LETTER FROM LONDON: British army’s adverts sell dreams of adventure
FOR a South African unused to it, it’s startling to see the number of gung-ho military recruitment advertisements flighted on British television. Targeted at youths who have grown up playing Call of Duty on their gaming consoles, the adverts make military life look like a scene from a video game.
There’s much fun to be had and skills to acquire. It’s like the Boy Scouts, but you get to play with real tanks, shoot real guns, blow stuff up, build bridges over rivers in far-flung locations. Kwaai, ek sê.
Join the Royal Marines and you could stalk and capture baddies with the sharp skills they’ll teach you.
The advert for the reserves must get a special mention. That particular message can be summed up thus: you might be a stationery salesman in a digital age, so why not ditch the daily drudgery for camouflage on the weekends and be more than a pencil pusher?
It has been a long time since I’ve seen a dream of adventure being sold to young cannon fodder with such panache.
It’s like being transported back to the glory days of tobacco advertising, when Lexington promised that when it came to "after action satisfaction … the next best thing to a Lexington is another Lexington".
This was a time when Peter Stuyvesant — "the international passport to smoking pleasure" — sold us cigarettes wrapped in dreams of a jet-set lifestyle.
These were the days when Benson & Hedges sponsored cricket.
Tobacco adverts never spoke of the very real threat to your health. Recruitment ads for the armed services never warn of the horror of war. Selling a life in the military as if it’s a package holiday for thrill-seekers seems almost immoral.
Now there are many who do dream of a life in the military and know full well what they are signing up for. But these ads do not appear to be aimed at that demographic.
It’s strange to watch a nation use advertising to groom kids for battle.
This is not something South Africans have been exposed and inured to in the decades of democracy. We were outraged when 14 of our soldiers died in the Central African Republic after advancing Seleka rebels attacked their position. Why were we embroiled in someone else’s civil war? What deal did President Jacob Zuma sign with the ousted Francois Bozize? We demanded answers. We demanded our troops be brought home.
They were. And the Central African Republic descended further into chaos. But as SA had backed the ousted Bozize, it has been argued that there was no way we could stay in the country. Not even under a United Nations or African Union mandate. Leaving our alleged regional and continental leadership role aside, the government was under no illusion that South Africans did not want our soldiers dying abroad.
It had come as a surprise that our troops were in the Central African Republic. No one had publicly made the case for intervention on humanitarian or other grounds.
It appears the UK is set to return to active military engagement in Iraq. It has paid a heavy toll for the earlier invasion, chasing phantom weapons of mass destruction, and for the far more reasoned engagement in Afghanistan. Too many coffins draped in flags. Prime Minister David Cameron is now warning that the Islamic State fighters in Iraq pose a threat to the UK’s national security. And apart from providing much-needed aid to ease the humanitarian crisis under way in the north of Iraq, the UK must be "flexible" about using its "military prowess".
He is laying the groundwork for such and, unlike our own government, giving the public here the opportunity to judge for itself the necessity for it.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Cameron warned: "The creation of an extremist caliphate (in Iraq and parts of Syria) … is not a problem miles away from home. Nor is it a problem that should be defined by a war 10 years ago. It is our concern here and now.
"Because if we do not act to stem the onslaught of this exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement, it will only grow stronger until it can target us on the streets of Britain. We already know that it has the murderous intent," he said.
Cameron has stressed that limited military engagement will not be about putting combat troops on the ground. But it will be interesting to see if those military recruitment adverts increase in frequency.
Meintjies is Times Media Group’s foreign correspondent and bureau chief in London.