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Informed choice? Armed forces recruitment practice in the United Kingdom – David Gee

December 25, 2016

icThis independent report, published in 2007, highlights the risks posed to young people through joining the military, how young people from disadvantaged communities are targeted, how information available to potential recruits is often misleading and how the terms of service are complicated, confusing and severely restricting. The research found that a large proportion join for negative reasons, including the lack of civilian career options.

The author is a researcher who spent eight years working for Quaker Peace & Social Witness. It was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.
The report found that:

  • A career in the armed forces brings opportunities and risks. Benefits can include challenging work, discipline, physical fitness, self-development, a sense of belonging and global travel. Risks include bullying and harassment, career dissatisfaction, the ‘culture shock’ of changing to a military lifestyle, mental health and relationship problems, serious injury or death, social and economic disadvantages after discharge, and unexpected ethical challenges.
  • Non-officer recruitment draws mostly on young people from 16 years of age living in disadvantaged communities, with many recruits joining as a last resort. Whilst this group may gain from an armed forces career, they are generally most vulnerable to its risks.
  • Career information provided to potential recruits and their parents is selective and often misleading. Recruitment literature for the army glamorises warfare, poorly explains the terms of service and largely omits to mention the risks of the career. It is common for recruits to enlist without knowing the risks or their legal rights and obligations. E.g. , in Camouflage magazine, intended for 13-17-year-old potential recruits, the army’s most powerful weapon, the MLRS – which indiscriminately scatters small bombs over an area of up to 24 miles – is described as part of the army’s “cool stuff”.
  • The terms of service are complicated, confusing and severely restricting. New recruits may discharge themselves within a few months of enlisting but otherwise have no legal right to leave regular service for up to six years in some cases; reserve service liability follows, usually lasting at least six further years. The restrictive terms exacerbate the effects of low morale and magnify the risks of a forces career. Some recruits were unaware that unless they quit within six months of enlisting, minors do not have the legal right to leave for four years.
  • This report proposes improvements to recruitment practice in order to protect the rights of potential recruits more effectively. These include: improving information for potential recruits; de-linking military outreach to children from recruitment activity; and relaxing and simplifying the terms of service. To achieve these changes, it would be necessary to: emphasise retention over recruitment by improving the service conditions of existing personnel; reduce the number of soldiers discharged for ‘service no longer required’; and reduce bullying and harassment. A new Armed Forces Recruitment Charter could codify best practice and lay out the state’s legal and moral responsibilities to potential recruits.
  • The UK is increasingly at odds with the growing international consensus that minors should not be exposed to the risks of an armed forces career; existing safeguards for minors are only partially effective. It might be possible to phase out the recruitment of minors without affecting staffing levels; a feasibility study is needed. While minors continue to be recruited, safeguards need to be improved; in particular, it should be a requirement for recruiters to involve parents in the recruitment process more fully.

Under-18s are over-represented in the infantry – the report says that over the past five years 32% of all under-18s recruited joined the infantry, which makes up only 14% of Britain’s armed forces. Recruits cannot be deployed to the frontline until they turn 18.

Some recruits are happy with their career choice and will stay that way, but although statistics from the UK show that there are more happy soldiers than unhappy ones, job satisfaction is still lower in the armed forces than in civilian life.

8% of Iraq war veterans who signed up without qualifications such as GCSEs had PTSD after their deployment, compared with 4% in the armed forces as a whole.

Owing to the secretiveness of competing university departments and military corporations, the report’s figures for military spending are merely the minimum which can be ascertained. Nonetheless, most readers will be surprised at the extent to which the military pervades science, technology and engineering departments and how much the taxpayer contributes to military corporations’ research agendas and, consequently, their profits.

It says that children as young as seven are being targeted by recruitment techniques such as schools visits, literature and internet resources, as well as local cadet forces, and says that jobs in the military are promoted as “glamorous and exciting” and that “warfare is portrayed as game-like and enjoyable”.

