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Army Life: The Other Side Of The Story

18/01/2017 16:39 | Updated 18 January 2017

A young boy shivers, rain dripping down his mud-streaked face. His eyes are wide and fixed. Another joins him, also dressed in combats, and pours him tea from a flask. Soon he's surrounded by comrades, sitting silently, checking their rifles.

'This is belonging' says the screen. 'Army: Be the best. Find where you belong, search Army Jobs.'

A scene follows with a line of soldiers traipsing up a mountain slope. One of them trips, and is helped up. Another begins to sing 'I'm having the time of my life.' 'You sound like a dying cow' jests a comrade, and they all chuckle, trudging on together.

'This is belonging' says the screen. 'Army: Be the best. Find where you belong, search Army Jobs.'

— Army Jobs (@armyjobs) January 14, 2017

These videos form part of a £3m campaign launched by the Army at the start of 2017, in an appeal to children (under eighteen year olds by international standards) and young people.

The theme is belonging, also emphasised by sports teams, religious groups, gangs and other entities in which conformity and distinction are key. It appeals in particular to adolescent children, who are undergoing the most intense phase of their social identity formation.

All the instability and changes adolescents face, are compounded by their under-formed social identities. They tend to over-identify with others or with groups in order to gain a sense of security and belonging.

By appealing to the desire to belong, the Army have therefore latched onto a very powerful recruitment tool, in particular among adolescents who feel isolated or marginalised.

But the reality is many aspects of Army life are potentially harmful, especially to vulnerable individuals. The other side of the story needs to be told.

What are the conditions of belonging in the Army?

The erosion of self-determination, of autonomy of movement and of privacy and choice of personal appearance are all integral to the training regime in which recruits are anonymised and controlled. They are subject to relentless activity and its resulting fatigue, to authoritarian power and an absence of civilian norms and social support, which can cause anxiety and disorientation.

In a series of short films for Child Soldiers International released last week, young veteran Wayne Sharrocks speaks of mass punishment, violent abuse, recruits pushed to the point of suicide, and a culture of fear and silence. Bullying and harassment are endemic in the military according to countless reports, and 'young recruits are at greater risk of bullying, harassment and self-harm than older recruits.'


What happens to that sense of belonging if you decide to leave?

According to the same young veteran, 'when you leave the Army... you don't feel like you can identify with either [civilians or the military]... so you sort of feel very alone, and vulnerable.' His experience is far from unique. Isolation and loneliness are widely known to affect many veterans upon return to civilian life. Many are at risk of depression, self-harm and suicide - and the younger they sign up, the more likely they are to face mental illness later on.

Indeed, fewer than half of soldiers say they'd recommend Army life to a friend. While the Army says it offers a bond that 'lasts a lifetime', many veterans struggle to rebuild the social support networks they need, which leaves them more vulnerable to delayed-onset mental health problems.

2017-01-16-1484577446-2984038-WayneSharrockspostinjury.jpg

Wayne Sharrocks, in hospital after sustaining an injury in Afghanistan in which he sustained shrapnel to the face and neck.

What if the Army is not the answer to an adolescent's need to belong?

Clinical psychologist and co-author of the report The Recruitment of Children into the UK armed forces: A Critique from Health Professionals Sally Zlotowitz has the following advice:

"Adolescence is a key phase for finding your identity, through who you spend time with and what you do together. It's quite usual for adolescents to be concerned about 'fitting in'. But if an adolescent feels very lonely and isolated, it's really important that they can be offered a range of ways to connect with others.

It's also vital for good well-being that young people feel authentically themselves in whichever group they belong to. If young people feel they are unable to express certain emotional experiences and values, or inside don't agree with some of the group behaviour, in the longer term this will just make the sense of isolation worse."

When adolescents sign up looking to quench their desire to belong, it is therefore crucial that they are aware of the more problematic sides of Army life, and of the ways in which they can seek help if they are feeling lonely or isolated.

It is also time that the Ministry of Defence listens to the majority of civilians, to the UN, to all four UK Children's Commissioners and multiple child rights and human rights organisations, all of whom believe that children do not belong in the Army.

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