Risk, Opportunity, Autonomy & ‘Child Soldiers’ in the British Army
The Guardian Newspaper has again called for a ban on the recruitment of children by the British Army, raising concerns that almost a third of soldiers who began training last year were minors. The Guardian defended its stance saying that this was not “liberal squeamishness’ and suggesting that young recruits were more at risk due to growing up in “economically deprived areas” and therefore suffering from “pre-service vulnerabilities” The newspaper drew on research from charities opposing Junior Entry into the armed forces and support from ‘children’s rights advocates’. At face value these seem like reasonable starting points for a discussion. In order to work through the debate we must unpick the notion of ‘childhood’ and seek insight from the experts- The children themselves.
It may surprise you to learn that the concept of ‘childhood’ was only developed in the 17thand 18thcentury in what academics call ‘social constructivism’. It marked a shift in the way that ‘little people’ were viewed, moving away from being ‘little adults’ who could earn a crust in the factories and mines, to the ideological creation of the ‘pure or vulnerable child’, a blank and incapable sponge in need of nourishment and protection. Such an emotive concept naturally became vulnerable to ideological and political manipulation, political subversion and hijack as a rhetorical device. Because of this, narratives around childhood are often accepted or adopted across society even when underpinned by an emotional anecdote rather than critical application of empirical facts. Thinking around childhood and young adults has moved on, with the research pointing to their competence as social actors and even “experts in their own lives”, as ‘beings’; in the now, rather than simply potential value for the future. This is a concept embraced by the Guardian in their campaign to empower young adults by lowering the voting age to 16. However, a hangover from more traditional childhood narratives is a tendency to subjugate rather than empower young people, often whilst claiming advocacy in their best interests.
Paternal narratives and class condescension with respect to Junior Soldiers do not amount to advocacy, in the same way that Imperialistic coerciveness would not. Both strip them of their autonomy. A glaring hole in the current conversation around “child” or “Junior” soldiers is the voice of the most important and most impacted character in this narrative- That of the Junior Soldier themselves. This lack of a platform for Junior Soldiers to be heard, despite their acknowledged position as ‘able research respondents’ undermines their position as ‘competent social actors’. It leaves them side-lined in decision making around important areas of their lives, such as the right to balance opportunity against risk. This is in stark contrast to the requirements of Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The absence of the voice of Junior Soldiers in the debate accompanied by an echo chamber of well meaning but exclusionary rhetoric has created a reoccurring moral panic around the British Army policy of training 16-year olds. This rests upon five key assumptions:
- Mass adoption of a concept = Progress: ‘We’re the only NATO member state still doing this, we need to catch up’
- Children from families with low socio-economic status are likely to increase their risk trajectory when recruited: ‘We must stop recruiting kids who are safe living in poor neighbourhoods and putting them in harm’s way’,
- Arbitrary landmarks exist around emotional and rational capacity: ‘Children at 18 will make better informed choices’
- Suboptimal standard and level of educational provision in the army: ‘Joining at 16 will rob children of the opportunity to fulfil their educational potential’
- Age and detachment = Wisdom: ‘Unrelated adults understand best interests- better than the child, or their parents’
Whilst these assumptions may at first glance appear well-intentioned, some of them even morally and critically sound, they are undermined almost universally by a lack of in-depth understanding of the lived experiences of Junior Soldiers. The following is drawn from the pilot for an upcoming study that will seek to address that knowledge gap, and from subsequent feedback from serving recently graduated Junior Soldiers. The pilot study gathered the retrospective views of former junior soldiers, some still serving, some having left the army. The only prerequisite to participation was having completed training between the age of 16 and 18.
Young people may apply to join the British Army at 15 years and 7 months and are permitted to begin training as a Junior Soldier at 16 with parental consent. They cannot legally be deployed on the front line and may leave at any time until they turn 18. This extended ‘look at life’ is not available when joining post 18.
