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6 December 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 11:46am

Our boy soldiers

The army looks for many of its teenage recruits in deprived areas. But international agreements cate

By Tom Wall

Gordon Gentle joined the army in the Hillington Jobcentre in Glasgow. He had only gone to sign on, but an army recruitment team promised him a career and the chance to travel. After six weeks’ training at Catterick Barracks, he was sent to Iraq. He died in a roadside bombing last June. He was only 19 years old.

“I don’t think it should be allowed. He was still a boy – still doing daft things, still jumping around the street with his mates,” his mother, Rose Gentle, told me. “Half of the 18-year-olds around here can’t even get served in pubs, but they can join the army.”

Gordon is far from unusual. Last year, 9,515 teenagers joined the army. Shockingly, 3,225 were only 16 years old – the single largest contribution to the army (21 per cent). The others, like Gordon, were aged between 17 and 19.

A huge £70m recruitment machine delivers these teenagers for Britain’s armed forces. More than 1,000 crack recruiters, including 60 career advisers and 28 army youth teams, trawl schools, Jobcentres and high streets for likely candidates. They are backed up by 123 recruitment offices and a £15m promotional budget spent on high-profile TV and press adverts, glossy publications and youth-oriented websites. Derek Bathgate, an army marketing co-ordinator, says their current ad campaign is directed at 16- to 25-year-olds. Tellingly, adverts are broadcast during programmes such as I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!, highlights from the Champions League and MTV music awards.

The army even runs a web- site called “My Camouflage” (at the cost of £1m) directed at children as young as 13. The budding squaddies can play online games (such as shooting alien spaceships) and compete in military themed quizzes. Once they tire of make-believe warfare, they can go to army recruitment events in their local area.

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The army targets younger recruits because it believes that they respond better to training and stay longer than older ones. The colonel in charge of army recruitment, Alistair Loudon, admitted that this is “received wisdom” in the armed forces. Indeed, the last parliamentary review of the army stated that it “continues to be important to recruit young people straight from school” because “if they are not caught at this point, they are likely to take up other careers”.

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Gordon Gentle dreamed of becoming a mechanic, not a soldier. He wanted to run a garage and fix cars. He had even applied to do a course, but he was worried about money.

“He had never spoken about joining the army. I don’t think he would have joined had he known what he was letting himself in for,” says Rose Gentle. “He loved kids – he wouldn’t have liked the idea of killing them.”

Not only is the British army recruiting what many would regard as child soldiers, it is also targeting deprived areas. Colonel Loudon told me that the army actively recruits from deprived working-class communities in the north-east, north-west, Midlands and Scotland. Loudon (educated at Durham University, then King’s College London) sees nothing wrong in this: “Where do doctors come from? Where do farmers come from? They all come from particular backgrounds. It’s a matter of market forces.”

Rose believes her son would still be alive if he had been a middle-class boy at college. She is angry that there were not more opportunities for Gordon to pursue his dream: “There is still absolutely nothing here for teenagers.”

The Ministry of Defence has refused to be drawn on Gordon’s death, but said that working-class men join because “they want to”. The spokesman added that the military does not target individuals from particular socio-economic groups, but acknowledged most came from working-class communities.

In a sense, it has always been like this: the army has throughout its history recruited the poor and desperate. However, there are some differences: the military was once regarded as an honourable profession for the sons of the landed gentry. Typically, the first-born would inherit the family estate, while the younger siblings joined the army or the priesthood. Nowadays, most bright, aspiring middle-class chaps prefer the comfort of university to dusty outposts in faraway lands. Except the two princes, who are both considering careers in the armed forces (old habits die hard in some sections of society).

Despite the young princes’ enthusiasm, some in the army high command are worried that Iraq and other scandals are hitting army recruitment. Although recruitment has picked up over the past two years, the army is still 2,600 under-strength. Loudon told me: “There are signs [that] applications have gone down because of parental opposition to the unpopular war in Iraq.” But with troops deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cyprus, Kosovo and Northern Ireland, the army can ill afford to fall behind.

Even young offenders are being targeted. The Youth Justice Board is working closely with the MoD to develop training schemes for what officials call “disaffected youth”. In the New Year, children as young as eight will be offered the chance to take part in camping, army assault courses and sporting activities at selected military bases. The MoD says the scheme is partly designed to “raise awareness about careers in the armed forces”.

Joining the army, some would say, should not be a decision for teenagers, because it involves making a long-term commitment – not to mention enormous risks. Army recruits under the age of 18 who enlist for a 22-year term are required to serve a minimum of almost six years. Officially, soldiers can terminate their contracts after four years. However, time served before 18 is not counted; consequently, 16-year-old recruits must serve a longer term than adult soldiers before they can leave. Most western armies recruit slightly later: Italy, France and Germany all recruit at 17. Not much better, but a little.

Colonel Loudon argues that 16-year-olds should be free to join the army because it is a career like any other. He rejects the suggestion that the army is different from doing a paper round or supermarket job, because under-18s are not sent to war zones: “It’s more like training.” Yet critics point out that this is training for killing and involves a long-term commitment; supermarket cashiers don’t kill shoplifters and can quit at any time without fear of imprisonment.

Internationally, human beings under the age of 18 are regarded as children. The British government is party to international conventions – such as the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child – which bar under-18s from armed conflict. The army is allowed to accept volunteers aged 16, as long as they are aware of the nature of military service and are not deployed in war zones. Yet when the Optional Protocols were adopted in 2000, the government declared that it reserved the right to deploy children where militarily necessary. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (which includes human rights groups such as Amnesty and the Red Cross) criticises this reservation as contrary to the spirit and letter of the convention. Although there are no under-18s in action now, the coalition claims that a 17-year-old British naval re- cruit took part in the military effort to dislodge the Taliban from Afghanistan.

In the negotiations leading up to the adoption of the Optional Protocols, the British, Americans and Australians refused to give an undertaking not to deploy under-18s in armed con- flicts. According to observers such as Rachel Brett from the Quaker UN Offices, they were the most vocal in opposing a total ban on child soldiers.

“We are concerned [that] UK authorities may, in the future, resort to deploying under-18s in their armed forces to take a direct part in hostilities,” said a spokesman for Amnesty International. “We consider such deployment, as with recruitment, would expose them to violations of the rights to life and to be free from torture or other ill-treatment.”

The dangers that teenage recruits face are not only from enemy guns. The deaths of four young soldiers – three of whom were in their teens, two of them only 17 – between 1995 and 2002, in the Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut, Surrey, led many to allege that a regime of bullying, humiliation and sexual abuse was prevalent in the armed forces. According to Amnesty, there have been at least 1,748 “non-natural” deaths in UK army barracks since 1990.

Gordon Gentle was a normal teenager. As his mother said, he should have been hanging out with his mates or training to be a mechanic. Instead, he died in a strange land, thousands of miles from home.