For Queen and Country

The phoney war is almost over, and British ground troops may soon be heading for the Afghan front line. Who'd be a soldier now? Quite a lot of people, actually; even if ? as Paul Vallely discovered at his local recruiting-office ? some of them seem more like boys than men
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The Independent Online

They were told they could choose the Koran. Or make a statement of affirmation. But they all chose a Bible and, clutching it in their right hand, they nervously repeated the oath of allegiance. They looked so young. The Army Recruitment Office in Liverpool was enlisting again this week, as it does every week in what is the busiest centre of military enrolment in the United Kingdom. Across the globe, soldiers on British military bases were readying themselves, physically or psychologically, for the entry of ground troops into Afghanistan. And here in Liverpool the volunteers were coming forward to begin the six months' training that – if our troops do have to fight through the winter and on until at least next summer, as the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Michael Boyce, has suggested recently – could conceivably lead these youngsters directly on to the field of battle.

You have to be young to measure your years in fractions still. Ask Jason Gallagher his age, and he replies: "Seventeen and a half." It is as if the Irish Guards' newest recruit needed to locate himself precisely between his fellow Scousers David Owens, 19, to his left, who has just been sworn into the First Battalion of the King's Regiment, and James Kells, 16, to his left, who has enlisted in the Royal Green Jackets. With them was Keith Gardiner, who had first enquired about joining up when he was 14, hoping to be selected for the Army Foundation Course; when he didn't get in, he decided to come back when he was 16 to join, in the words of Liverpool's head of recruitment, Major Tony Ross, "as an adult". It's all relative. After the age of 27, they're too old.

They are enlisting, too, in the United States. For the past month, recruiting-offices all over the US have been inundated with young people – and some not so young – offering to sign up. They arrive in states of high emotion, saying things such as: "It's payback time." But – despite Tony Blair's recent revelation that one of his sons was keen to join up – there is nothing so gung-ho about the mood in Britain.

"It's steady," says Major Ross. "People aren't rushing in off the streets, saying they want to help go and get bin Laden. But nor have they been rushing in to cancel their applications to join." And there has been no change in the level of walk-in enquiries in the city-centre offices, situated not far from the Pier Head. In this, Liverpool reflects the national situation. "If we have ground troops in, that may alter, but right now it's surprisingly unchanged," says Lt-Col Harry Scott at the Ministry of Defence in London.

Surprising because, when Britain gets involved in military action, recruitment usually receives a boost. "At the time of the Falklands there was a great upsurge in interest," says Colonel Scott. And more recently, the deployment of the Parachute Regiment in Sierra Leone had a big impact on recruiting in Liverpool. "There was a definite surge of people wanting to join the Paras," says Major Ross. But not now.

In part, this is a reflection of the nature of the outrage provoked by the 11 September terrorist attacks on America. Whatever the emotional empathy felt by the public, and the political solidarity avowed by the Blair government, the horror was not as near to home as is evidenced by the response in those US recruitment offices.

But it says something, too, about recruitment into the British armed forces, which has been flagging recently. Two months ago the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, felt compelled to launch an attack on the couch-potato "Nintendo generation" of youngsters (who were too physically unfit to fight) as he announced a massive army recruitment drive aimed at reversing the alarming decline of recent years. Ironically, the campaign was due to be launched with Operation London Soldier on 12 September – the day after the suicide attacks on New York's twin towers. In the event, plans for a force of tanks, armoured cars and helicopters on Horse Guards Parade were cancelled on the grounds of good taste.

Ask the new recruits in Liverpool their views on the assault on Afghanistan, and they have few words to offer. "Terrorism should be stopped. George Bush is quite right to put his foot down," says the 16-year-old Irish Guardsman, Keith Gardiner. But mostly, the response is that of his contemporary James Kells: "I don't really take much notice of all that on the news." They are joining the Army for other reasons. "I've always wanted to join," says Keith. "My brother joined, and I went to his passing-out parade when I was 10 and decided then."

"I never wanted anything else," says Jason. "Since I was eight or nine, I wanted to be soldier. I joined the army cadets as soon as I was able, at 13, and learnt how to shoot a rifle, all the field-craft, and went up in a helicopter."