According to Forces watch the UK is one of only 20 nations worldwide to recruit 16-year olds. They’re also the only member of NATO and permanent member the UN Security Council to do so. 134 countries have banned recruitment at 16, with only 37 recruiting from 17. Child Soldiers International claim that
“Three-quarters of the public believe the army should raise the enlistment age to 18. All four Children’s Commissioners of the UK agree, as do child rights and welfare organisations, parliamentarians, church groups, the UN, and many veterans…”
A letter to the Guardian signed by over fifty academics notes that:
“The UK’s child recruitment policy has been challenged by the UK Parliament’s joint committee on human rights, the defence committee, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, major child rights organisations, Amnesty International, the National Union of Teachers, the UN committee on the rights of the child and military veterans themselves”.
There is an ongoing media debate, with the Guardian recently running an editorial opinion piece stating that ‘…armies are for adults’. The Army Foundation College where Junior Soldiers receive their initial training is currently at capacity with almost 30% of new recruits enlisted into the army last year being under the age of 18.
‘Child Soldiers’… In the British Army?
Article One of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as
“… every human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.”
The term ‘Child Soldier’ whilst in the literal sense is not incorrect, is used emotively by those vehemently opposed to Junior Entry. In its common usage the term may reasonably be expected to conjure in the imagination violent images, such as those conveyed in films such as ‘Lord of War’ and ‘Blood Diamond’. These films portray creative non-fiction narratives in which very young children are armed, and in many cases beaten, drugged and forced to carry out rape and other acts of violence, including but not limited to active combat. The term is used here simply to denote soldiers under the age of 18 and no parallels are drawn between the recruitment and training of volunteers, and the practices employed by those who forcibly send children into war as combatants. This article does not seek to downplay the abuse experienced by child combatants by not using distinct terms to differentiate between the two categories of child soldier as explained. The term is used as a catch-all, following the current trend of terminology used in the literature so that this work may be placed appropriately therein.
This is belonging: Interpersonal Connections and Military Life
A theme emerging from the research was the value and importance of strong, unconditional and mutually supportive relationships in the lives of the respondents. The significance that the army played in developing these relationships was highlighted by all interviewees. This was not only the case for the former Junior Soldiers who indicated that they had experienced a more unsettled or chaotic family life or did not have strong peer relationships prior to enlistment, but also those who identified strong and supportive family lives and friendships with no significant disruption or trauma. Interpersonal connections did however present as a stronger narrative in the interviews with those respondents who had encountered attachment difficulties in one form or another prior to enlistment.
Whilst these highly valued connections were reported across the research, it was not represented as a significant motivator for joining the army and according to many respondents, was an unexpected but highly valued by-product of military life. Charlieexplained;
“What I wasn’t expecting was the comradery, I wasn’t expecting to make the close friendship bonds I did.”
Charlie had suffered severe bullying throughout school which he highlights as his main recollection of school life. However, he found that military training offered shared goals, which combined with the austere and challenging nature of military training, lead to the development of a highly cohesive and supportive environment in which a strong ethos of peer support was able to thrive.
Max echoed these sentiments, explaining:
“Working as a team with the lads gives me pride. I feel my peers value me”.
Many who joined from more challenging family and social circumstances suggested that army life delivered a sense of family belonging that they had never previously experienced, and that these bonds contributed to a sense of increased confidence and wellbeing that was impactful across all areas of their lives. Kylespoke about the “five core values” taught by the army which gave him a real and practical understanding of ‘loyalty’ and ‘respect for others’. This impact of this reported increase in confidence will be further explored in the context of educational and vocational attainment.
Poor Children, Taking Big Risks?
A key criticism of the recruitment of Junior Soldiers by the British army is that low socio-economic demographics are disproportionately represented and in roles that put soldiers at the most risk of significant harm in the course of their job role. The ‘This is Belonging’ recruitment campaign has been widely criticised for targeting vulnerable groups and in-particular those craving meaningful attachments.
Respondents to the pilot self-identified as being from a range of socio-economic backgrounds although comments that would allude to communities of low socio-economic status were disproportionately represented.
