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Mairi Campbell-Jack is a single mother, poet, writer and activist living in Edinburgh who writes for Reformer in a personal capacity.

Child Soldiers of the UK

When adults don’t live up to their responsibilities

Mixed messages

This week in Edinburgh, a 14 year old girl went missing. Pleas to help find her were pasted on social media. In the comments section one person launched into criticism of the girl because she had a tattoo that read “Dad” and wore make-up, blatantly victim blaming.

It’s ironic how we lambast youth today even though there is proof that this generation is living rather cleanly and healthily. There is less alcohol and tobacco consumption, less drugs, and less teenage pregnancy. It looks like all that money spent on health messages, less disposable income due to high tuition fees and the 2008 financial crash, and the sheer embarrassment of their parents’ generation have paid off with a generation of young people impressively together. But still, this younger generation faces criticism. “Young people today, don’t even know how to enjoy themselves, in my day we knew how to rebel” etc, etc…

It seems that whatever our adolescents are up to, the space needed for their growth and development will not be provided by wider adult society. Part of the problem we have with teenagers lays at least with the random and arbitrary minimum age laws that have collected over time and bare little relation to each other. You can get married at 16, yet you can’t buy a drink to celebrate. In Scotland, the age of criminal responsibility is still bizarrely low at age 8, and it is only in 2017 we’ll see a bill to raise this age, despite having our own parliament since 1999. You can’t learn to drive until you are seventeen, yet recruitment into the army starts at 15.

The United Nations defines a child as a person under the age of 18, and their Committee on the Rights of the Children, whose protocol has been ratified by Britain, says that recruitment into the armed forces should start in adulthood. No other western country recruits children. The British Government has, time and time again, rejected calls to raise the age of recruitment, but many arguments put forward to retain this age don’t refute the arguments being made to raise it. Instead, they make ephemeral statements and distractions about the “legitimacy” of a forces career, the good job the forces do (neither of which are the actual subject of debate), or are underpinned by assumptions about the feral nature of youth.

Health implications of child recruitment

A recent report by health charity Medact shows that child recruits suffer throughout their armed forces career, and afterwards, disproportionately more than adult recruits or their civilian peers. This suffering includes PTSD, addictions, alcohol abuse, mental health problems, and many of the issues that exist in co-morbidity with them.

A job in the forces is not like any other job. Those employed exist in a different sphere of law from civilians. They have unique ethical decisions to make, often under pressure, that most of us will never have to face in civilian life. Ultimately, these are people who, in the course of their work, may die or have to take the life of another human being—the impact of which should not be underestimated. Some of them may find themselves in a split second situation based on a decision they made at age fifteen when the human brain has not yet fully developed, and does not assess risk in the same way the adult brain does. While the UK does not deploy minors onto the frontline, under 18s have been deployed to conflict zones by accident 22 times between 2003–10.

Minimum age standards

Some argue that because the voting age in Scotland is now 16 (apart from UK-wide elections), that it is condescending to ask for the recruitment age to be raised. However, we must consider that maturation is a process which is long and complex and does not happen over night on your birthday. Those working in children’s rights believe that teen years should be seen as a transition phase, where the minimum age for things which have the potential to be very harmful (smoking, drinking, etc.) should be high, and for things that allow children to explore their burgeoning independence and responsibilities (i.e. voting) should be low. The last part of this transition process should be taking a job with such profound implications.

While one reason child recruits suffer in the forces is because of their age, another is which part of the forces they are often in. According to Child Solders International the armed forces latest recruitment figures show a rise in recruitment of 16 year olds. An age where you are considered too young to play Call of Duty. This is mainly because the forces are facing a recruitment problem, and are unable to recruit adults into the riskiest roles, such as the infantry. If you are deployed in the infantry in Afghanistan, you are seven times more likely to die than in any other part of the army. Children are being used to plug the adult gap.

Medact’s report shows that there is a credible health and wellbeing argument for raising the age of recruitment to 18. However, there is also a wider argument about what role we play in relation to children, as a society, and what our responsibility as a society is to their protection.

Positive destinations?

Despite the poor health outcomes, many argue that the forces are a positive destination for young people. The most disadvantaged, who often enter the infantry with its lower academic requirements, are often coming from lives full of multiple deprivation (not just a lack of character or discipline) and the forces are a way for them to escape what is becoming increasingly intolerable to them.

When it comes to looking at what the forces can do for a young person it is important to acknowledge that there are many out there who have had positive experiences, but there are also many who have not. The Veterans Commissioner Scotland’s recent report on employability, skills and learning shows many facing profound and frustrating barriers on returning to civilian life. There is a worrying minority who leave and are unable to gain employment because of their low standard of literacy and numeracy. A low standard, presumably, they went into the forces with.

Society’s responsibility towards young people

We can’t expect all the societal ills that children live with, and the problems they develop because of them to be fixed by the forces. The purpose of the forces is not youth work, social work, education, psychiatric intervention, spiritual council or parenting. Since many who enter the forces in childhood end up with problems at a much higher rate than their civilian peers it can be argued that in some cases the forces may exacerbate their issues rather than resolve them. Given all these facts, it does not seem unreasonable to ask young people to wait two more years before making such a life-altering decision.

While the recruitment age needs to be raised to 18 in Britain, this alone is not enough. We also need to address the fact that often, in rhetoric, the forces are used as a sticking plaster for the ills of young people. What young people need is long-term investment from professionals with a child-centred approach.

The problems in young people’s lives have all been created by adults. Or at least, not solved by them. We are all, parents or not, tasked with protecting the generation below us. We only need to look at the almost unrelenting amount of institutions, football, entertainment, hospitals, children homes, churches, now implicit in child abuse to know there is something very wrong in how to look after children as a society. Each of us as individuals make up that society.

Unfortunately, the forces are also not immune from accusations of child abuseand between 2012–4 the MoD paid out £2m in out of court settlements to young people abused in the Cadet Forces, including once incident that ended in a pregnancy. In dismissing our children’s troubles to be solved by the forces, we also get to abdicate our own responsibility for the outcomes these vulnerable people are living with.

Turning young lives around is not something that can happen overnight and it is adult impatience with the pace of maturation, with its inability to express itself smoothly when accompanied by neglect and abuse, which is one of the problems that our young people face. The contradictory criticism, their inability to get anything right, an atmosphere that assumes a moral deficit and fosters hostile attitudes towards the young even when they are infants and at the most vulnerable — is all indicative of a society where adult responsibility to be, well adults, is often ignored in favour of victim blaming, and an abdication of wider societal responsibility in favour of personal comfort.

Despite the size some of them are, their noise, and their sometimes irritating manners, all children are vulnerable, because they are children. Once we start to see vulnerability not as an annoyance, but in fact what makes us all truly human, we can maybe start to grow a society which can better treat the problems its children face; and grow a generation of adults, who can give all children what they deserve.

If you wish to take action

  • In Westminster, there is an Early Day Motion calling on the Government to raise the recruitment age. If you wish to write to your MP asking them to support it there are sample letters to use here.
  • In the Scottish Parliament there as a motion on the Medact report, and one on the recruitment of 16yo into the forces. If you wish to write to your MSP asking them to support them there are sample letters here.
  • If you are concerned about the armed forces recruiting in school Petition PE1603 is currently in front of the Public Petition Committee of The Scottish Parliament. The Committee have stated that they are willing to accept unsolicited submissions on this issue by 13th January. More information around the petition is available here.

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