Channel 5's Raw Recruits: Squaddies at 16 shows a key phase of any military career – the training. You go in as one person and come out as another, often in ways you don't understand until long after you leave the forces.
As a veteran, it has been interesting to watch these 16 and 17-year-old kids being shaped into soldiers. It reminds me of the long-term impacts of the training process, and the political system and social structure framing people’s motivations for enlisting.
There is a theory developed in Australia from the experience of Vietnam, that it is training rather than war which leaves military and ex-military personnel profoundly altered. You can see that process playing out before your eyes on Raw Recruits.
Anyone who knows veterans knows they tend to run hotter than civilians in terms of a general sense of urgency, an aggressive approach to problems and a low tolerance for what they may term “bullsh*t”. This is a key aim of basic training. It is clearly demonstrated in this series, as the teenage participants are accelerated towards the degree of urgency, aggression and unquestioning obedience expected by their instructors.
While some may find it gratifying to see young people, who are often unfairly portrayed as listless and sluggish by preceding generations, moving around with purpose and urgency; military conditioning can have damaging long-term effects.
After army training, recruits tend to become more belligerent, authoritarian and conformist, and less emotionally aware. They are also more likely than civilians to become anxious or depressed, to drink heavily or behave violently. This is unsurprising for those who are aware of the intense – and some would say abusive – nature of military training and culture.
One thing I have realised while watching the show and discussing it with others, is that time in the military radically alters your perception of what is or is not abuse. I have found myself looking at the way the young recruits are treated and thinking that while, yes, the military probably had a degree of editorial input, the trainees seem to be having an easy ride compared to my own time.
This may be true: the military has improved welfare in some ways, although concerns about bullying and harassment still exist. But could it also be that I have been desensitised? As one former soldier turned social worker pointed out to me a few years ago, a lot of what goes on – particularly in the field army – would be in any other context classed as abuse. This would include the various kinds of physical punishments and the verbal bullying which, in the military context, is simply run of the mill stuff.
All this aside, I occasionally find myself caught between those who believe the recruitment age should be raised to the legal age of majority, and those who zealously portray the British Army's targeted recruitment of working class children as altruistic and advantageous. While overall and in the long term, joining the military at a young age is fraught with risks, it is designed to be attractive to many young people – and it can indeed offer them prospects and meaning.
None of the various motivations shared by the recruits featured in the series differ much from my own when I started the adult version of basic training in 2004.Hearing these young people talk brought home to me that as well as drivers like wages, social advancement and so on, they – like me – were all looking for the same thing. Something which is at a premium if you are a young kid from a working class community: meaning.
In a country where work is increasingly tedious and/or precarious for many, is it any surprise that young people want to do something which is touted as challenging, interesting, fulfilling and varied? Military service is also one of the few jobs which offers a place where real collectivism and human solidarity can be experienced – if only within the narrow framework of the military’s needs.
Yet while the series shows some of the powerful reasons why young people are drawn into the military, it also raises some important questions – beside the fact that this self-advancement offer is not all that it may seem. If military service is one of the few places some young people can go to find meaning, isn't there something fundamentally wrong with our society? If recruitment is constructed so young people are motivated by self-fulfilment, does this remove scrutiny of the wider meaning and politics behind their work?
It will be incumbent upon these “raw recruits” to carry the potentially heavy moral burdens involved in warfare. This is something I know all too well from my experience of refusing to serve a second tour in Afghanistan on legal and moral grounds. When recruitment distracts from power and politics while capitalising on structural inequalities, it amounts to the moral exploitation of some of the most vulnerable young people in our society.
Joe Glenton is an Afghanistan veteran, journalist and the author of ‘Soldier Box’
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