Speaking of his village which he described as “a bit rough” Max explained that he felt it had “Always been a lower-class place”. Asked to explain what this meant to him he continued
“Not many people working there, not a lot of people there with loads of money. A lot of people not working and on sick, bad drug problem, a lot of people doing drugs and drugs being around on the streets easily.”
Jack described his neighbourhood as “Quite rough in parts, a lot of Gypsies and Gypsy wannabes”. He said that there was “A lot of social housing in the area” but that his parents owned their house and sent him to be educated out of area as they were unhappy sending him to the “rough local school”. Asked to explain what he meant by the term ‘Gypsy’ Jack continued “Loads of them thinking they are hard as fuck”alluding to a lack of social cohesion and what he perceived as a prevalence of petty crime.
Josh described “A village that still holds a good sense of pride for what it is; a mining village”.
Kyle remembered sharing a bedroom with siblings as a teenager and the family being under financial pressure due to his stepfather suffering from ill health but being “…too proud to claim benefits”.
Respondents were asked what they would have done if the army had not been available as an option at 16 Max replied simply “I think I would have been in prison or been to prison.”
Ben lived with his grandmother between the ages of fourteen and sixteen after falling out with his stepfather. Had he been unable to join the army he said that he’d “Probably be in Maccy’s” (McDonald’s) the “only place I could probably have gotten into” Ben’s situation will be discussed in more detail in the section on Education.
Curtis spoke of a history of physical abuse from a family member from the age of six. At 16 and on the day of his final GCSE exams he was made homeless and spent four months on the streets. He explains “I had a bench out of the way”and “didn’t like intruding on people’s houses”. For food “I didn’t want to beg or anything so found scraps, picked up food thrown out by shops”. For his interview “I didn’t have a suit. I managed to get a shirt and a pair of jeans but they seemed to understand”. Asked for permission to share his story “Yeah that’s fine, the army is fab to me, I’m Happy to tell it”. Fab? “Built my confidence. Got me out of my situation. Got fitter and met the soundest lads. I feel at home on camp.” Why? “I think it’s the structure and the way things are done. Difficult to explain but it just feels right. I know what’s happening not dreading the next day. Prior to joining “All the time fear of the unknown. At home it was what mood’s (relative) gonna be in. On the street what am I gonna do for food. Who am I going to run into etc” Curtis explained that things could have ended very differently for him but that the army has given him the confidence and opportunity to learn a trade that is transferable to civilian employment, in a stable environment, surrounded by friends but proud in the knowledge that he has achieved this through his own hard work. The research respondents did not all live in areas with a high incidence of socio-economic deprivation with some participants describing living in relatively affluent areas. Some respondents reported living in areas with a notable sense of community cohesion whilst others noted its absence. However, most respondents reported some factors of social depravation within their families, local communities or both. Education will be discussed separately, however it would be remiss not to mention here the belief by a majority of participants, that the army enabled them to overcome not only factors of socio-economic deprivation, but also access to opportunity that was lacking in their local area and which they would not otherwise have had the resources and practical support to access elsewhere. One participant explicitly expressed that he believed that the risk trajectory that he was on prior to joining the army would have led to offending behaviour and as a result imprisonment. Had policy have prevented him from joining the army before the age of eighteen, he expressed the feeling that he may by then have already been convicted of criminal offences which would then have prevented him from enlisting, potentially beginning a sustained cycle of harm. Other participants alluded to similar sentiments but expressed them indirectly with many having observed similar outcomes among friends and family.
There is a strong narrative within the current discussion around child soldiers that suggests deferring the decision to join the army until the age of 18 would be preferable and that this ought to be enforced by a change in recruitment policy or even the law. However, it is clear from the respondents interviewed that not only did some of them consider themselves to be on a significant risk trajectory with regards to issues such as offending and exposure to drug use, but that this risk trajectory was time sensitive. Respondents articulated that they saw joining the army as a turning point that allowed them to remove themselves from challenging environments and meet unsupported needs, which in turn removed or reduced those risks. It must then be considered that by removing the option to join the army at 16, some young people may feel that the door to the only escape from these situations would be been closed. In the case of offending behaviours this would essentially require them to ‘stay out of trouble’ for up to an additional two years. Those unable to do so may be unable to fulfil their ambition to join the army. This would further limit the opportunities available to them resulting in personal and probably societal cost.
