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Army Recruitment on Campus and the Oldest Lies in the Book

Army Recruitment on Campus and the Oldest Lies in the Book

I was treated recently to a suspiciously sunny day in one of my morning walks to campus; being in the south east of what was once described as ‘a rain sodden archipelago’, sunshine was naturally suspect. As I approached the main plaza of the university an over-sized and obtrusive vehicle had unpacked itself in the centre of the courtyard. Its various compartments had extended out of its original form and spilled outwards. The exterior was covered with images of clean cut, attractively self-confident people in military fatigues with words like ‘Courage’ and ‘Leadership’ dotted around. It spoke to a disrespectfully simple approach to marketing through word and image association. In circumnavigating this I was accosted by a recruitment soldier in cargo pants who asked if I was interested in joining the army. Tempted to retort with a clever reply about how independent minded and rebellious I was, I instead decided to politely say ‘no’.

Throughout the day I could see that interactive games centred around teamwork, problem solving, as well as basic fitness, were setup to allow passing students to have a go. Unsurprisingly the usuals were there: a laddish group of guys who were diffidently smiling at the suggestion that they had the right stuff. Remembering back I had noted this presence during the freshers fair as well as a recruitment office in the centre of town. I remember the office euphemistically referring to joining the army as a ‘career’ equal to a career at a legal practice or at an accounting firm. It seems this new image is creeping its way onto campuses alongside the traditional academic careers.

There is a pernicious union between the university and the army it is not a necessary one. Before students get the chance to decide whether to volunteer for the army, universities volunteer their campuses for their recruitment drives. According to sources within the university’s administration requests for the use of their campus by the army are sent for approval around the major departments; and as the past has shown, they find no opposition. The only gain the university receives is the cost of using the university’s space, a cost seemingly never too great for the army due to the access to students it allows. These requests furthermore do not stem from the student population, there is no society for the army, and previous requests for the unpacking of their recruitment vehicles have been external. To understand why universities are targets for this culling of the youth, one doesn’t need to look further than the army’s advertisements.

Its advertisements and promotional material has begun to portray itself as an occupation that lets you travel the world, experience amazing things like skydiving and rappelling, and touts the physical appearance that is gained through the physical exercise you have to do. Essentially the army has borrowed the advertising methods of holiday planners and travel agencies. Where it doesn’t take that angle it seemingly focuses on the video game tendencies of an aimless generation with large armoured vehicles ploughing through mud, helicopter convoys taking off in unison, or shots of soldiers manning heavy machine guns. Every individual shows their other occupation as a ‘plumber’ or ‘IT specialist’, all testament to the idea that no matter who you are, you are what they are looking for, and there are multiple roles for you in the army. This appeal is rather cheap because it clumsily unifies two contradictory points: first that the viewer is the very person they want, and second that only the army can make them ‘be the best’.

I decided to visit the army careers office in Canterbury in order to see for myself what possible recruits might encounter. Walking in I am presented with a fairly modern waiting room with one whole wall filled with pamphlets and promotional material. To one side a young man was talking to a man in fatigues who brought to mind a cross between a bouncer and an almost Putin-like man. Coming in halfway through their conversation I managed to pick this up:

“You will see the world a lot more, you’ll see it a lot more. Rather than just going around it under the water.” The soldier was talking about the naval submarine corps. The sales pitch continued with an uncanny line of questioning. “Have you got a real thirst for travel and seeing the world? A diverse kind of job?” This man was a true travel agent in uniform.

After overhearing this I started talking to a soldier about my situation: am I a student? Where do I study? Afterwards he disappeared into his office to give me names and numbers of individuals I should contact about enrolling in the reserves. As a university student with a UK passport, having not resided in the UK before starting university, I have to pay international student fees; in the case of the army they are not so fussy. Apparently all I needed was my passport and after asking me what I studied, to which I replied Politics and International Relations, he said “Ah so you wanna be a real man” winking and slapping the table with hardly a hint of irony.

Despite these criticisms, pacifism is not entirely the answer, but military enrolment is too important of a decision to be paired with morally questionable methods of advertising and time-share-salesman like techniques. Furthermore, universities should demand higher standards from the army before allowing them use of their campuses; they need to change their character, add more integrity and the uni should expect an increase in payment. If the military wants, as I believe it does, to maintain a standard of moral integrity it needs to treat enrolment as something that is done with the full knowledge of what is at risk. If it wishes to be treated with respect it must treat those whom it wishes to enrol for their country with respect.

As university students, we have the fitting protections of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried; all of which, if you read them correctly, possess higher moral and critical standards than what our university seem willing to employ on campus. O’Brien writes that if the propaganda of war is making you see virtue or benefit in joining it ‘you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.’ In Thackeray’s Vanity Fair one of the characters is the father of a captain in the regimental army, whose son was so naive and glory intoxicated he lead a charge in the Battle of Waterloo in which he was killed. The father later in the novel is a broken man staring at a memorial which states that his son died ‘for king and country in the glorious victory of Waterloo. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’ This last line is what O’Brien and countless others refer to as the ‘old lie’ that ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.’ Recently I have replayed that moment when the army careers officer first approached me on campus, and if I had the chance, and the confidence, to answer that recruitment officer again I would want to repeat these lines of Wilfred Owen:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

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