The received wisdom is that it is unemployment that drives young men into the Army. Yet even in an area such as Liverpool, none of the recruits – nor the half-dozen casual enquirers I spoke to – was out of work. A number had jobs – an assistant pub manager, a lifeguard, a packer, a labourer – that they thought boring, but none was unemployed. Many came straight from school or college.

David Owens, the eldest of the group, at 19, had decided to join after working on a building-site with his father. "I didn't like it, and there is nothing much better around if you don't have GCSEs. This way, I get to see the world." It was the Army's "Be the best" ad on TV that had persuaded him. "He's found a way to better himself," said his father, David Owens senior, who had accompanied him to the recruiting-office to watch with a moistened eye as his son swore allegiance to the Queen.

The oath was taken at the prompting of Major Ross, whose strong local accent testified to the fact that it is possible to be born a working-class Liverpudlian and rise to the position of major in the modern British army. He went up through the ranks from ordinary soldier to regimental sergeant-major and instructor at Sandhurst, before being commissioned in the Royal Irish Regiment. His career had him soldiering in Ireland, the Falklands and Bosnia, and finally being put out to recruitment pasture.

"It's good. They're quite chuffed to find someone who came out of the Garston tenements and made something of it," he said, removing his flamboyant peaked beret and setting down his Irish officer's blackthorn swagger-stick as the recruits left the office in civvies for the last time. "Class and creed are now no barrier in the British army, and we're working on making that true of race, too – we've got ethnic minorities up to 4 per cent now, which is moving towards the 6 per cent which would be representative of the national population."

The young recruits had achieved something simply in being accepted. The Liverpool office enlists some 300 recruits a year from the city alone. That is out of 1,700 enquiries, of which 1,200 lead to formal applications to join the Army.

Recruitment is a filtering process. Between 5 and 10 per cent drop out because they have taken drugs in the past – there is some leeway for past experiments with cannabis, but no tolerance of class-A drug use. "Drugs like Ecstasy leave a brain residue which can cause flashbacks," Major Ross says sternly. "Imagine the consequences for an army helicopter pilot."

Criminal records knock out a similar percentage. So do personal difficulties, "like debt, or having a girlfriend who's pregnant". Then there are medical conditions – in addition to serious conditions such as epilepsy, apparently trivial complaints such as asthma and eczema rule out many recruits. Psychological interviews weed out those without the right motivation or mental attitude, and those with undesirable instabilities: "We don't want killers in the army," the Major says.

Those who get in signan initial contract for four years, after which they can leave if they give a year's notice. Those under 18 have six months to change their mind; otherwise they're in at least until they're 22 – though everyone is given the chance to quit after eight to 12 weeks of training.

That training will be harder than ever before, simply because the "Nintendo generation", thanks to computer games, TV and the decline of sport in schools, start out much less fit even than their fathers. But they already know that, from the weekend assessment that they underwent before acceptance. There, they endured nine physical tests in which they had to run one and a half miles, hold a 14kg ammunition box straight out in front for as long as they could (the average for men is around two and a half minutes; one and a half for women) and hang from a wooden beam and pull up their own weight. "They are not as fit as previous generations," says Major Ross, "but the upside is that most possess valuable computer skills, which is important in an age when there is a computer in every mortar and field gun."

The result of the assiduous filtering-system is that only 5 per cent of recruits will drop out during training – compared with 20 per cent in the past. "It will take three months to turn you from a civilian into a soldier," the Major told the recruits as they left for home to pack for their new life. "And then another three months to turn you from a soldier into an infantryman."

In six months' time they will be ready for war. Some just hope it lasts that long. "When I see the exercise in Oman, I feel I've missed out," says the 16-year-old guardsman, Keith Gardiner. "It's quite disappointing, because in my time in the Army there may not be another war." With the benefit of his extra year and a half of experience, his colleague Jason Gallagher is a little less bullish, but insists: "If I'm called on, I won't keep my head down. I'll do the job I'm paid for."

"I'd be proud to do it, to be honest," says James Kells, 16, now of the Royal Green Jackets. His guardian Ellen Doherty wipes a tear from her eye. "I've never stood in his way and I've no intention of starting now," she says, "even if it is scary."

"The fact that there is now fighting going on makes me nervous about joining, but also more keen," says David Owens, at 19 the wise old head of the Liverpool recruits.

"Somebody's got to go out and do it," his father says. "He knows that one day he may be called to put his life on the line. And I'm proud that he's decided to do it."