Veterans warn young people about ‘traumatic’ army training
16 or 17 and want to be a soldier? Watch this first.
Army training is ‘traumatic’ for young recruits and damages the adolescent mind, according to British infantry veteran Wayne Sharrocks, who features in a series of short films released today by Child Soldiers International (child-soldiers.org/dontenlistat16). The films offer young people and their parents a frank alternative to army recruitment materials which, say many veterans, present a sanitised and unrealistic impression of military life. In particular, Wayne wants young people to know that the psychological effects of training can be harmful and permanent.
The films describe Wayne’s journey through the army, from training to deployment and his struggle to adjust to civilian life afterwards. They present a picture of army life that is unrecognisable from recruitment brochures: of routine bullying; ‘traumatic’ training that indoctrinated him as ‘a mindless, robotic killer’; and the often ‘really, really, dull and boring’ life on operations. He recalls seeing his colleagues maimed and killed right in front of him, and talks about his own injury from an IED explosion.
Other British armed forces veterans share Wayne’s concern. Today, Veterans for Peace[i] will deliver a letter to the Ministry of Defence appealing for an end to recruiting from age 16. The letter argues that adolescents should not be put through training whose central goal is to make them capable of killing on demand and without hesitation. In Wayne’s experience, this psychological conditioning produces ‘an insane amount of aggression’ and is ‘massively psychologically damaging’ after leaving the army as it cannot simply be ‘switched off’.
In the films, Wayne describes the lead-up to bayonet drill, which begins with sleep deprivation:
‘So they keep you up all night and make you really angry, then you’ll [have to] run and be put through physical punishments. You’re crawling through mud and [are] screamed at, kicked, punched while you’re on the floor, anything to get you angry… enough to stab another man on the flick of a switch. For a young person at 16 that’s pretty traumatic.’
The army makes use of a gang mentality to force recruits to conform, he says:
‘You either conform, or you don’t and you’re separated from the pack and you’re going to be preyed on. So you can either be the person that’s preying on people or the person that’s preyed on, it’s like survival of the fittest, basically. So these people that aren’t the fittest or mentally the fittest, they’re going to get preyed on and people are going to take advantage of that.’
Wayne’s testimony echoes statistics which show younger recruits are at higher risk of bullying and harassment in the army. In 2015, recruits at the Army training centre for minors (AFC Harrogate) filed 20 formal complaints of inappropriate conduct by army staff, up from ten cases in 2014, ten in 2013, and five in 2012. 15 cases remain unresolved to date.[ii]
‘Before deciding to enlist, young people and their parents deserve the full picture, but the army’s brochures only tell one side of the story. These films give another side, including the frightening and the mundane,’ said Rachel Taylor, Programme Manager at Child Soldiers International. ‘People need to know that basic training involves intense psychological conditioning which doesn’t switch off when you leave the army. Adolescents, whose brains are still developing, are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of this.’
Ben Griffin, a former SAS soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now Coordinator for Veterans for Peace UK, agrees. ‘The purpose of infantry training is to fundamentally alter the way your mind works, leaving the army in control of what you value and how you react. These values and reactions are very difficult to switch off and cause all sorts of problems in civilian life. No other country in Europe subjects 16 year olds to this process, it’s time this country caught up.’
The four Children’s Commissioners for the UK also believe that raising the enlistment age would be in the best interests of young people,[iii] as do the major child rights groups,[iv] health professionals,[v] teachers,[vi] faith groups,[vii] parliamentarians,[viii] the Equality and Human Rights Commission,[ix] and three-quarters of the British public, according to a 2014 poll.[x] The British army’s arrangements for gaining the informed consent of recruits and their parents are ‘insufficient’, the UN has said.[xi]
An article in last month’s RUSI Journal argues that the army could enlist only adults and still fill the ranks, since 16 year olds are more expensive than adults to train and one-third are discharged before they finish the course (child-soldiers.org/shop/is-it-counterproductive-to). Despite the growing controversy around the British army’s recruitment age, last year it increased its intake of minors, who account for a quarter of new recruits, recent figures reveal.[xii]
- Wayne Sharrocks enlisted into the British infantry in 2006, aged 17, and left seven years later. He was deployed to Afghanistan twice. The second time he was deployed he was injured by an IED. The same explosion blew the legs off a colleague in front of him. He is now making a full length film about the difficulties veterans face in returning to civilian life: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1236839879/life-after-war.
- Child Soldiers International is an international human rights research and advocacy organisation seeking to end the military recruitment of any person under the age of 18. Our research on child recruits in the British armed forces is available at https://www.child-soldiers.org/uk.
- The large majority of countries worldwide now recruit only from age 18 or above. The UK is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council or EU member state still recruiting 16-year-olds. In the United States the minimum recruitment age is 17 years, but minors only account for around 6 per cent of annual intake; in the UK, they account for one-quarter of the British army’s intake. (Full figures available on request).
- The Defence Select Committee (2005, 2013, 2014), the Joint Committee on Human Rights (2009, 2010) and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2002, 2008, 2016) have all called on the MoD to review the minimum recruitment age with a view to raising it to 18 years.