It found that recruitment literature for Army careers emphasised benefits such as an active lifestyle, travel and comradeship, but that it omitted to mention or obscured the ethical issues over killing, risks to physical and mental health, the legal obligations of enlistment and other negatives.

The report is also critical about literature that suggests soldiers are highly satisfied with military life, when research has shown that the majority have an ambivalent attitude to their careers.

It concludes that recruitment literature should include “unambiguous information about legal obligations; discharge options for minors; the need to consider ethical issues such as killing before enlistment” and other measures. Other recommendations are that outreach to children be de-linked from recruitment activity and that literature for parents and guardians should include advice on supporting children.

The author: When it comes to the trauma of warfare, recruits from the poorest backgrounds face a perfect storm of pre-existing vulnerability and greater battlefield exposure. Recruiting 16-year-olds into the infantry puts the most vulnerable group in roles most exposed to trauma when they turn 18 and are sent to war.”


The armed forces: ‘…no other group in society is required either to kill other human beings, or expressly sacrifice themselves for the nation.’ General Sir Michael Rose,

The UK is the world’s largest military spender after the United States, yet the armed forces are among the most stretched in the world. To meet the ‘trained requirement’ of personnel, over £2 billion is invested each year in recruiting and training around 20,000 new personnel to replace those who leave.

The armed forces draw non-office r recruits mainly from among young people with low educational attainment and living in poor communities. A large proportion join for negative reasons, including the lack of civilian career options; a survey in the Cardiff area in 2004 found that 40% of army recruits were joining as a last resort.

The recruitment environment is be coming more challenging as the pool of potential recruits shrinks. Demographic changes, improvements in civilian education opportunities, and negative publicity from Afghanistan and Iraq are among the main barriers to recruitment. Efforts to attract young people to a forces career are intensifying and diversifying, particularly among those below recruitment age.

Meeting the trained requirement currently depends on attracting a large number of minors. The UK is the only European Union state to recruit from age 16; of those EU states that have traditionally recruited from age 17, some have phased this out or are doing so. By changing some existing policies, it could be possible to phase out the recruitment of 16 year-olds in all UK forces relatively easily without detriment to the current trained requirement of personnel. The phasing out of 17 year-old recruitment could then follow.

The mortality rate for the armed forces as a whole is currently lower than that of the civilian population with a matched profile. However, this statistic could mask the relatively greater risks faced by those in combat roles.  During a high intensity conflict such as the Falklands War, mortality rates are much higher than those of the civilian population. Fatality rates could also rise if the government continues an interventionist approach to national security as demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the armed forces, the risk of serious  injury is usually thought to be approximately three times greater than the risk of violent death

Those with ethnic minority background s are more likely than others to be victims of harassment or bullying, according a study of armed forces training establishments by the Adult Learning Inspectorate in 2005.

The ban on lesbian and gay people in the armed forces was lifted in 2000 following a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. It is now a disciplinary offence to discriminate against personnel on grounds of their sexual orientation. The navy (including marines) is the only force to ask personnel about attitudes to working with gay and lesbian colleague s. In official, unstratified surveys, 21% of navy ratings and 41% of marines disagreed with the statement, ‘I don’t mind serving alongside gay men or lesbians.’

The majority of those leaving the armed forces resettle into civilian life. A significant minority face difficulties. Socio-economic disadvantage, homelessness and unemployment are more common among ex-forces personnel than the general population. The risk of turning to crime appears to be lower among the ex-forces community, however.

The armed forces have a poor retention record. For every two 16-22 year-olds join ing the army, one is leaving.

While roughly 45% of all young people leave school with 5 GCSE subjects graded A-C only, 17% of all Army recruits in 2003–04 had English at A-C level, with the figure for Maths at about 10%. On average Army recruits have 0.9 of a GCSE at grade A-C. … Records also show that 24% of all Army applicants in 2003–04 were unemployed for a significant period before applying.