Who needs ‘OFSTED Outstanding’, small class sizes, a disciplined environment, peers who have had similar problems engaging when you love academia
Another key criticism of the British Army’s current recruitment policy is that those soldiers who are recruited at sixteen end their formal academic schooling, often with few or no GCSE’s. Whilst the army offer Junior Soldiers qualifications in subjects including literacy and numeracy, these are qualifications such as ‘functional skills’ which may not carry the same academic value as GCSE’s. The Commanding Officer at Army Foundation College reports that of a recent intake, around ¾ had been permanently excluded from mainstream education. Of that intake all graduated the college with an English qualification, whilst 95% achieved a qualification on Mathematics. Respondent’s experiences and views on academic and vocational attainment and the factors that have influenced these issues for them would concur:
Many of the respondents interviewed described being disengaged with regards to education prior to joining the army. Ben explained “I was shit at learning, hence why I moved to so many” (schools). Ben left school with one C grade, but does not remember in which subject. He felt that the only place likely to have given him an opportunity other than the army was the fast food chain McDonald’s. Ben has since left the army and now works as a Maintenance Engineer using the level 2 mechanical engineering qualification that he achieved through the army to secure this position. Ben views the army as the “…only way I could have got my grades and future opportunities.” He asserts “I wouldn’t have been able to get into college I don’t think.”
Ben was by no means an exception among the respondents interviewed. Max summed up a sentiment echoed by most of the research participants regarding the army and achieving GCSE’s “…it’s helped to get the grades I didn’t achieve in school” because “…you need your grades to promote”.
Jack added “I didn’t feel that school was important” and as such he didn’t achieve the GCSE’s required to apply for the trade that he wanted to pursue in the army. However, he says that because he joined at 16 “I got the chance (through the army) to get the quals I needed to change to my first choice.”
Sam said “…and here I am about to study a masters. Not bad considering I had a D in maths and two Ds in Science” (on leaving school). Sam was able to improve his grades through the army and is about to commence a MA in ‘Crime Science, Investigation and Intelligence’ at the University of Portsmouth supported by the army.
Respondents across the board spoke of accessing education and vocational qualifications that are transferable to civilian employment through the army. Most respondents had been able to improve their GCSE grades and had found a military learning environment to be more engaging and as such, for them, more conducive to academic achievement. This was partly because they had been able to see direct benefits of engaging with the learning (access to trade courses, promotion etc). The combination of being in a supportive environment with peers who had experienced similar difficulties in mainstream education, but with small class sizes and in circumstances underpinned by military discipline and structure may have elicited a degree of self-control that as adolescent males in the mainstream school system they did not feel compelled to exercise. Respondents achieved functional skills qualifications as Junior Soldiers leading to improved GCSE results when working towards promotion post 18.
