 have been killed in combat during that period, two in the Gulf war in 1991 (as a result of ‘friendly’ fire), one in the Falklands in 1982, and the other presumed to be in the Falklands, although the MoD have not so far confirmed this.

Mention of the Protocol brings to mind the international aspect of attempts to limit the military recruitment and deployment of young people. Just as there is still no legal minimum age for military recruitment and deployment in the UK (other than the negative effect of the minimum school leaving age), so until 1989 there was no international minimum norm. In that year, however, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child set the 15th birthday as a minimum age for military recruitment, binding upon states signatory to the Convention. One of the reasons for setting that age was the stance of the UK government, which then, as has been mentioned, still recruited some youngsters before their 16th birthday.

There has, however, over the years been increasing international momentum to agree a Protocol to the Convention which would not only raise the minimum age for recruitment, but for the first time set an international minimum age for deployment in actual combat. The great majority of states, some quickly, some more slowly, have come round to the view that the age of 18, the most common age of majority for the franchise, independent marriage, legal contracts etc, is the right one for both purposes. Britain, along with the USA, has been the most obstructive in establishing consensus, insisting upon its present age of 16 for recruitment, and something approximating to its present guidelines for deployment, which are 17 for the Navy, 17 years 3 months for the Army, and 17 years six months for the RAF.

After years of frustration and wrangling, a draft Protocol was finally agreed by compromise in January 2000. This does lay down a minimum age of 18 for ‘taking a direct part in hostilities’, and the same age for ‘compulsory recruitment’, which has always been the minimum age for conscription when applied in Britain. That is important, because a large number of states, particularly in Europe, impose conscription, though formal conscription under 18 has been rare. The reason why the actual phrase is ‘compulsory recruitment’ is that it is intended to cover situations in parts of Africa and Asia where children as young as 8 or 10 are coerced in a variety of ways to join state or paramilitary armies.

With regard to ‘voluntary recruitment’, however, the Protocol requires only that participating governments shall formally raise the minimum age above that of 15 set by the existing Convention, with safeguards to ensure that recruitment is genuinely voluntary, that persons under 18 have parental consent, and that young persons are fully informed of duties involved.

Although Britain did not block this compromise, the government has yet to announce whether it will actually sign up to the Convention, and if so what declaration it will make as to the minimum age for recruitment, which presumably would not be below the present British age of 16. That in itself would not affect British recruitment practice, except to give it a quasi-legal status. The deployment clause would require a significant shift in British practice, and it remains to be seen whether the government will apply the same principle as it indicated in 1997, when there was a possibility that 17 might be agreed as a minimum age for recruitment, that it would be prepared to compromise ‘if failure to do so would damage our standing in the UN and human rights fora’.

The Protocol Working Party is not the only forum in which Britain has been obstructive. The International Labour Organisation worked on a Convention on Prohibition of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. Many states wanted to include any military participation in that category, but Britain was among a group, including the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden and Turkey, which insisted on a compromise whereby forced or compulsory military service under 18 was defined as ‘jeopardising [the recruits’] health, safety or morals’, but not voluntary service, which is therefore permitted under the Convention agreed in June 1999.

Another international standard has been the UN requirement from October 1998 that military personnel engaged in official peacekeeping operations must be at least 18 and preferably over 21. This obviously arises from the need for maturity and life experience in the very difficult task of maintaining even-handedness between bitterly hostile groups and calming emotion and aggression when tension is high. But whilst formally accepting this rule, the British government has followed the letter rather than the spirit. On the one hand, the 18-age limit is observed, the 21-age preference is ignored. On the other hand, the rule is applied strictly to operations under direct UN command; it is enforced in Cyprus, where ‘blue berets’ are worn. In Bosnia and Kosovo, where NATO is in charge, even though purportedly acting under UN resolutions, British 17-year-olds, not much more than a year out of school, are regularly deployed, causing some embarrassment to troops and officers of colleague states.

One person who evidently was not embarrassed was Geoff Hoon’s predecessor, George Robertson. When asked in the Commons about the UN peacekeeping guidelines, he initially claimed that they applied only to conscript troops, having, despite all the briefings which ministers are heir to, confused them with the ILO Convention so carefully contrived to his perceived advantage. Only three days later did he make a private grudging correction. Was that again ‘the best’ the MoD could do?

All this emphasis on what, increasingly in western terms, is extreme youth in not only military recruitment but also military deployment, is argued as being essential to bring about a ‘better return’ for the Armed Forces. Cynically, one might interpret it as meaning that the MoD gets six years out of a 16-year-old for a nominal four-year (adult) contract. What the MoD actually seems to be saying is that 16-year-olds tend to be more willing to join up than older age groups, and they tend to settle down more easily. Without cynicism, it may be argued in response that it does not say much for the vaunted attractions of the Armed Forces if the best recruits are the less experienced, often less educated – dare one say more gullible? – younger boys and girls rather than their more mature and worldly wise older companions.

Even if it is generally true that 16-year-olds give the alleged ‘better return’, it still has to be asked why all the difficulties, including what count as criminal sanctions, are put in the way of the minority who become desperately unhappy, who have ‘soldiered on’ until their legal rights are exhausted, who have worn out the patience of everybody concerned, but are still rigorously retained ‘on the strength’. The only answer seems to be ‘pour encourager les autres’ – if we let one go they will all be at it. In other words, it is not such ‘a great lifestyle’ with ‘unbeatable rewards’ after all . Be the Best – mug, sucker, cannon-fodder not even acknowledged by your own Defence Minister? What about, Be the Best: be a human being responding in a humane way to other human beings?

Bill Hetherington


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