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Britain's child soldier disgrace

STEVEN WALKER details the mental health problems facing child recruits to the army

NEWS that the government is targeting vulnerable working-class children in social media campaigns to lure them into joining the British army is another sign of the desperate state of affairs at the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Last spring the MoD revealed that it was understrength by 4,000 personnel. With an increasingly poor image, the army has never been seen as a more unattractive career choice. 

The adverse publicity over the culture of bullying and suicides at military training establishments, such as Deepcut, revealed a tiny, previously hidden glimpse of what many vulnerable young people may also be subjected to on a routine basis once they enter the service.

While supposedly toughening young solders up for what lies ahead, the cost to their self-esteem and emotional well-being is very high. 

Research in recent years revealed that the army has a problem dealing with mental illness among soldiers, which manifests as full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or less-documented depression and anxiety. 

The majority of army recruits are from poorer socio-economic groups, where a higher proportion of children and young people are at greater risk of developing mental health problems. 

The British army recruits in low-income, high-unemployment and disadvantaged areas where children with few academic or career prospects are able to sign up to six-year minimum service contracts at 16 years of age — captivated by glamorous images of travel, adventure, machismo, national pride and employable skills training. 

Films, video games and literature that emphasise war as fun, exciting and a professional activity are widely distributed in schools, youth clubs and military recruitment offices.

The MoD’s current social media campaigns are aimed at GCSE results times, suggesting to 16-year-olds that an army career is open to them if they did not get the grades they wanted. 

Rachel Taylor of Child Soldiers International says: “Using Facebook to target the country’s young people unwittingly and exploiting the anxiety of those who may be disappointed with their GCSE results with idealised and unrealistic advertising is shameful.”

What potential recruits will not realise is that since 1971, 24 under-18s died and 10 were seriously injured while on active military service in the British army. 

Young recruits will also not be told about the increasing levels of PTSD and other mental health problems in older veterans, who feature in disproportionate numbers among the homeless population. 

Young recruits under 18 years of age are still legally defined as children — even though in the context of uniforms, regiments and all the paraphernalia of the armed forces, these young people may look a lot older than they are.

The evidence suggests that, paradoxically, they may be psychologically and emotionally immature due to earlier childhood neglect and deprivation and thus more at risk of developing mental health difficulties under the strain of intense combat. 

According to MoD research from 2009, young soldiers are three times more likely to commit suicide than their civilian counterparts.

Britain recruits 16-year-old children to all three branches of the military, the only European country to do so. 

There are clear contradictions in the British government’s use of minors with its legal obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Children Act 1989 to protect and safeguard children. 

The MoD has ensured that the needs of military power and political control override the best interests of those under-18s in the armed forces. 

Article 38 of the CRC emphasises the particular vulnerability of children as civilians and soldiers and recommends signatories refrain from sending children into battle. 

It recognises that children’s rights are particularly vulnerable to violation during armed conflict and lays down specific obligations on the state to protect children caught up in situations of war. 

The World Health Organisation recognises that young soldiers exposed to conflict situations can more easily develop PTSD — leading to persisting patterns of problematic behaviour and functioning.

While the MoD says under-18s are not deployed to combat zones, ministers’ responses to parliamentary questions over the past two decades have shown that around 50 under-18s were involved in peacekeeping missions, while the BBC reports that under-18s had to be removed from a contingent in Afghanistan.

It is a disgrace that the British armed forces continue to exploit children in armed conflict, increasing their vulnerability to developing serious mental health problems.  

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