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Playing Soldier

by MICHAEL DICKINSON

“Join now. What are you waiting for?”

The Crown copyright website ‘Camouflage‘, aimed at 12-17 year old children interested in discovering what it takes to make it in the British Army, requires registration for full access in order to watch its videos, read feature articles and play its ‘awesome’ online games.

Pictures on the homepage of active soldiers canoeing, mountain-climbing and skateboarding must have tempted many an adventure-starved youngster to log in, if only to check out the games.

It’s simple to register. Even a child could do it. Just click the ‘Sign up’ button, give them your name and address, mobile phone number, and say if you are in, or intend to go into further or higher education. Do you really need to? “An Army career will teach you all the skills and knowledge you need for life,” promises ‘Camouflage’. They need your home address because they want to send you ‘a credit card torch, kit bag and Camouflage Magazine, packed full of news and stories about the Army’.

Once they’ve got you on their register, you can access the site and learn things like the difference between soldier and officer skills, find out how the army survives in Kenya’s hostile environment, and have fun with ‘Think Tank’, where you “imagine yourself in command of the British Army’s ultimate armoured weapon ­ the big, bad Challenger 2 battle tank.” The website aims to catch them young. As Colonel David Allfrey, head of the British Army’s Recruitment Strategy remarked last year: “It starts with a seven-year-old boy seeing a parachutist at an air show and thinking, ‘That looks great.” From then the army is trying to build interest by drip, drip, drip.”

‘Camouflage’ is mentioned this week in a critical report funded by the Rowntree Charitable Trust entitled ‘Informed Choice? Armed Forces and Recruitment Practice in the UK’. In it, author David Gee claims that the primary target groups for armed forces non-officer recruiting are children and adolescents, mainly with “low educational attainment and living in poor communities” who have few options for the future and are seduced by the promise of an “action-man” lifestyle. Marketing to children below the recruitment age glamorizes warfare, the report says.

Britain is the only European country which recruits youngsters into the armed forces from the age of 16, an age at which they still can not legally drink alcohol or vote. Not too young to be trained to kill, however, although not deployed on operations until they are 18.

Overly optimistic literature gives new recruits a misleading picture of armed forces life, the report continues, and a survey last year found that 48 per cent of all soldiers found army life to be worse than expected, with only 20 per cent thinking it was better. Many recruits enlisted without fully understanding their legal obligations and the literature failed to explain that, unless they leave within six months of enlisting, minors have no legal right to leave for four years. Often recruiters do not meet the parents.

David Gee recommended sweeping changes to army recruitment policies, including a new charter setting out the government’s responsibilities, a radical review of army recruitment literature, phasing out the targeting of minors, and new rights for soldiers to leave the service.

The report also highlights well-publicized problems in the army such as bullying and a lack of adequate attention paid to those with post-traumatic stress disorders.

The Ministry of Defence has criticised the report, saying some of its assertions were incorrect and ill-informed, others were selective in their interpretation of recruitment practices, and some of the evidence quoted was out of date. They denied targeting under-16s, saying that teams visited schools who invite them to raise “awareness of their armed forces in society, not to recruit.” A spokesperson added: “Our recruitment practices avoid ‘glamorising war’ and we refute any allegation that they depict warfare as ‘game-like’.

Meanwhile, back at the British Army website ‘Camouflage’, you can play the videogame ‘Hostile Territory’, where “you are an elite soldier on a dangerous mission deep in the Burmese jungle. Think you can stay alive in this action-packed multilevel game?”

How sad to think that some new recruits, after signing up for the promised life of adventure, find instead the disciplined territory of the barracks more hostile than a mission in the Burmese jungle, and even death preferable to the sadistic hell of bullying and abuse they find themselves trapped in.

New boys are pushed to the limits to see how much they can take. ‘Babooning’ is a common initiation ritual in many barracks, where the bare backsides of young rookies are whipped till red and raw. ‘Beasting’ is another, where a recruit will be stripped and anally penetrated with a broom handle. An ex-soldier recently anonymously claimed that a sergeant made a recruit jump from a second floor window, and would strip recruits naked and defecate on them.

Of the 23 young soldiers who have died at Catterick Camp army base in Yorkshire since 1994, seven have been found hanged, and six others dead from (possibly self-inflicted) gunshot wounds.

In 2004 a police probe at the Princess Royal barracks in Deepcut, Surrey, into the bullet-inflicted deaths of four young rookies aged between 17 ­ 20 (one a girl), uncovered over 100 claims of rape, racism and beatings. An independent review of the deaths, conducted by Nicholas Blake QC, concluded that the deaths were probably self-inflicted, but criticised army training, citing “harassment, discrimination and oppressive behaviour”.

This week it was announced that the Deepcut barracks are to be demolished and the land used for a 5000-home housing estate, as part of an ongoing review aimed at maximising defence training outputs. There is growing concern among army chiefs that the service cannot go on performing tasks demanded of it, and ‘preparing for other contingencies’, without a substantial increase in manpower. At present more than £2bn is invested each year in recruiting and training

Vice Admiral Peter Wilkinson, in charge of recruitment in the Armed Forces, argued that its recruitment processes are honest, but it is forced to compete against private companies, and that media coverage meant recruits could not be fooled as to the realities of military life. “We don’t glamorize war,” he said. “It wouldn’t make sense for us to do so.”

Meanwhile, the grieving parents of their children who died not in war, but in barracks, have formed a pressure group, ‘Deepcut and Beyond’. Their demands for a full official inquiry have so far been met with denials, delays and suspected cover-ups by the Ministry of Defense.

It’s time for the British Army to take off its camouflage and come clean. It’s not going to be a pretty sight, but it will have to be faced and mended if we are to progress from the war games, the bullying and playing at soldiers, to a new world where an army of young men go out into the world not to kill and mindlessly obey the orders of fascists, but as a band of friends bent on doing good, to helping and mending the world we have almost destroyed.

MICHAEL DICKINSON, whose artwork graces the covers of Dime’s Worth of Difference, Serpents in the Garden and Grand Theft Pentagon, lives in Istanbul. He can be contacted via his website http://yabanji.tripod.com/ or at: michaelyabanji@gmail.com

 

 

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Michael Dickinson can be contacted at michaelyabanji@gmail.com.

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