The army’s own research suggests that up to 50% of recruits have literacy and numeracy skills at Entry Level 3 (equivalent to those of an average 11 year-old) or Entry Level 2 (equivalent to an average 7 year-old). The average reading age of trainees at the Infantry Training Centre at Catterick is 10, according to Lynn Farr, an independent provider of welfare support to personnel who has frequent discussions with senior  staff at the Centre on welfare issues

69% of recruits were found to have come from a broken home;

50% were classified as coming from a deprived background;

16% had been long-term unemployed before joining;

35% had had more than eight jobs since leaving school (nearly all on a casual basis);

just over 60% had left school with no academic qualifications;

40% were joining the army as a last resort; and

14% had more than five GCSEs at grades A-C.

There is some evidence that the forces do target poorer areas. Using information obtained under the Freedom of  Information Act, Welsh Assembly Member Leanne Wood showed that the army was 50% more likely to visit schools in the most deprived areas of Wales than to visit those in less deprived areas.

According to senior army recruitment staff, resources are  deployed to those those towns that are most likely to produce new recruits

  1. a) The changing demographic profile of the population means that there are fewer

younger people and therefore fewer potential recruits;

  1. b) The relative good health of the economy means that young people now have more

good civilian career options than in the past. This report highlights Ministry of

Defence statistics showing that many recruits join the armed forces as a last resort.

However, low unemployment means that fewer young people are choosing military careers.

  1. c) Youth obesity has further reduced the potential recruitment pool. In 2006, thearmy was forced to relax the entry requirements on obesity in order to widen thepool of potential recruits.
  1. d) The legal obligations of enlistment are increasingly at odds with societal attitudes

to life-long careers. Army recruits enlist to serve until they are 40 or more years old.

Recruits may not usually leave the forces at all during the first four to six years of service after an initial discharge window lasting a few months; thereafter, they are required to give 12 months’ notice if they wish to return to civilian life.

  1. e) Government education policies are persuading more school-leavers to proceed tofurther and higher education. After college, very few young people are attracted to acareer in the forces except as an officer. The Ministry of Defence is concernedabout the growing number of those who might have joined the armed forces butinstead go on to higher education.
  1. f) Negative publicity for the armed forces is turning away many young people. Maincauses include the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, the abuse of Iraqi detainees bysome UK forces personnel, and the controversial deaths of four army trainees at Deepcut barracks. Parents and ‘gate-keepers’ such as teachers are also affected bythe bad publicity: 42% of parents say they are less likely to encourage their childrento enlist because of it.

Once individuals attain the age of 18 years they are more difficult to attract as recruits. By that time they fall into two broad categories: those who have continued in academic study and whose aspirations tend towards officer entry, and those who have already entered employment. Given the very different nature of Service life and commitment, we wish to recruit people before they have m ade other lifestyle choices.

  1. Excellent opportunities for self-development . This includes developing basic

skills in literacy and numeracy; becoming mentally and physically tough; being stretched and challenged; excelling in sports; being able to deal with ‘any situation’ in army and civilian life; becoming resourceful and self-reliant; becoming responsible; and embodying values such as courage and integrity. The prospect of self-development is the brochure’s most emphasised reward of an Infantry career.

  1. A sense of belonging. The effective soldier will feel: integral to their unit; needed; and able to rely on others as equals.
  1. Relative imperviousness to danger and the expectation of defeating the enemy.


The brochure mentions and cursorily outlines life-threatening situations that a soldier might encounter. It implies that these, however, are not cause for serious concern, for the new recruit will be prepared for ‘every eventuality’ and have ‘the confidence and instinct to make the right judgement and protect[themselves and their] colleagues’.

  1. Extreme and exotic experiences and the end of boredom. Potential recruits arepromised the exhilaration of exercises, adventurous training, and sportingopportunities, often in exotic and extreme locations that ‘few can imagine’; ‘therewill never be time to get bored’. Exercises and operations will push recruits ‘to theabsolute limit’ and give them a ‘real buzz’.
  1. Remaining a free agent. Despite the demands made on soldiers, ‘there’s nodanger of losing touch’ with friends and family, the brochure says. Weekends are free and there are plenty of opportunities for the same kind  of relaxation and sociallife that a civilian would enjoy.
  1. A feeling of pride in being British, special and the best. The British army has ‘aunique and glorious history’ and is second to no other army in the world. It ‘is

respected worldwide’ for fulfilling a role that ‘no-one else can handle’, the brochure


  1. A part in a moral quest for the greater good. The British army is always on theside of the good, whether it’s ‘fighting a war, keeping the peace … or saving lives bydelivering aid’. It safeguards democracy from terrorism and helps other countries to defend themselves.