Participants Views on the Recruitment of ‘Child Soldiers’
A strong lobby exists advocating that young people ought to be forced by a change in either the law or recruitment policy to defer their decision to join the army until the age of 18. This is problematic as it disregards the position of the child as a ‘social actor’ and ‘expert in their own lives’ and attaches an arbitrary figure to maturity that is not supported by the literature. Moreover, to remove this choice without taking into consideration the opinions of the children themselves is arguably a violation of their rights as set out by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. On the issue of the British Army allowing soldiers to train from the age of sixteen, all research participants objected on balance to this being increased to eighteen. This is some of their reasoning;
“…the army offers a lot in qualifications and apprenticeships where education is carrying on. Why wait an extra two years when the youngster could be getting paid (to learn), especially as they can’t deploy on ops until they’re eighteen anyway”Jack
“No (the minimum age of enlistment should not be increased to eighteen). I think it’s a good option for people like myself who didn’t know what to do right from school. It sorted me out for life pretty much. I’m not sure what the current rule is on age of (active)service, but that should be eighteen”Charlie
“No (the minimum age of enlistment should not be increased to eighteen). At sixteen the recruits go to Harrogate now for a year and get qualifications. The army has changed a lot – Drinking culture is dwindling. Less bullying. More politically correct. Better training etc. I think more should do it”Zack
“Sixteen is fine. It’s a good age. Can shape young minds positively and open up opportunities to some that wouldn’t get them normally.”Sam
“Disagree totally (to the idea of an increased minimum age of enlistment). I mean look at me. If I couldn’t I would literally have been working in Maccy’s because I wouldn’t have been able to get into college. So it’s the world taking away one more opportunity from the younger generation. Like for myself I couldn’t go college. My grades weren’t good enough. But with that being said I got them from Harrogate Army College. Also no one under eighteen is allowed to go on ops anyway, so what’s the problem with a young person wanting to join?”Ben
“So joining at sixteen the person is a lot more reactive to learning and wanting to gain something. More than an eighteen-year old would be. They haven’t had chance to slip into nasty habits such as drinking heavily, being on the dole etc. They’re given a fresh start at life’s opportunities and what it can do for them. There’s no reason to raise the age. The only reason that would matter is to send someone away to conflict etc. Letting them join at sixteen gives them the best opportunity. Especially whilst their minds are still wanting to learn so much and engage with what’s happening. If anything allowing someone to join at sixteen is more responsible than at eighteen. It’s a very good career to walk in to upon leaving school, and the army will always be there to nurture and guide you through to be the best version of yourself well before you hit adulthood.”Josh
“‘Child’ recruitment is safe so long as its parent sanctioned. It actually makes fucking good squaddies. Hence why I ended up a SAS soldier. Parental support is key though”Buddy
All participants with the exception of Josh indicated that if they have/had a son who indicated that they would like to join the British Army at the age if sixteen that they would support or encourage their decision provided that it had been an informed one.
Josh explained why he would be less happy to support such a decision:
“To be honest I’d probably talk them out of it mate, as with my experiences I couldn’t bare being a parent knowing what they are going through, or losing them due to the job.”
All participants had not only joined the army as a ‘child soldier’ but were responding retrospectively. This meant that respondents were not only able to speak from a position of personal experience but were able to do so with the benefit of hindsight. The research cohorts experience did not correlate with the assertion made by Veterans for Peace that “Those who stay tend to rate the army highly during training, but not afterwards”. Although one respondent who was not deployed to an operational theatre and was employed in a combat role expressed dissatisfaction with the army after training, citing ‘boredom’ as the main reason for this. One respondent articulated expressly that he could agree with arguments on both sides of the debate whilst others alluded to this. On balance, all participants were in favour of the age that a young person can commence training remaining at sixteen. Respondents felt that in their experience, young people who were minded to enlist at sixteen were likely to have carried out research with some enthusiasm and be equipped with a degree of physical and mental robustness. Parental consent was noted as a check and balance regarding both this and the individual suitability of the child to join the army as a Junior Soldier. It was noted that this was then further supported by the army’s own recruitment process, although some respondents acknowledged a ‘bums on seats’ approach to recruitment and therefore highlighted parental support as being a key failsafe in the process. There was some cognitive dissonance with a respondent being in favour of maintaining current recruitment polices around child soldiers, whilst articulating that due to personal experiences and the job role at times placing individuals at significant risk of harm or even death, that he would not be comfortable with his son joining the army at sixteen. Despite this he was in favour of sixteen as a minimum recruitment age. Whilst he was uncomfortable with his son joining the army at any age, he noted benefits for those who were set on an army career in joining early. There is a preoccupation in some of the literature, including some published by the army, with the transferable skills and qualifications provided by the army to young soldiers. This is important, particularly for young soldiers who may on balance decide that an army career is not for them. Transferable skills and qualifications are important if Junior Soldiers who ultimately decide to leave the army are not to be at a disadvantage against peers of similar background and ability in the job market. However, less often discussed is the legitimacy of a career as a soldier. This was point was convincingly and passionately made by Buddy who has spent 17 years as a soldier. Much of Buddy’s career has been spent as a member of the elite Special Air Service. Buddy spoke passionately about the professionalism of British Army Soldiers often in very challenging and dangerous circumstances. He argued that early entry into training produces more competent soldiers. Following this argument to its conclusion, on balance an increase in the minimum recruitment age could produce individuals who having been denied the opportunity of personal choice, are less competent in a role where this arguably puts the individual, and those they come into contact with in the execution of that job role, at greater risk. Buddy asserted that the modern soldier is required to be highly professional often under extremely challenging conditions. For this reason he took exception to the term ‘soldier’ being used in the context of those forces who employ children in an operational role. “Being a soldier is a profession. Kids that are forced into raping, taking drugs and killing their own families…” he argued, should not be referred to as soldiers. This offers another perspective on why the term ‘child soldier’ is problematic.
