‘We take a ten-year span,’says Colonel David Allfrey, head of army recruitment strategy. ‘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.’
In Istanbul, Bulent Ersoy was charged with attempting to ‘turn the public against military service’. The prosecutor described military service as the sacred duty of every Turkish male, citing the proverb, ‘Every Turk is born a soldier’. Here in Britain, a few years ago a recommendation to Gordon Brown’s proposed that shops, hospitals and other public institutions should be prosecuted if they refuse to serve military personnel in uniform.
Quentin Davies, former Conservative MP turned Labour MP, was asked by Gordon Brown to undertake a study, for reasons that are not altogether clear. The aim of the study: to ‘identify ways of encouraging greater understanding and appreciation of the Armed Forces by the British public’. In his foreword Brown notes that ‘the whole of Britain understands and appreciates the work the armed forces do in our name, and are fully behind them’. So what is the point of the 29 pages between the Foreword and the Appendix of this report? That is not at all clear.
A large number of the British public are scarily attached to the military. Though this year 65% thought the invasion of Iraq to be wrong and over 90% thought the establishment of a democracy in Iraq to be unlikely, nevertheless, undeterred by that woeful outcome, some 42% now have a greater respect for the conduct of the armed forces. Indeed, 77% think that we should have ‘an Armed Forces Day on which we celebrate the work of our servicemen and women’.
There are several theories circulating as to why promotion of the armed forces is going on. Whichever you find most convincing makes little difference: whatever the case, militarism is on the march in Britain.
Of course, there is nothing new about the military promoting itself. For many years the PPU has rubbed shoulders with army recruiters at fairs and exhibitions around the country, sometimes quietly ‘liberating’ their recruiting leaflets and on one occasion beating the army and air force at a Scalextric competition! The difference now is that the new militarism has become a major political concern. It is an ideological assault on those corners of society which do not fully subscribe heart and soul to the military ethos.
It is also, despite Davies’ denial, an effort to recruit more youngsters. Last year the MoD spent £89 million to get 12,700 new recruits; 14,500 left. Not surprisingly, therefore, young people are a major target for Davies’ attention.
The MoD has already had a bruising exchange with the NUT about the ‘defence dynamic’, a free teaching resource consisting of an ‘interactive library of defence-based material for lessons on many subjects in the core national curriculum, including English, Maths, Geography and PSHE/PSD resources’. Strictly speaking this may not be recruiting material; but it is disingenuous of the MoD to pretend that to present military matters in a positive light is not its primary aim. Why else should an institution strapped for cash be providing such lavish teaching resources?
Commenting on this issue, a delegate at the NUT conference said: ‘Let’s just try to imagine what recruitment material would have to say if it were not to be misleading. We would have material saying, “Join the Army and we will send you to carry out the imperialist occupation of other people’s countries. Join the Army and we will send you to bomb, shoot and possibly torture fellow human beings.”’ The conference voted in favour of a motion opposing military recruitment activities ‘based upon misleading propaganda’. The motion defended the rights of teachers ‘not to take part in activities promoting military recruitment, or which they feel present a partisan view of war and life in the military’. It said that young people should be able to ‘hear a speaker promoting alternative points of view’ and to have ‘education for peace embedded in the curriculum along with education about the military’.
Davies denies that the material represents an attempt to recruit young people into the armed forces, but his and others’ protestations are not very believable. In any case, despite its weasel words the MoD Youth policy is clear: ‘The challenge to recruit sufficient numbers is increasing and the provision of recruits represents the only impact that youth policies and activities have on operational effectiveness. MOD youth policies therefore need to … “cultivate” potential recruits.’
In recent years concern has also increased that the MoD is focusing on vulnerable teenagers from deprived backgrounds, using misleading information that glamorised war. There have been repeated visits to some targeted schools. Though the MoD unsurprisingly denies this, the anecdotal evidence, not to mention common sense, endorses this concern.
