UK: Veterans warn young people about ‘traumatic’ army training

Army training is ‘traumatic’ for young recruits and damages the adolescent mind, according to British infantry veteran Wayne Sharrocks, who features in a series of short films released this week by Child Soldiers International. The films offer young people and their parents a frank alternative to army recruitment materials which, say many veterans, present a sanitised and unrealistic impression of military life. In particular, Wayne Sharrocks wants young people to know that the psychological effects of training can be harmful and permanent.

The films describe Sharrock's journey through the army, from training to deployment and his struggle to adjust to civilian life afterwards. They present a picture of army life that is unrecognisable from recruitment brochures: of routine bullying; ‘traumatic’ training that indoctrinated him as ‘a mindless, robotic killer’; and the often ‘really, really, dull and boring’ life on operations. He recalls seeing his colleagues maimed and killed right in front of him, and talks about his own injury from an IED explosion.

Other British armed forces veterans share his concern. Today, Veterans for Peace will deliver a letter to the Ministry of Defence appealing for an end to recruiting from age 16. The letter argues that adolescents should not be put through training whose central goal is to make them capable of killing on demand and without hesitation. In Wayne’s experience, this psychological conditioning produces ‘an insane amount of aggression’ and is ‘massively psychologically damaging’ after leaving the army as it cannot simply be ‘switched off’.

In the films, Wayne Sharock describes the lead-up to bayonet drill, which begins with sleep deprivation: "So they keep you up all night and make you really angry, then you’ll [have to] run and be put through physical punishments. You’re crawling through mud and [are] screamed at, kicked, punched while you’re on the floor, anything to get you angry... enough to stab another man on the flick of a switch. For a young person at 16 that’s pretty traumatic."

The army makes use of a gang mentality to force recruits to conform, he says: "You either conform, or you don’t and you’re separated from the pack and you’re going to be preyed on. So you can either be the person that’s preying on people or the person that’s preyed on, it’s like survival of the fittest, basically. So these people that aren’t the fittest or mentally the fittest, they’re going to get preyed on and people are going to take advantage of that."

Wayne’s testimony echoes statistics which show younger recruits are at higher risk of bullying and harassment in the army. In 2015, recruits at the Army training centre for minors (AFC Harrogate) filed 20 formal complaints of inappropriate conduct by army staff, up from ten cases in 2014, ten in 2013, and five in 2012. 15 cases remain unresolved to date.

"Before deciding to enlist, young people and their parents deserve the full picture, but the army’s brochures only tell one side of the story. These films give another side, including the frightening and the mundane", said Rachel Taylor, Programme Manager at Child Soldiers International. "People need to know that basic training involves intense psychological conditioning which doesn’t switch off when you leave the army. Adolescents, whose brains are still developing, are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of this."

Ben Griffin, a former SAS soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now Coordinator for Veterans for Peace UK, agrees. "The purpose of infantry training is to fundamentally alter the way your mind works, leaving the army in control of what you value and how you react. These values and reactions are very difficult to switch off and cause all sorts of problems in civilian life. No other country in Europe subjects 16 year olds to this process, it's time this country caught up."

The four Children’s Commissioners for the UK also believe that raising the enlistment age would be in the best interests of young people, as do the major child rights groups, health professionals, teachers,i faith groups, parliamentarians, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and three-quarters of the British public, according to a 2014 poll. The British army’s arrangements for gaining the informed consent of recruits and their parents are ‘insufficient’, the UN has said.

An article in last month’s RUSI Journal argues that the army could enlist only adults and still fill the ranks, since 16 year olds are more expensive than adults to train and one-third are discharged before they finish the course. Despite the growing controversy around the British army’s recruitment age, last year it increased its intake of minors, who account for a quarter of new recruits, recent figures reveal.

Preview links for a selection of the films (Each film approx. 3 mins) :

1. Are army adverts realistic? https://youtu.be/IORiiFMXcg4

2. How does army training change you? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THAdCpWvpTg

3. How much bullying is there in the army? https://youtu.be/ES3Ae6PkoLE

4. What’s daily life like in the army? https://youtu.be/7NdSrQE5uBE

5. What’s it like to kill someone? https://youtu.be/ZjsiskdBN8o

6. What’s it like to see someone killed? https://youtu.be/yaqciTj9dRI

7. A mum’s point of view. https://youtu.be/QPRHxtBcN6E

8. Do soldiers get a good education in the army? https://youtu.be/jIrGgZqLIH4

9. What’s it like after leaving the army? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKtMpxrJrso 

10. How do veterans deal with how the military has changed them? https://youtu.be/XRgbGg4jCDU

This article is first published on Ekklesia on 9 January 2016. 

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