The Armed Forces: time for change

The reasons for change to the age of recruitment

| Photo: dan.holton/flickr CC

The punch of the automatic weapon into my shoulder was simultaneous with a shrill whistle of bullets, breaking the silence. It is the only time I have fired an automatic weapon with live ammunition. I was fifteen, a member of Blundell’s School, Combined Cadet Force, training at Lympstone Commando Centre in Devon. I felt much older than my years. We aimed at concentric circles on the bodies of black and white human shapes in front of a bank of sandbags. The bullets disappeared into them. I felt both a loss of innocence and an uncomfortable sense of physical power. It still informs my thoughts about under-eighteen-year-olds in the army today.

The present recruitment age of sixteen is too young to enter full time military training. If you are not old enough to vote, buy a pint in a pub, to ride a motorbike or even to buy fireworks are you not also too young to join the army? A young soldier trains with live ammunition, yet is deemed to be too young to watch an X-rated DVD of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocolypse Now – an allegory of the insanity of war inspired by Joseph Conrad. Isn’t it time we had a more consistent attitude to the age of adult responsibility?

Under the Bill of Rights (1689) to maintain a standing army in peace time Parliament needs to vote the exact numbers of soldiers, sailors and airmen each of the three forces can maintain. This ‘framework legal discipline’ is then set out in an Armed Forces Act. This needs to be re-enacted every five years. The current Armed Forces Bill provides a once-in-a-Parliament opportunity to amend the law relating to the age of recruitment. Quakers are currently supporting an Early Day Motion (EDM 781) calling for the age of recruitment to be raised to eighteen. It is an issue that is too important to go by ‘on the nod’.
Notions of childhood change. The Black Prince led English forces against the French at the Battle of Crécy in 1646. He was barely sixteen. During the siege of Mafeking in 1900, Robert Baden Powell recruited boys as young as twelve to deliver messages by bicycle under fire and serve in hospitals. They wore khaki and their leader was the thirteen-year-old Warner Goodyear, who became their sergeant-major. But they were not part of the regular army. They became the forerunners of Boy Scouts. In the first world war when Lord Kitchener sought 100,000 men prior to conscription, his poster offered ‘general service for a period of three years until the war is concluded’. The age of enlistment was specified as ‘between 19 and 30’. In 1915 no one was eligible for direct enlistment until they were nineteen (Hansard November 1915). It is true many circumvented the rules.

Ninety years after the end of the first world war, Britain is now the only country in Europe to recruit into the regular army at sixteen. France and Germany both recruit at seventeen. Perversely in the UK sixteen-year-olds are required to serve for six years, while eighteen-year-olds commit themselves to only four. Far from being a curious legal relic, this rule was re-introduced in 2008. After a six-month ‘cooling-off’ period there is no right to leave. While ‘unhappy minors’ may leave at the discretion of their commanding officer, the fact that there is no ‘discharge as of right’ leaves them uniquely open to bullying and makes that bullying more serious if it happens because they cannot leave.  

Those supporting the status quo argue that recruit-ment into the army provides valuable training in a type of ‘modern apprenticeship’. It is a way of being paid while learning a trade. Some, like my brother-in-law, who is six foot six and went into the Navy at the age of fifteen, thrive. He trained as a diver and worked in the North Sea and the Middle East. Others, like privates Sean Benton, Cheryl James, Geoff Gray and James Collinson, who went into the army, don’t. They all died of gunshot wounds while training at Princess Royal Barracks, at Deepcut in Surrey between 1995 and 2002. Two of them were seventeen years of age. Within that period Surrey Police found fifty-nine incidents of self-harm from the Deepcut guardroom logs between 1996 and 2001.

The current regime in the army is unlike any other apprenticeship in that a breach of discipline may lead to a criminal prosecution. It is unlike an apprenticeship in that young soldiers are not free to leave. It is also unlike an apprenticeship in the dangers they face. How many apprentice carpenters, brick layers or plumbers are found dead at their workplace, whether shot in the head or hanging from a beam? An infantryman returning from Helmand has no guarantee of a job. While the UK no longer has conscription, those joining the army at the age of sixteen often come from the poorest and least educated backgrounds. On average Army recruits have 0.9 of a GCSE at A–C grade (Defence Committee Evidence 255 Duty of Care Enquiry). Fifty per cent come from a deprived background. About half have skills in reading and maths at or below those of an eleven-year-old.

For youngsters without other jobs to go to, a career in the army may be hard to resist. What other choices do they have? Subsequently, they often lack the capacity and confidence to seek a change in their career in the same way as those training for the professions. The nature of their legal status – it is not a contract – makes that worse.

Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are no longer deployed to conflict zones, but decisions made as a child have irrevocable consequences as an adult. A young person making a decision at sixteen, with his or her parents’ consent, has no right at the age of eighteen to review that decision with an informed conscience.
The army is ‘in loco parentis’ to its under-eighteen-year-olds. Its responsibility is that of a parent to a child – taking into account their mental age. The present terms of enlistment represent a legal limbo. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child the army is obliged to consider the best interests of the child. Yet there is little independent oversight of this responsibility. For a young soldier to write to the Children’s Rights Commissioner would be bravery indeed. In enlisting in the army recruits become subject to military discipline under subsidiary legislation made under the Army Act 1955. But how many semi-literate teenagers read subsidiary legislation? 

The present situation is a throwback to the nineteenth-century era of indentured labour. The argument that the age of recruitment should be raised to eighteen is sometimes seen as a purely pacifist argument. That is not the case. If twenty-first century armies are to become not the means of waging war but forces for the resolution of conflict and for policing resolutions of the United Nations, it will require a level of maturity and discernment that depends on all those entering it making an informed and considered choice. A consistent age of adult responsibility would mean that formal enlistment into the army takes place at eighteen – the age of legal responsibility and not before. In the meantime, only a right of discharge for all under-eighteen-year-olds and a requirement that eighteen-year-olds make a clear and informed choice, on their eighteenth birthday, will conform to twenty-first-century standards of human rights.

Michael Bartlet

Michael is parliamentary liaison secretary for Britain YM.
If you support the Friend’s campaign and this concern write to your constituency MP and/or local newspaper urging the government to give discharge ‘as of right’ to all under-eighteen-year-olds as a first step to raising the age of enlistment to the age of eighteen.

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