Emma Armstrong, PhD Candidate Teesside University
Alongside most European countries, the British Armed Forces abolished conscription not long after World War II as the need for masses of personnel declined. Since then, we have relied on an all-volunteer professional force, prompting the question, why do people join the Armed Forces? It is important that we consider this for two main reasons; firstly, it has been found that pre-military life can influence the experience of transitions back into civilian street (MacManus et al, 2013; Van Voorhees et al, 2012). Thus, to understand how the 15,000 annual service leavers can be better supported in their transition, we must first cast the spotlight on their reason for joining. Secondly, the societal function of an Armed Forces cannot be ignored. As we rely on an all-volunteer force, we need to know why people join to ensure sufficient manpower.
Methods designed to entice potential recruits have not been free of controversy. The British Army have been criticised for disproportionately sending recruiters to the poorest schools (Childs Rights International Network, 2019; Gee and Goodman, 2010). Additionally, tensions have arose around the ethics of recruiting minors given their compromised ability to provide informed consent and consequent vulnerability (Cooper and Gee, 2019; Gee and Taylor, 2016). Over the last few decades, restrictions around the gender and sexuality of personnel have tapered (Ministry of Defence, 2021), which has incited debate around balancing inclusivity and combat effectiveness (Goldstein, 2018; Woodward and Winter, 2004). Furthermore, the recent recruitment crisis has stimulated the development of more creative and inclusive advertisements, such as the provocative call for ‘snowflakes’ (O’Neill, 2019). Although casting a wider net has been somewhat contentious, it has been necessary in order to meet enlistment targets.
Academic research has provided various answers as to why people enlist, from the prospect of social mobility (Bellany, 2010), to the patriotic desire to serve the country (Krebs and Ralston, 2020). This post augments these findings from existing literature by drawing on accounts from 51 semi-structured interviews with Army veterans conducted as part of a PhD thesis. Participants were recruited via gatekeepers and snowball sampling and comprised 6 women and 45 men. No limitations were placed on length of service, age of enlistment, rank, role, or operational experience. The fieldwork was given ethical approval by Teesside University. Importantly in the context of this excerpt, year of enlistment ranged from 1965 to 2011, so motivations for enlisting in recent years cannot be substantiated.
A small number of participants aligned with Krebs and Ralston’s (2020) finding that grounded enlisting in a desire to serve the country. This was typically inspired by the witnessing of conflict; Scott, for example, recalled joining after watching the Falklands War and the Troubles unfold on the news, stating he ‘just wanted to do something’. Similarly, some participants enlisted to fulfil an unrelenting desire to serve, though did not attribute this longing to a particular conflict. As Dennis described, ‘it was like people that go into theology, it’s a calling…I was never going to go anywhere else’. This sentiment was echoed by other participants, who shared Dennis’ unexplainable yearning to join the Army. In some instances, this urge was fuelled by positive experiences in the cadets or a fascination with war films.
Family members also appeared to be important in the decision-making process in various ways. Several participants were encouraged to join by relatives who had served themselves and had spoken enthusiastically of the benefits of service life. Additionally, some participants sought to emulate their serving relatives. Jack remembered watching his uncles return home on leave when he was young and stated, ‘I wanted to be like them’. For others, enlisting and succeeding in the Army meant disproving their family members’ doubt. After Rebecca told her parents she was thinking of joining to get her nursing degree, she was met with laughter and incredulity. Subsequently, ‘to prove a point to them, I went and joined up and signed up and ended up spending 13 years in the Army’. Regardless of how family members prompted enlistment, their influence was mentioned by almost half of the participants from this study, indicating the significance of these relationships.
Although the motivations highlighted above did encompass a large number of participants, the majority cited their motivation for enlisting as being rooted in some sort of dissatisfaction. As found in Mankowski et al’s (2015) research, some joined to attain qualifications and experience in a specific trade which were not deemed accessible without enlisting. This was particularly pertinent for those joining the Royal Medical Corps where recruits could earn a decent wage whilst studying for an undergraduate degree. Others felt as though the opportunities available to them in their hometown would not facilitate the life of travel and excitement they desired. Jim thought his ‘life was over at 17’ if he were to remain living in a small Northern town. Participants spoke of needing to see more of the world than what their locale had to offer.
In some instances, joining the Army was the springboard out of a place entrenched in crime. Bruce thought his hometown had become ‘very dull’, and noticed ‘there was a lot of drugs coming into it, mid 80s…and I could see where the town was going…I didn’t want any part of it’. Similarly, Lisa enlisted after her friend was murdered and stated, ‘it was just Glasgow in the 1990s’. Lisa felt as though violent crime was continuing to proliferate and saw the Army as an opportunity to escape. For those who had begun a life of criminality, the Army was perceived as the alternative to escalation into a criminal career. Ben summarised, ‘it was either join the Army or you’ll end up in prison for a very long time’. The extant literature has posited military service as a catalyst for desistence on the logic that it can instil discipline, obedience, and respect (Bouffard and Laub, 2004; Morash and Rucker, 1990), though recent scholarism questions the validity of this assumption (Abeling-Judge, 2019; Craig and Connell, 2015). For the few participants in this research who had engaged with low level criminality before serving, enlisting had severed their trajectory into more serious crime. Toby recounted his transition from aspiring bank robber to soldier, stating, ‘despite having this sort of leaning towards criminal activity and excitement, I think I was able to pull out of that as well a sense of duty. A life in uniform started to appear’. To preface this, Toby drew attention to the lack of opportunities available to him in the North of England in the 1980s other than crime.
Similar to Moles et al’s (2013) findings, discontent with the offerings of local employment proved an important stimulus for joining. For example, Roger believed his job at a pig farm ‘wasn’t really conducive with a successful future’ and enlisted at the age of 16 where the chances of success seemed greater. This rationalisation was acutely pertinent for those living in towns where the traditional forms of stable employment were gradually being eroded by deindustrialisation. Malcolm came from a mining town and after the local pits had closed down in the 1980s, ‘I couldn’t get a job, I was on the dole for 6 months’. Participants recalled high rates of involuntary unemployment with the Army surfacing as the only potential route out of deprived and dismal areas. For those who had joined prior to the early 1980s recession, it seemed inevitable that stable industrial work would soon become insecure; the threat of what was to come necessitated seeking employment elsewhere. Ultimately, the legacy of deindustrialisation, Thatcher’s government, and the subsequent permeation of neoliberal ideology had ensured the absence of a viable alternative (Lloyd, 2013; Stepney, 2013).
As substantiated throughout these findings, the Army promised something deemed unattainable via other routes. It was evident that to most veterans, their decision to join had been rooted in what they believed the Army could offer them as opposed to what they offered the Army or any patriotic tendencies. Enlisting was often viewed as the only route out of deprived hometowns and towards a life of travel and excitement. The operational word here being only. Lloyd (2018) identified the absence of secure work as a catalyst for work-based harms. In this milieu, the absence of a viable alternative led to joining the Army. I do not wish to brandish the Army as an inherently harmful career choice here; after all, most participants went on to enjoy their time in the Army. However, there is an increased risk of service in comparison to most civilian jobs (Gee, 2008). Service life is demanding; it requires frequent relocations and potentially operational deployments. Thus, if we assume this career decision is somewhat of a Sophie’s Choice, where neither outcome is desired, and fewer are opting for the Army route (The Telegraph, 2021), how do we ensure that we have a fully manned Army? Perhaps more importantly, how do we do so without compromising the liberty of the public by making it the only viable option?
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