A year and a half ago Cymdeithas y Comod and many others launched a petition against military recruitment in schools at the Temple of Peace in Cardiff. The reasons for this included that the United Kingdom is the only country in Europe and in NATO to recruit under the age of 18 years old and that under UN law, doing so is illegal. Owing to a lack of legislative powers, the petition was worded that the signatories “strongly urged the Welsh Assembly” to take action over the recruitment of minors into the military.
The issue has recently again come to light, when yesterday human rights group Child Soldiers urged the Ministry of Defence to join the raising age. At the moment, you can enter the military at the age of 15 years old and 7 months, join with parental consent and be deployed at 18. Among the signatories of the letter were all Church in Wales Bishops.
Despite a 40% fall in young people from the United Kingdom joining the armed forces, military recruitment was 16% up in Wales in 2010. BBC Wales programme Dragon’s Eye found similar progress made from 2007-2010. In 2006, Welsh political party Plaid Cymru used the Freedom of Information Act to gather figures from the Army Recruitment Division for 2005-2006 and found that schools in poorer areas of Wales were visited up to 50% more than more affluent ones. In addition, Wales makes up just 5% of the UK’s population, yet makes up 7-8% of the Army’s recruitment target.
At the time of these findings, then-Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Leanne Woods said “The army is clearly targeting the most deprived areas in Wales. I believe that young people in Wales should not be subjected to armed forces propaganda. If pupils want to joint he army they can visit any number of recruitment centres in Wales”. In March 2012, Woods was elected head of Plaid Cymru, yet has remained silent on this issue since.
Research was released by independent researcher David Gee and Anna Goodman titled “Army recruiters visit London’s poorest schools most often”. Focussing on mainstream secondary schools in London found that the military “disproportionately” visited schools with in areas with higher rates of poverty. One of the other findings was that educational attainment “among soldiers is much lower than the national average, indicating that applicants come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds”. Young people in this group, on average, have a higher risk of social exclusion and reduced job prospects. In 2009, 30% of all military recruits were under the age of 18 years old and in a report released by Child Soldiers, of those who joined nearly half drop out of training.
Wales is no stranger to poverty, having some of the highest rates of poverty in not only the United Kingdom, but in the EU. The reasons for this vary; under-employment is a huge problem and of those who do work, 23% do not receive a living wage in Wales. In 2008, 13.5 million people in the UK were “living in households below the 60% low-income threshold after deducting housing costs. This is around a fifth (22%) of the population” and this rate has risen year-on-year over the past 5 years and the first increase since 96/97. In some areas of Wales, large scale deindustrialisation has plagued smaller valley communities since the 1980s.
Those who live on low-income threshold are living below the poverty line, and are more vulnerable to water poverty, heating poverty and much more. In Wales, the rate of low-income employment rises nearly 10% to 32%. Across the United Kingdom, there is a 16% child poverty rate which jumps up to 25% in Wales and these increases have been illustrated with a three-fold rise in the use of Food Banks in the United Kingdom.
Cults of soldier “hero” worship are particularly magnified at this time of year as the debate of the poppy continually self perpetuates. Dull diatribes from left and right bat back the same arguments year on year as to why you should/shouldn’t wear the red/white/black poppy, as if the military only pops up in the news and the beginning of November.
The army disproportionately recruits at poorer schools, in poorer areas for under 18s, with them making a third of the army population. It disproportionately recruits in Welsh schools. It disproportionately recruits young people at higher risk of social exclusion and with low education prospects. By deployment at 18, statistically speaking these soldiers are twice as likely to die in Afghanistan, and face more stringent conditions of work, not being allowed to leave until 21 years old, have lower job satisfaction rates and higher rates of mental illness upon leaving the military along with again, lower employment prospects.
For those conscripted into the army in WWII, they face year on year inflation and higher risks again of social exclusion, poverty and especially at a magnified risk of fuel poverty, with the winter allowance recently being cut by Parliament.
The military was in the news again recently. A British Marine faces a life prison sentence for his execution of an Afghan militant. This is the first time in a decade that a member of the military has been convicted of murder. His acts were recorded on video, yet we will never be able to see it. The Marine remains anonymous, a luxury only necessitated to children and never to citizens. His privilege? Being a Marine.
In the eyes of the United Kingdom, its military can do no wrong. Examples of this flurry from ‘The Soldiers Big Curry’, encouraging people to cook curry to raise money for service personnel to the endless ‘Help for Heroes’ memorabilia; t-shirts, keyrings, hoodies. The column inches are thin on the execution of the militant, even quieter on asking wider questions about our military. Questions not only about the nature of joining the military, its implications and how the army recruits, the imperialism of our military, the nature of our military and its influence on domestic politics and the politics behind war, empire, military and government.
So no, I won’t be wearing a poppy this year. And before anyone says anything, yes, I have family who have died in WWII.