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This isn't belonging

Ellis Brooks speaks out against the call in new British army recruitment adverts to 'find where you belong'.

Still from 'What if I get emotional in the army?' Image: British Army
Still from 'What if I get emotional in the army?' Image: British Army

Weirdly, I found myself agreeing when hearing retired Major General Tim Cross on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme, saying that army recruitment is "not about being nice", it's about "fighting power" against the "Queen's enemies". This nakedly militarist agenda at least has the merit of honesty. The General has been irked by the fresh crop of British Army ads.

Marketing the military is a difficult business, with recruitment rates stalling (PDF). But the marketers seem to have settled on 'belonging' as the army's selling point. I'd like to call out the lie.

This is belonging?

There's been a switch in the emphasis of the belonging message. Last year, you'll have seen ads depicting live-action scenes of army life. The ad I saw most shows a lad sitting in the rain looking pretty haunted until he's brought a cup of tea and gets his hair tousled by his comrades. There's also the trooper teased as he tries to climb aboard a moving jeep. All cracking, relatable stuff – especially for me as they all appeared to be white men. The point was, you'll face hardship but you'll find a home in the army.

The imagery has switched to colourful animations featuring the words of serving soldiers. Each video answers questions like 'Can I be gay in the army?', 'Do I have to be a superhero?', 'Will I be listened to?' (that one's a woman) and 'Will I be able to practise my faith?' (Muslim). The Army is being positioned as not just inclusive, but at the leading edge of social progress.

The previous campaign explicitly targeted 16- to 24-year-olds from the poorest three socioeconomic backgrounds. These new ads have a different emphasis. You can see why the advertisers identified a thirst for belonging among young adults. Economic recruitment – targeting the poor – is centuries old. Now they've set their sights on people who may experience other forms of marginalisation.

The machinery of war

For Quakers, recruitment ads are part of the machinery of war, so of course we'd oppose them. But 'this is belonging' is a more basic untruth for a simple reason: no one belongs in war.

Soldiers across the world's battlefields can be terrified conscripts, committed zealots or many things in between. Some are just doing a job; some have a cause; some are children. Whoever they are, no one belongs in front of or behind a gun. When an instructor shouts "I wanna see it in your eyes that you wanna kill these fuckers!", something unnatural is being demanded.

I don't think that's a radical view, even for soldiers. Another 'belonging' ad features two old veterans, adorned with medals and poppies. If you asked two such veterans, "Is war where you belong?" they'd laugh in your face. Like Pindar said 2,400 years ago, "War is sweet to those that never have experienced it."

Bonding through shared hardship

I do see what these ads are getting at. Bonding through shared hardship is powerful, and if you survive the worst of war you will feel a unique connection with those who shared the experience. Indeed, this is a deliberate function of army training (PDF).

According to Ryan Hall of the Yorkshire Regiment, "We appreciated being told and probably believed that we were more hardy and had much more developed levels of endurance than our former 'civvie' or civilian friends. Now we had a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging."

Leaving people exposed

The Ministry of Defence is already guilty of being less than forthcoming about the dismal outcomes for soldiers (PDF) in terms of physical and mental health or economic prospects. The reassuring 'What if I get emotional in the army?' animation seemed particularly disingenuous given the evidence soldiers become more anxious, depressed and suicidal. This is particularly true for younger recruits and Britain continues to recruit at 16, out of step with other European countries and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Exposure to war increases the likelihood of violent behaviour towards the self and others. Veterans returning from war often find it harder to manage or express emotion and form relationships. There remain thousands of homeless veterans in Britain. It's just not okay to package that as belonging.

'Belonging' is also dishonest about the government's motivation. If helping 16- to 24-year-olds belong were a priority, we'd see some different policies.

True belonging

A more honest advert would say, "No-one belongs in a war – it's horrible. But we're asking you to make the best of it for [reasons]." But that would invite unwelcome debate about the justification for war.

'Find out where you belong' speaks to a yearning in us all, but we're building a world where more and more people can't find a place. We should be working to build more places for people to truly belong: homes and infrastructure, education, training, jobs and community.

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