Recruitment Practices, Expectations and the Reality of Military Life
“Army recruiters in the UK and US strategically target deprived neighbourhoods and children below enlistment age, presenting a sanitised picture of war, and romanticising the soldier’s role. The substantial risks, restrictions of liberty, and ethical challenges that follow enlistment are not mentioned.” Veterans for Peace (2017)
A serious criticism of the British Army’s recruitment and enlistment process is that the realities of what is experienced by and expected of soldiers during training and then potentially on operations, is not accurately conveyed to recruits during the recruitment and enlistment process. Respondents were asked to speak about how their experience of life as a soldier had compared with their expectations. These are some of their responses:
Max explained that basic training “…was tough and disciplined like I thought it would be.”But that day to day life as a soldier was “…a bit more laid back”. He reflected that he “…had a lot more personal pride because of getting through the tough times”. Asked whether he felt he had been prepared for this during the recruitment process he replied “Yes. I had all the information that I needed before I went. I knew what to expect and what was expected of me.”
Sam remarked that whilst training and life in the army was as he had expected on a general level, his career had “…evolved in such a way that it would be unrecognisable to me 20 years ago.” He pointed out that he has been able to follow his interests, changing trades whilst remaining within the army as an organisation. When pressed specifically on whether the army recruitment process had adequately prepared him for the realities of armed conflict he replied “Yes. But I had 17 years of research behind me” (Sam had wanted to be a soldier from an early age and actively researched army careers until he reached the age at which he could apply). He conceded however, “I would say that nobody was properly prepared for COIN (Counter Insurgency)Ops in Iraq or Afghan”.
Asked about his psychological and emotional readiness for his first operational deployment, Zackresponded simply “How can you psychologically prep someone for war?”
Josh felt that directing staff at AFC Harrogate had worked hard to ensure that Junior Soldiers were properly informed regarding their operational role:
“Throughout my training I was prepared for the realities of war and often reminded as soon as I left training and turned eighteen it was a very real chance I was going to war, which in my circumstances happened as I found myself in Helmand Province shortly after my eighteenth birthday in 2009”
Reflecting on this first deployment Josh went on:
“I was young and naïve at the time and to be honest looking downright stupid. But I guess it’s made me who I am today. The experiences I had out there will last a lifetime, that’s for sure. Like I’ve said before, I can’t think of any other job that would of gave me that opportunity, especially at a young age, to test myself as a man and a human being. To see what I was capable of during a time in need.”
