Britain's Very
Young Guns

by Max Easterman

While world attention has focused on child soldiers in Africa, industrialized countries also recruit teens under 18—a violation of the spirit if not the letter of international treaties. The United Kingdom allows children as young as 15 3/4 to sign up for the Army. And these "junior soldiers" face myriad problems similar to those of children the world over.



Training Begins at Age 16

At the Army Foundation College outside Harrogate, in Northern England, more than a thousand 16- and 17-year-old recruits are trained every year. More than two platoons of junior soldiers recently put through their paces in the gym gave up civilian life only 14 weeks ago. Some 860 recruits have signed up for a variety of reasons: the chance to travel, earn better pay than their friends working civilian jobs, and the opportunity to get a military education as well as a civilian one.

"It's better than working in McDonald's," said one recruit.

There's little evidence that the youngsters are joining up just to fight for Queen and Country, but you won't find that in most British kids today. So the Army can't afford to be too choosy if it hopes to pull in the 4,000 or so junior soldiers it needs every year. They can sign up as early as 15 3/4 and then begin training on their 16th birthday. Seventeen-year-olds fought in the Falklands War and Kosovo, but they're no longer deployed on active duty until they're 18.

'It Gets Us a Better Army'

Major Dickie Hamzat, the company commander of these young recruits, said the Army couldn't survive without them.

"I think it gets us a better army," he said. "They can be molded, even though the decisions they have to make are quite daunting for them, initially.... If we don't start recruiting at this early age, these people will get into long-term relationships, will look at other aspects of their life in a settled job.... They won't look to the Army for a career, and they'll be lost to us."

The British Army has for years taken advantage of the fact that young working-class men and women prefer to get a job rather than an education. Critics say there is little difference in motive between what Britain and some Third World governments do: recruit teens because they're easier to shape into fighters.

The Army rejects that argument, noting that parents must approve the child's decision to sign up.

Colonel Mike von Bertele, the Army's head of employment, said the British Army offers young people a way out of poverty and social deprivation. He argued that it would be irresponsible to leave willing 16-year-olds in the streets, where they're more likely to cause trouble.

"I think it really stems from the switch to being an all-volunteer army and getting away from conscription ... and so traditionally we've taken a large number of people into the Army, who are low educational achievers at school, who are effectively thrown out of school at the age of 16—or even 15—with very few employment prospects ahead of them," von Bertele said. "We know that if we can get them young enough before they settle into low-paid work, for example, we can do a lot with them."

Recruits include "low achievers" who have significant educational or social problems, von Bertele said.

"It's one of the great things about the Army, it does take those people and it does an awful lot with them," he said. "It gives them an education, it gives them a skill, it gives them a trade, and gives them a huge sense of self-worth."

Tragedy in the Barracks

Critics say the Army promises junior soldiers education and job skills, but often doesn't mention they may have to serve as long as 12 years if they take skills training courses. When the junior soldiers realize this, the consequences can be disastrous, according to Gwyn Gwyntopher, a counsellor with the soldiers' advice center "At Ease."

"I've had clients who've broken their own right arm ... others have attempted suicide," she said. "One quite common thing is, when they're on leave, they get hold of drugs. They plant them in their own bed space. They've then gone out to a phone box and made an anonymous call to the Army, saying that they've got drugs, in the hope that the Army will kick them out. A lot of youngsters try to get hold of drugs just before they're having a medical, knowing that it'll be detected. And this is quite frightening, because where you get very naive teenagers getting hold of dangerous drugs and swallowing them in large quantities, just so they'll be detected, it's very, very dangerous."

The crisis some junior soldiers find themselves in has been tragically highlighted at the Deepcut Barracks in Surrey, near London.

While sexual harassment is a problem throughout the Army, the junior soldiers have been particularly vulnerable at Deepcut. And no fewer than four juniors have been found shot dead there. The Army claims they're all suicides, but their parents don't think so. They attribute the deaths to a culture of bullying by fellow soldiers.

Geoff Gray was 17 when he was found dead on guard duty, a week after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. He was shot twice through the head. In spite of that, the Army still claims it was suicide. His father, also called Geoff, lives in Hackney, East London, and believes his son would never have taken his own life.

"There's Bullying and Sexual Harassment"

"We've got a situation where I think Deepcut is run on a two-tier level," Gray said. "We've got the officers living in their own little world, and then we've got the noncommissioned officers who are actually running the camp. Some are out of control, and we've got a situation where there's bullying and sexual harassment, and it isn't being picked up by commissioned officers.

"If an officer had told Geoff to do something that wasn't of the norm, he would say something. He would probably say 'no sir, I can't do that because of "A" or because of "B." My real worry is that Geoff paid the ultimate price of bullying ... that he didn't accept what he was being told to do and he's paid the price for it."

The parents are demanding a full public inquiry into what happened at the Deepcut Barracks; the Army and the government have refused. They have, however, conceded that bullying and sexual harassment are rife in the British Army, and have now drawn up an action plan to monitor noncommissioned officers and stamp out these activities.

But the wider point is undeniable: junior soldiers in Britain face some of the same kinds of problems as child soldiers everywhere. If you give young people guns and live ammunition, sooner or later, they use them.

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