Teenage Soldiers – Army Schools Under Fire
A sixteen-year-old boy is too young to buy a copy of a war-themed video game. Is he old enough to join the army?
Charities around the world are calling for an end to the use of child soldiers. Which country are they targeting now? The UK.
Britain is one of the few countries that still allow people to join the army at 16. Now, however, the laws that govern the army, and give it a legal basis to exist, are being reviewed in parliament and campaigners say this creates a perfect opportunity to change the rules.
In the year up to March 2010, nearly 5000 under-age recruits joined up, around half of whom were only 16. These young soldiers are allowed six months to change their minds, but once that time is up, they are committed to a full six-year stint in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.
Until their 18th birthday, the recruits stay in Britain, training and being educated at special military colleges.
Not all the training is about battles. There are lessons in all sorts of job-related skills, including the basics of literacy, numeracy and IT. Soldiers leave college with newly earned NVQs, and recognized career apprenticeships.
However, once they turn 18, the recruits are treated as fully-fledged soldiers, and can be sent into conflict zones.
“The armed forces don’t train teenagers to go on an adventure holiday,” said the head of one charity “they train them to go to war. And evidence shows that it’s the youngest soldiers who face some of the biggest risks when they reach the frontline.”
Campaigners also worry that army recruiters are targeting schools in deprived areas. In 2008-2009 only a quarter of recruits had passed English Language GCSE with a grade G or better.
And once they’re in the army, life doesn’t necessarily get easier. Campaign groups say that young soldiers have a high risk of mental health problems, and even suicide.
The problem, according to campaigners, is that young people are making decisions that could get them killed. If you join up at 16 then you’re locked in until you’re 22, which means four years of being eligible for combat.
16-year-olds are too young, they say, to understand what they’re signing up for.
Yes there is danger, say army chiefs, but there’s also amazing opportunity. Some teens who join up come from very difficult backgrounds - communities where there’s no work, and no chance to build a better existence.
Army colleges give recruits structure, confidence, and qualifications, which means that when they leave the army they are set up for life. Banning young recruits might mean taking away their only chance at success.
- Do you think that the chance of a better life would be worth the risk of getting injured or dying?
- Campaigners say that 16-year-olds shouldn’t join the army. 16-year-olds are also legally banned from driving, voting, or getting married without their parents’ consent. Should 16-year-olds be allowed to make this sort of decision or are they too young?
- Imagine you're a parent of a 16-year-old who's joining the army. What would you say to them in your first letter once they'd left home for army college?
- In groups write down the arguments either for or against being allowed to join the army at 16. Then have a 3 minute debate on the question with someone from an opposing group.
Some People Say...
“The worst thing that ever happened to Britain was the end of compulsory military service.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why is this in the news now?
- Because the Armed Forces Bill is being read in parliament. It’s a piece of law that sets the rules for the armed forces and which gets reviewed every five years.
- Who’s trying to change the rules?
- The main campaigners are a group of charities, including UNICEF, The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, and Amnesty International.
- So how many other countries allow 16-year-olds to join up?
- Less than 20. No other country in the EU or NATO has this policy. Some of the countries that do have the policy are Iran, North Korea, and Zimbabwe.
- And how dangerous is it?
- It’s certainly not all that safe. The British army is still fighting a difficult war in Afghanistan. 349 soldiers have been killed there since 2001, and a quarter of those were 21 or younger.