- Supporters of the campaign to raise the UK enlistment age to 18 include: the Children’s Commissioners for the four jurisdictions of the UK, Child Soldiers International, Veterans for Peace, National Union of Teachers (NUT), Medact, Liberty, ForcesWatch, Amnesty International UK, British Institute of Human Rights, The Who Cares? Trust, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party, Plaid Youth, SNP Youth, Children in Scotland, Together (Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights), Children in Wales, Wales UNCRC Monitoring Group, Wales Observatory on Human Rights of Children and Young People, Children England, Children’s Rights Alliance England (CRAE), Northern Ireland Children’s Law Centre, the Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, Methodist Peace Fellowship, Baptist Peace Fellowship, Quaker Peace and Social Witness, and Pax Christi.
- Army policy ensures that 16 and 17 year olds who enlist are drawn into the infantry in particular, as Wayne was.[xiii] [xiv] The infantry carries the highest risks once recruits turn 18 and can be sent to war. In 2015/16, 41 per cent of minors joining the army were enlisted for the infantry, versus 32 per cent of their adult counterparts.[xv]. The British infantry’s fatality rate in Afghanistan was six times that in the rest of the army.[xvi]
- In November the health professionals charity Medact argued that underage enlistment is a public health problem carrying a range of risks to young people.[xvii]
- Films produced by Global Stories,https://globalstoriesalsomakefilms.wordpress.com, contact: email@example.com.
[i] For details of today’s letter hand-in, see http://vfpuk.org/2017/end-the-brutalisation-of-children/ or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
[ii] 2015 is the most recent full year for which figures are available. House of Commons, Written answers to questions: Army Foundation College (no. 56008), 13 December 2016, http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2016-12-02/56008.
[iii] For references, see Child Soldiers International, Press release: Stop recruiting children, rights groups tell MoD, 2016, http://www.child-soldiers.org/News/press-release-stop-recruiting-children-rights-groups-tell-ministry-of-defence.
[iv] For example, see UNICEF, Ending the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict, 2016, p. 10, http://www.unicef.org.uk/Documents/UnicefChildSoldiersbriefing_UKweb.pdf. See also Children’s Rights Alliance for England, www.crae.org.uk, and Together: Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights, http://www.togetherscotland.org.uk.
[v] Medact, The recruitment of children by the UK armed forces: A critique from health professionals, 2016, http://s234523623453.medact.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/medact_childrecruitment_17-oct_WEB.pdf.
[vi] The National Union Teachers has communicated its support for raising the enlistment age to 18 directly to Child Soldiers International.
[vii] Refer to Child Soldiers International, Bishops attack army on recruitment of minors; teen enlistment figures plummet, 2013, https://www.child-soldiers.org/Shop/bishops-attach-army-on-recruitment-of-minor-while-teen-enlistment-figures-plummet-1.
[viii] Joint Committee on Human Rights, Children’s Rights (Twenty-fifth Report of Session 2008-09), 2009.
[ix] Equality and Human Rights Commission, UK Government UPR Mid-term Report: Report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2010, p. 5, http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/documents/humanrights/hrc13_midterm_report.pdf
[x] Ipsos MORI, Nationwide poll conducted in July 2014 by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd, http://forceswatch.net//sites/default/files/IPSOSsurvey2014-Forces_age.pdf. Poll question: ‘In your opinion, what should be the minimum age to join the British army? Please answer regardless of whatever you believe the minimum age is at the moment.’
[xi] Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (CRC/C/GBR/CO/5), 2016, pp. 23-24, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G16/149/88/PDF/G1614988.pdf.
[xii] For sources and detail, see Child Soldiers International, Press Release: Army defies child rights campaigners, intensifies intake of 16-year-olds for riskiest roles, November 2016, https://www.child-soldiers.org/news/army-defies-child-rights-campaigners-intensifies-intake-of-16-year-olds-for-riskiest-roles.
[xiii] According to the MoD, Junior Entry recruitment (aged 16-17.5 years) ‘presents an opportunity to mitigate Standard Entry (SE) shortfalls, particularly for the Infantry’. ‘SE’ refers to recruits aged 17.5 years and above. MoD, Policy on recruiting Under-18s (U18), 2013, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Ref. FOI2015/00618, 12 February 2015, p. 2, https://www.child-soldiers.org/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=5328771a-5ff2-4b15-89ab-ff454339c782.
[xiv] Recruiters’ instructions state that recruits aged between 16 and 16½ must be given jobs in combat roles (or join as drivers in the logistics corps) and that those under 16¼ must only be given combat roles. British army (Recruiting Group), Eligibility Quick Reference Guide, 2015, p. 8, http://www.child-soldiers.org/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=5e0a7b26-2af3-4d29-b26d-f21aefeede97.
[xv] In 2015-16, 41 per cent (730) of army recruits aged under 18 were enlisted for the infantry, versus 32 per cent (1,960) of adult recruits. House of Commons, Written questions: Armed Forces: Young People, 25 May 2016, no. 38550; MoD, UK armed forces biannual diversity statistics, 1 April 2016 (Table 8a), 2016, https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/uk-armed-forces-biannual-diversity-statistics-2016.
[xvi] Refer to D Gee, The Last Ambush: Aspects of mental health in the British armed forces, 2013 (London: ForcesWatch), p. 57-58, http://www.forceswatch.net/sites/default/files/The_Last_Ambush_web.pdf.
[xvii] Medact, The recruitment of children by the UK armed forces: A critique from health professionals, 2016, http://s234523623453.medact.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/medact_childrecruitment_17-oct_WEB.pdf.