Recently, 40 charges of battery, ill-treatment and actual bodily harm were brought against 17 armed forces instructors after claims made by six 17 year old recruits weeks after a training exercise at Kirkcudbright in Scotland. It is claimed that they punched and kicked recruits, used their boots to push their heads under water and smeared cow and sheep dung over their faces and into their mouths.
It is incidents like this which proves that the armed forces is not a safe place psychologically or physically for under-18 recruits and that no amount of regulations and oversight can counter that.
Unfortunately, incidents like these are not uncommon in the armed forces.
In 2001 and 2002, two 17 year old recruits died of gunshot wounds to their heads at the Deepcut Army Barracks.
In 2007, a 14 year old girl was drowned after being thrown from a speedboat during an army training exercise. Her parents said she was murdered”.
In 2008, a BBC documentary ‘Undercover Soldier’ exposed the abuse of young recruits at the Army’s biggest training base in Catterick where recruits were beaten, battered and urinated on.
In 2012, three army instructors were sacked for bullying and humiliating recruits aged 15 to 17 by whipping them, forcing them to walk across rocks in their bare knees and pouring water over them.
In 2013, an 18 year old who joined two days after his 16th birthday, was stripped, tied up and had sniper tape applied to his genitialia because he didn’t want to go out drinking.
The armed forces is not synonymous with safety. In fact, danger immediately comes to mind. The Army has said that recruits aged under 18 are twice as likely as adult recruits to be injured during training, because their bodies are physically unprepared for the harsh training.
Abuse and humiliation helps break down the individualism of the soldier to ensure that he, and increasingly she, follows their orders. Despite the numerous regulations and oversight that is put in place, due to the nature of the armed forces, it is near impossible to make such an environment ‘safe’ from deliberate and accidental acts of abuse.
The examples of abuse are numerous. Some abusers are discharged and some charged in court and some may go to prison. But the fact is the damage is done. These incidents were allowed to happen because punishment and toxic masculinity are inherent in armed forces training and culture. It cannot be made safe and so long as under-18s are allowed to join, we will be sacrificing their physical and mental welfare and violating international human rights so that the Ministry of Defence can target “academically disengaged” young men to make up for the shortfall in 18+ infantry recruits.
I’m all for votes at 16 and I’m all for allowing 16 year olds to decide their own career. But it is not helpful or logical to take an ideological stance on these issues – it must involve evidence-based reasoning. We cannot equate voting – participating in civic processes – to the dangers of the armed forces and cannot therefore liken the armed forces to a typical career path. Even the Police recruit at 18. We would not allow a 16 year old to buy Call of Duty, but we would hand them a loaded rifle and teach them how to carry out a suicidal bayonet charge.
Even if we could regulate the armed forces to prevent abuse, which is a mammoth challenge, we would still be teaching young people in their formative years how to kill and be killed. 16 and 17 are psychologically formative years. Their minds are easier to mould. Rigorous and harsh training will undoubtedly affect them for years to come.
Instead, we should continue to champion human rights, especially those of young people, and make their development and welfare a top priority. We have to make sure that the abuse these young people suffered never happens again. Not one more young person will be humiliated, punished, beaten or killed.
This case may finally clear the ideological and patriotic fog surrounding the armed forces and hopefully lead the UK to joining the rest of the world in raising its recruitment age to 18.
My fear, is that these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.
SNP Youth National Vice Convener