The UK is one of only nineteen countries worldwide, and the only EU member, that still recruits 16 year olds into its armed forces, (other nations include Iran and North Korea). The vast majority of countries only recruit adults aged 18 and above, but British children, with the consent of their parents, can begin the application process to join the army aged just 15.1
The UK's child recruitment policy has been challenged at various times by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Defence Committee, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, major child rights organisations, Amnesty, the National Union of Teachers, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and veterans themselves. Successive governments have ignored all these calls to review the policy.
It is the poorest regions of Britain that supply large numbers of these child recruits. The army has said that it looks to the youngest recruits to make up shortfalls in the infantry, by far the most dangerous part of the military. The infantry's fatality rate in Afghanistan has been seven times that of the rest of the armed forces.2
A study by human rights groups ForcesWatch and Child Soldiers International in 2013 found that soldiers who enlisted at 16 and completed training were twice as likely to die in Afghanistan as those who enlisted aged 18 or above3, even though younger recruits are, for the most part, not sent to war until they are 18.
The youngest recruits from the poorest backgrounds are often enlisted into front-line combat roles. In fact, the very youngest recruits - aged between 16 and 16 years, 3 months, are only allowed to join combat roles. These non-technical jobs typically involve very limited education and training that becomes virtually worthless to them upon leaving the army.
The Ministry of Defence has stated that its aim in getting young people to join the military is ‘to recruit people before they have made other lifestyle choices’. 4
Testimony from veterans suggests that armed forces prefer younger recruits because, compared to older soldiers, they are psychologically malleable in training and more willing to accept military culture uncritically. Young recruits are less likely to be aware of the mental health risks of their prospective career, unlikely to be told of them, and unlikely to be able to seriously consider the real-life implications at that age.
Among veterans who left the forces in the last ten years, levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), alcohol misuse, common mental disorders, self-harm, and suicide are substantially higher than they are among civilians.5 Risk varies widely with socio-economic background and is greatest for young people from poor backgrounds, while those enlisting at 16 and 17 are most likely to be worst affected.
The suicide rate for 16-20 year old males in the armed forces has been 82% higher than for civilians of the same age.6
- Much of the information here is taken from 'The Last Ambush? Aspects of mental health in the British armed forces' by Forces Watch.
British army criticised for recruiting 16-year-olds - video
HM ARMED FORCES TOYS
In 2009 the Ministry of Defence launched its own range of toy soldiers, called HM Armed Forces. These ‘highly realistic’ dolls cover every branch of the armed forces, albeit with an emphasis on front-line combat roles. The toys also include the 'Character Building' range of Lego-like toys. These include the RAF Predator Drone and Remote Operator playset (below). Aimed at ages 4 to 9 years old, these toys provide a compelling first imprint on young children’s minds about the value of military service, which will inform their decisions for the rest of their lives.
Advertisers recognise that brand loyalties formed when children are young will be carried through to adulthood. Marketers talk about 'branding' kids, as quite literally 'owning' them through their attachment to consumer products. As Kids `R' Us president, Mike Searles, says, "If you own this child at an early age... you can own this child for years to come."7
This is one of the benefits afforded to the Ministry of Defence thanks to their HM Armed Forces range. Not only will it result in more children growing up and wanting to join the armed forces, but even those who don’t will be imbued with a more favourable attitude towards the use of military force and the role of the military in society.
Write to your MP and ask them to put a stop to child recruitment in the British armed forces. You can use the online form on the right to send a email to your MP. However a hand-written or printed letter will get even more attention.
MPs tend to judge that a huge number of other constituents share the same concern if they receive just one letter on a certain issue.
WHEN WRITING TO YOUR MP
1. Keep your letter short and concise. You can take points from The Facts page to support your argument.
2. Ask your MP whether they will support your call for the UK Armed Forces to stop recruiting from age 16 and to raise the minimum age for recruitment to 18, like most of the rest of the world.
3. Tell them that it is army policy to channel the youngest and poorest new recruits into the most dangerous army jobs.
4. Refer them to the Veterans for Peace briefing: ‘Army channels youngest and poorest to the front line’ by linking to it here [LINK] (Right click + 'Copy link address') or print and enclose a hard copy.
5. Ask your MP to pass on your concerns to the relevant minister in the Ministry of Defence calling on them to raise the age of recruitment to 18 and to make sure that 16 and 17 year olds are not given frontline combat jobs.
6. It'd be helpful, but not essential, if you can let Veterans for Peace know that you’ve sent the letter and also any reply you get.
Address for paper letters:
[Your MP name],
House of Commons,
- 'Age Requirements' http://www.army.mod.uk/training_education/24453.aspx
- Defence Analytical Services and Advice. ‘UK Armed Forces Quarterly personnel report: 1 January 2013 (Table 2)’. [Online].; 2013. Cited 2013 August 7. Available from: http://www.dasa.mod.uk/applications/newWeb/www/index.php?page=48&pubType=1&thiscontent=560&PublishTime=09:30:00&date= 2013-02-14&disText=01%20January%202013&from=listing&topDate=2013-02-14.
- Gee D, Goodman A. ‘Young age at Army enlistment is associated with greater war zone risks’. [Online]. London; 2013. Cited 2013 September 3. Available from: http://www.forceswatch.net/sites/default/files/Young_age_at_army_enlistment_greater_risks%28FINAL%29.pdf.
- Ministry of Defence. ‘The Government’s response to The House of Commons Defence Committee’s third report of session 2004-05, on Duty of Care’ London: Ministry of Defence; 2005.
- The Last Ambush, fig.4, page 25. Available at www.forceswatch.net/content/last-ambush
- Office for National Statistics, 'Suicide and open verdict deaths in the UK regular armed forces 1984-2012', 2013. Online at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/280450/2012.pdf.
- Quoted in Michael F. Jacobson and Laurie Ann Mazur, Marketing Madness (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1995), p. 21.