A few days after Charlton Heston’s ‘cold dead hand’ ceased to hold his rifle for National Rifle Association rallies, Davies proposed appointing a ‘Cadet Ambassador’. This person would encourage a greater participation in Cadet Forces, so that more young people would have an opportunity to play with guns. So much for the laudable and urgent efforts to discourage gun crime among teenagers.
There are some 42,500 schoolchildren in the Combined Cadet Force. The Force dates from the 1850s, when a number of schools formed units attached to Rifle Volunteer Battalions for Home Defence. There are also a further 88,000 cadets outside schools. The government is clearly keen to increase this number, arguing that membership ‘goes far beyond their military training values’. Hmmm. ‘We received evidence, for example, that Cadets are significantly less likely to be involved in a chargeable offence than other young people of the same age group.’ Apart from some (unverifiable) figures none of that evidence is offered to support this unlikely correlation.
The bizarre notion that the military has some special principled and ethical values to impart to the rest of society continues to linger in certain quarters. It seems to be firmly lodged in Davies’ and the Prime Minister’s minds. The trend can also be found in the growing number of programmes in which the military are responsible for managing unruly youngsters. It should be a matter of concern for everyone that mythic military values are being promoted not only as good for delinquents or for impressionable youngsters, but also as superior, in some way, to what the rest of society can manage. In view of the military treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib or the ‘beasting’ of new recruits, or the appalling events at Deepcut or ex-officers attempting coups in Africa, or the inability of thousands of soldiers to cope with life after they leave the army, it is hard to see it as an institution imbued with desirable values.
Schools and youth clubs occasionally have visits from former criminal gang members, who talk to the pupils about their experiences and try to discourage any of them following in their anti-social path. Ambassador Davies now proposes that serving sailors, soldiers and airmen should be given a day off and travel expenses so that they can revisit their old schools, to meet with teachers and current students and (unlike former gang members) entice teenagers to consider trying to join their own ‘gangs’, (aka regiments). What’s more, ‘every secondary school should be circularised by the senior military chain of command with the offer of an hour or so’s presentation.’ To cement all this: ‘We believe that gaining some understanding of the Armed Forces, as part of education on our national institutions, should be an essential element of the Citizenship Agenda and civic education in schools.’
Nothing escapes Davies’ eye. Military museums, he believes, are highly neglected ‘educational’ resources; he thinks this is regrettable, given that they are ’currently making considerable effort to project the present as well as the past in their displays’. What contribution Halle Berry’s skimpy bikini, currently on show at the Imperial War Museum, makes is unclear.
Next to a biggish naval gun in the Museum’s main hall, is a notice showing a picture of young Jack Cornwell VC, which tells us that he died bravely when his ship was shelled. The truth is that there was nothing significantly brave about his death, just another sad waste of life; the notice has nothing to say about the inglorious action of Britain’s Grand Fleet, nor of the naval arms race that was a major factor in the tensions that finally led to WW1. Any lessons for today? The notice is also silent about the way that 16-year-old Jack’s death was used in recruiting propaganda and successful fundraising throughout English schools. So it was then, and so it is now. Very educational. More on this.
Early in June, several dozen pacifists gathered on Istanbul's main pedestrian street and unfurled posters of Mehmet Bal, a conscientious objector who was detained for refusing military service and beaten while in custody. The civil action did not last long: the protesters were quickly bundled away by the police. In Britain we can (mostly) protest about any particular war to our hearts’ content; protesting about the institution of war is much harder. The ‘educational’ Imperial War Museum, for example, will not allow the only significant resource on conscientious objection (designed particularly for teachers and pupils) to darken its bookshop shelves.
Quentin Davies, a former pupil at a prestigious Quaker school, clearly missed out on what Peace Matters readers might think the most valuable part of the Quaker tradition. We can only hope that pupils exposed to the pernicious propaganda he proposes – should he and others have their way – will be equally impervious to its blandishments. Better than that, let’s try to put a stop to this. We have no way of knowing whether any of the proposals in Davies’ report will be implemented, but at least we know the way the wind is blowing. If you would like to contribute to and/or take part in work to undermine these proposals, please get in touch with me.