The UK is one of only 19 countries in the world that still recruits 16-year-olds into its armed forces. The others include North Korea and Iran. What's more, British teenagers – otherwise deemed too young to drive a car, drink alcohol or marry – are twice as likely to be killed as personnel recruited over the age of 18. Mental illness is also more prevalent in these recruits, with a suicide rate 82 per cent higher than civilians of the same age.
These uncomfortable facts clearly don’t fit in with the shiny nature of Armed Forces Day, which was celebrated this Saturday with parades, fly pasts, parachute displays, and speeches by David Cameron.
If only the truth was palatable enough to be celebrated. Numerous organisations including Amnesty International, the National Union of Teachers, and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, have challenged the Government’s policy of recruiting what many regard as child soldiers. But despite this, the Government is actually trying to increase the military’s influence within schools.
According to the Ministry of Defence, in a yearly period between 2011-12 the UK armed forces make around 11,000 visits to schools,. In this way they would have been in contact with around 900,000 young people. Although no one is directly signed up during these visits, they are clearly a massive recruitment drive.
Then there’s the Government’s promotion of military values within the education system itself, with its large number of drives and initiatives to essentially militarise it. There is the Troops to Teachers scheme which aims to fast-track ex-forces personnel into teaching roles. There is the expansion of the Combined Cadet Force. And there is the scheme to encourage more sponsorship of academies and free schools by military organisations, essentially transforming them into military academies. These schemes aren’t just about increasing military values within schools – which is sinister enough in itself – but they also act as indirect means of recruiting impressionable young people into the armed services.
To make it even worse, it is the poorest areas of the country and society that are targeted. In just one year, over 2,000 school visits took place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And there are proportionately greater numbers of visits to state secondary schools than private schools. Subsequent recruits – impressionably young and often from deprived backgrounds – are then funnelled into combat roles when they turn 18, usually in the infantry where personnel are seven times more likely to die than in other parts of the armed services, and where those recruited at 16 are approximately twice as likely to die as all the rest. This is because 16-year-old recruits have little choice other than a frontline fighting role, because of their lack of other qualifications. Indeed, recruits who are younger than 16 years and three months have no option other than to prepare for a combat role.
This is not just wrong. In a so-called civilised country, it is barbaric.
So what can we do to stop it? As Ben Griffin, founder of Veteran's for Peace UK, has said, if there was a veteran outside every recruitment office who could tell parents that their 16-year-old son was twice as likely to die as an adult recruit, how many would let them do it?
Unfortunately that’s not possible. But we, as concerned citizens, can be that voice telling people about the other, less glamorous, side to military service. After all, the Government isn't going to. Perhaps then, when enough people are made aware, we can move beyond the barbaric practice of recruiting child soldiers.
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