The infantry soldier’s core role ‘defeat the enemy in close combat’ involves killing people, yet the word ‘kill’ or its permutations do not occur in the 12,000-word Infantry Soldier  brochure. Killing is de-personalised and obscured  using euphemisms such as‘decisive strikes’, ‘engage an enemy’ or‘surprise hits on enemy weak spots’.

The Army Jobs web site contains 296 pages. It contains the word ‘enemy’ on 36 of these but does not contain the word ‘kill’, ‘killing’ or ‘killed’.

Our new model is about raising awareness, and that takes a ten-year span. It starts with a seven-year-old boy seeing a parachutist at an air show and thinking, ‘That looks great.’ From then on the army is trying to build interest by drip, drip, drip.

The spring/summer 2007 edition of the magazine carries a feature on the Falklands War. The text builds up to the bloody battle for Wireless Ridge, only to describe the event in a cursory and misleading manner: At 9.15pm, with 2 Para ready for their assault, the artillery bombardment of  Argentine positions begins. Over 6,000 rounds beat down [from various British sources, listed] … Despite the minefield, the Paras close in rapidly. The enemy retreat, leaving behind their weapons, equipment and in some cases even their boots. ‘It was a brilliantly fought battle,’ recalls Major General Thompson. …

This casual, sanitised description of the battle cynically misleads its young readership. KenLukowiak, a veteran of 2 Para, describes the aftermath of the artillery bombardment as follows: I passed the Argentine casualties of war … We found the two I had to see. They were lying on their backs shoulder to shoulder. One of them had no head, the other no legs. … We left the headless, legless Argentines and made our way around the position of trenches they had lost their lives defending. There were many other twisted corpses scattered around, littering the ground. Once again we were struckby how young most of them appeared. ..

The first thing he sees is a little girl’s foot in the road, well he presumes it was a child’s foot in the road because it was that small, and then on the other side of the road there, he said there was this little girl probably four, maybe five years old, and she was crying and shouting, and James to ok it as ‘Help me’ or ‘Help my daddy’, and she was over her daddy’s body and he was lying there with all his intestines spewed out across his clothes and the road. He says, ‘It suddenly hit me what war was all about, dad.’

Currently, there are no materials given to new army recruits or their parents in which theright of conscientious objection is mentioned.

‘If you can’t change a drop tyre you shouldn’t be in the Army.’

‘Ok there are a few exceptions but on the whole they shouldn’t be here.’

‘Females are good at being clerks, chefs of admin.’

‘They can’t even run properly, always getting injured and taking ages.’

‘They are emotionally unstable.’

‘Yes they can be very moody, very moody.’

‘They’re all lesbians or sluts.’

‘They like banging in public.’

‘The Army is no place for women.’

‘They are an absolute fucking liability…’

One female army officer reported that a group of men grabbed her colleague while out on exercise and, …ducked her head in a bucket of water and each time she came up for breath she had to repeat ‘I am useless and I am a female’. She told the story and said it was a joke but I could see she was upset.

Characteristics associated with the Armed Forces are bravery, physical strength, ability to lead and to obey all traditionally masculine traits, which are emphasised by the men [who took part in the survey] themselves. Men saw the Service environment as being in essence ‘macho’ and physically demanding (and they were proud of their physical prowess.) In that regard, women were often seen as a ‘liability’ and not strong enough physically or emotionally to do the job to the required standards. Men need to identify  themselves with this ‘macho’ masculinity and to do [so] may mean distancing them selves from everything female. This automatically places the ‘feminine’ as being contrary to the ideal.

The report is online here

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