I experienced a considerable amount of violence growing up, and through my uni days, discovered some unhealthy ways of dealing with its aftermath. I could so easily have gone down a dark path, but luckily, didn’t: I found a better way.
I had finished university, was living back at home, and was having a difficult time of it. Something had to give. I realised I wanted more from life, but how to get it? To start with, I stopped smoking and to quell the cravings, I ran – and ran and ran. I got shin splints, so I swam instead.
I found a booklet at work. It was a Devon County Council publication detailing all the voluntary groups in the area. I found an entry for Dawlish Warren Lifesaving Club and called the number; I went to visit – the club captain told me to come to training on Sunday, and so I did.
It was the natural thing for me to do, to write my debut novel, Fulmar, about a vulnerable kid who finds a better future because I understand what it is to be desperate, and I know what it is to need something – anything – a path, a way forward, and once I’d found it, to latch onto it with all my might. Becoming a Surf lifesaver was the saving of me, and later, as a surf lifesaving instructor and club captain, I’ve seen the positive effect this incredible voluntary service has had on lots of other young lives too.
Many of the young surf lifesavers I knew (and still know) eventually left the beach and went on to excellent careers as police officers, paramedics, firefighters, and more. Some joined the armed forces and excelled there too. Like the emergency services, a career in the military offers many of the same things as surf lifesaving: fitness, friends, purposeful employment, and a bright future to look forward to.
When I think back to how impressionable I was as a young person and how impressionable some of the young people I helped to train to be lifeguards were, I can see the appeal of a career in the services as it’s portrayed in the military’s slick advertising campaigns. That’s particularly the case for kids from less well-off backgrounds, with fewer opportunities – and kids who, like me, have had some rough things happen in their lives and who’re desperately in search of something.
Jacob, the character in my novel, is just like that – the product of domestic violence, needing something, finding, luckily for him, the right thing. He’s 15 in the story – 15 years and 7 months, is the minimum age for beginning the process of applying to join the military. I defy anyone to read my novel (release date, 3rd August) and tell me that my character – an approximation of many vulnerable boys of that age – would be mature enough to make a decision with such far-reaching consequences.
The circus comes to town
Saturday is Armed Forces Day, and this year the circus has come to my town – Falmouth. While I have great respect for the armed forces, I do have a problem with the MoD’s policy of recruiting children into the ranks. I think it’s wrong, and here’s why.
Look beyond the banners and marching bands, calls to duty and belonging, adventurous training, and the chance to learn a trade, and what you’ll discover is the sleight of hand that lies at the heart of armed forces recruitment. All that razzmatazz obscures the very real possibility of a disastrous outcome: disfigurement, dismemberment, death.
A few years ago, I wrote another book – called Sacrifice. It’s about a Cornish boy who joins the army because he can’t find a job. It’s set in the twilight of the war in Afghanistan when the teenage soldier is already dead, blown up by a suicide bomber here in the UK. It was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award in 2019.
It took me about a year to do the research for Sacrifice. I read a heap of books, watched lots of documentaries about the armed forces, and I interviewed people who had served. In particular, I conducted extensive interviews with a former soldier– an Afghanistan vet who had joined the armed forces as a teenager and who had left only four years later after a single tour of Afghanistan.
He told me that by the time he’d finished his military training, he’d wanted to kill someone – had considered it the logical conclusion of all that training – a blood rite. He’s not the only former soldier to have told me this. In Afghanistan, there was lots of killing, the man said. He went on to describe the terrific high of battle and the awfulness of the comedown—the aftermath. He spoke of the horror of seeing comrades – friends – disintegrated, blown up in front of his eyes. In the end, he said, he’d tried to put himself in the way of enemy fire. He’d just wanted it to be over.
The state needs a lethal capability and must therefore recruit men and women into its armed forces. But, surely anyone considering pursuing a career in the services must be capable of understanding the potential consequences of their decision. We don’t believe under eighteens understand the full ramifications of smoking, drinking, marrying or even driving; how can we allow them to join the forces when the potential outcome is maiming or death?
All the evidence shows that the younger the recruit, the more likely he or she is to come to harm. Under 18s are more likely to develop a problem with substance abuse. Service personnel recruited at 16 are also much more likely to get killed or injured in action than those who joined at 18; they’re more likely to be abused both during training and after they’re sent to their unit; they’re more likely to suffer from PTSD, and they’re much more likely to take their own lives.
We’re the only country in Europe that recruits children into its armed forces and one of only a handful around the world. Underage recruitment is something we have in common with places like Iran and North Korea. This month, the UN released a report which criticised the UK government, calling for it to raise the minimum age of military recruitment from 16 to 18 and to address the many complaints of the sexual assault, rape, and abuse of child recruits.
When you look at who the military recruits at 16, it’s predominantly kids from working-class backgrounds. These children are much more likely to end up in the infantry where, contrary to the advertisements, they won’t learn a trade and won’t be promoted as quickly as they would if they had waited until age 18 to enlist; once in, after the first 6 months have elapsed they won’t be able to get back out unless their commanding officer agrees to their discharge, and will have to stay in until they’re 22 years old. They will end up in the firing line.
These kids are canon fodder, and if you want proof, ask yourself – what’s the minimum age to join the military as an officer? Answer: 18. In fact, the average age of recruits at Sandhurst, the army officer training centre, is typically 23. Of course, that has a lot to do with the level of education necessary for the officer role, but still, when you consider that nearly half of all officer recruits still come from public schools, the implication must be that they – the upper classes, believe your kids are worth less than theirs, because it’s not their kids they’re sending into the front line, is it? It’s ours – yours.
“Oh,” they say, “but a career in the forces is the making of so many young boys and girls.”
That guy I interviewed for my book: destroyed – tormented by what he had seen and done – ravaged by it. Covered from head to toe in psoriasis, he twitched and scratched and squirmed and kept talking because the army doctor he saw before he was unceremoniously dumped by the army had told him it would help his PTSD. There seemed to be no support – his family wasn’t there for him; he’d spent time on the street. He was trying to put things back together, but he was so shattered it was hard to see how he could.
I asked him, “Having seen what you’ve seen and done what you’ve done, what do you think war is?” His eyes shone with agony as he smiled sadly. “War?” He said. “It’s the worst drug of all.”
So yes, if you happen to be in Falmouth, do enjoy watching the Red Arrows, and then go home and write to your MP. Peace. Out.