Fin’s brother JJ was killed in Afghanistan two days before his 20thbirthday when Fin was just six. He remembers “We were always misbehaving and messing about. He was the big brother who I loved, he loved me and I knew I was loved from a young age”. Fin could not be more acutely aware of the dangers of joining the army, particularly as an infantry soldier and the potentially devastating effects if things go wrong. He recently passed out of AFC Harrogate the Junior Regimental Sergeant Major (best recruit) in an intake of circa 700. “ I couldn’t think of a better job than doing something that I think matters, especially for something my brother laid his life down for” Fin spoke of a duality between not only wanting to honour JJ’s memory but also to achieve for himself and on his own merit. “I’d rather have what happened to him happen to me at the same age than live to 100 and never do it, because that pride of being a paratrooper is everything. There’s nothing more in this world that I want, and that’s the mentality you’ve got to have”
All respondents felt that they had been adequately prepared for basic training, for military life and for the realities of active service in an operational theatre. Whilst some participants attributed this to the recruitment and training process, others felt that a ‘less glossy’ account had been something that they had been able to discover only through their own research, or by speaking to friends and family who had served in the armed forces. Some participants felt that psychological and emotional preparation for war is not possible through marketing or as part of the recruitment process and could only be achieved through experience. Respondent’s comments could be seen to corroborate the view expressed by veterans for peace regarding the romanticised role of the soldier, however, it would be difficult to unpick this in the interview responses from the socially constructed notions of ‘manhood’ more generally propagated in society.
A child-centred biographical approach helps to avoid the pitfall of normative assumptions and accepts the diversity of experience, whilst simultaneously providing a vehicle for children to self-report upon their experience of current or changing norms which can then be linked to reveal patterns.
Whilst a biographical approach focusses on events over the course of an individual’s life story it would be a mistake to assume that this at the expense of broader socio-economic or cultural context. Whilst traditional mono-disciplinary approaches to study saw the individual as acted upon and affected by these influences, a biographical approach allows the researcher to excavate a richer and more colourful understanding of them taken over time and using the individual as a focus, anchor or lens through which myriad of complex factors may be understood. This approach also affords the child value as a ‘being’ rather than simply ‘becoming’ or a ‘future adult’. Biographical stories such as those of Anne Frank, or Billy Casper are testimony to the usefulness of children’s biographies in a broader social and historical context and offer evidence that one child’s story can illuminate the experience of an entire generation or group. When linked these are a powerful tool in understanding lived experience across the shared experience of a group
The research identified the strong interpersonal relationships fostered by military training as a key benefit identified by participants and a resilience factor during training, on operations and in day to day life as a soldier. A substantial portion of the sample identified that they did not have such strong connections prior to or outside of military life. However, these connections were not described as a motivator for embarking upon military service but as a welcome by-product which in some cases was unexpected. The issue of supportive connections beyond military service was beyond the scope of this study and the subject of a body of specific research in itself. Respondents who had left the army identified that they were still in contact with friends made during their service.
Respondents self-identified as being from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. However, a disproportionate number of participants identified as being from households or areas with characteristics of social deprivation. A significant proportion of respondents identified the British Army as a vehicle that had allowed them to overcome factors relating to social deprivation and inequality of access to opportunity. It was also noted that participants felt that they would have otherwise lacked the opportunity or financial and practical means to access these opportunities outside of the armed forces. Participants identified that whilst risk is often cited as an argument against military service this does not take into account the often significant risk of potential harm that some of the participants had felt that they encountered prior to military service, with their enlistment being cited as a resilience factor in overcoming or limiting that risk. It was acknowledged that an increase in the minimum age of enlistment my increase this risk trajectory for some individuals by narrowing their perceived scope of opportunity and prolonging their exposure to high risk situations, situations of deprivation or both.
Education and Training
A key argument against enlistment prior to the age of 18 is educational inequity and a reduction in educational aspiration. This argument was roundly countered by this research. Many respondents identified either a feeling of disengagement with education or feeling despondent or inadequate as a result of their experiences of the mainstream education system immediately prior to enlistment. Respondents identified that the practical links made between academic achievement and promotion/ access to particular trade courses were a powerful driver to achieve. This in addition to a disciplined but supportive environment in many cases had allowed respondents to achieve academic success beyond the scope of their aspirations prior to joining the army. One respondent identified feeling demotivated to achieve academically due to an aspiration to join the army but explained that he had been forced to reconsider this on enlisting and realising that his grades would not allow him access to his chosen trade.
With the benefit of both hindsight and experience, all participants were opposed in principle to an increase in the minimum age at which young people would be permitted to join the British Army. Many respondents cited benefits that they felt they had experienced as a result of joining prior to the age of 18, negative experiences that they had avoided, or both. Respondents agreed that soldiers should not be permitted to be sent to an operational theatre or be involved in conflict until at least the age of 18. One participant responded to a question around allowing his own children to join the army at 16 expressing that this was something that he would be uncomfortable with, but articulated that this was not an age dependent response, and that he himself would join before reaching 18 if he were given the same choice with the benefit of hindsight. Respondents pointed out that child soldiers are able to leave the army until the age of 18 and in that respect may treat junior enlistment as an opportunity to experience army life whilst minimising commitment and not risking operational deployment. Some respondents pointed out that some soldiers join partly out of a motivation to experience operational deployment and as such do not view it as a negative effect of enlistment.
Morality and Child Soldiers in the British Army
Expectations vs Experience
Respondents did not feel mislead by the recruitment process and articulated that they felt adequately informed and prepared for the realities of military life. They identified a personal motivation to be informed prior to joining which often involved seeking advice outside of the information offered to them through the army via advertising and army careers staff. Some respondents identified basic training as an important preparation for operational service, whilst others felt that psychological preparation for these roles was not possible outside of direct experience.
Children’s Right to be Heard
Despite the small sample interviewed by this pilot study, new perspectives were added to the current discourse on the British Army’s recruitment policy. The findings of the study had some correlation with claims made in the contemporary debate. By exploring these themes from the perspective of those with direct experience the study was able to add a new level of authenticity and understanding to these claims. Some claims were challenged by the responses of this cohort. What is very clear from this research is that any debate around child soldiers and the British Army is rendered incomplete and uninformed unless the voices of child soldiers are included therein.
Strengths and Limitations
The research served its purpose as a pilot study of the biographical experiences of child soldiers in the British Army. It explored their opinions of matters related to that service and recommendations for policy and practice moving forward. The study was limited in its scope and employed a qualitative approach. As such no quantitative conclusions may be drawn. As access to soldiers who are currently serving could not be secured, the study engaged with adult participants with lived experience as a child soldier in the British Army. This sample provided an important perspective and one which was equipped with the benefit of hindsight. However, due to the ever-evolving policies and practices employed by the British Army these perspectives may not be as current as would be desirable. The study provided a valuable foundation upon which further research may be built.
This research highlights a concerning absence of the voices of Junior Soldiers from the academic, political and media debate currently unfolding around them. It problematizes the issue of a discussion that is lacking those voices and cautions against subjectvising and patronising Junior Soldiers through implementing policy, practice and law that assumes ‘best interests’, whilst disregarding, side-lining or not actively seeking to hear the voices of the children directly affected by it. The research underlines the complexity of the issue of child soldiers in the British Army and outlines some of the motivations and perceived and actual benefits felt by young people who were motivated to join the army before reaching the age of 18. It identifies the possibility that a significant number of young people who choose to enlist under 18 are able to both reduce the trajectory of harm that they were on in civilian life and engage with a rap-around provision of need that was perhaps previously lacking in civilian life. It further evidences their agency in educating and preparing themselves for military service, but positions parental responsibility as a key resilience factor against institutional coercion. This research provides a small insight into the opinions and experiences of former Junior Soldiers which identifies a real and urgent need for further qualitative research directly with serving and Junior Soldiers. This research will allow policy makers and senior army officers to be equipped to make informed decisions and potentially improve to social impact that is being enacted by the British Army and its policies around recruitment and training. Furthermore work around ‘risk of harm’ trajectories may support research on veterans issues and provide insight into how best to support those soldiers on a steep risk trajectory of potential harm prior to enlistment to build strategies to prevent returning to that level of risk on termination of their service.
Gav is an ex-regular soldier and current reservist. Since leaving the regulars he has worked with vulnerable children and young people across social care, youth justice and education settings. He has a Masters Degree in Interdisciplinary Childhood and Youth from the University of Leeds. He is a member of the Defence Research Network Committee and is due to matriculate at St John's College, Cambridge University where I'll develop this study for a PhD in Education.