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IN 2019, the Facebook page of a children’s nursery in Lincolnshire featured photos of small children wearing real military body armour.
The nursery had been visited by a soldier who had talked to the children and invited them to try on his helmet and parts of his uniform.
These children, barely older than toddlers, had not been given any sense of what happens to human bodies and minds in war. They had been taught to associate uniforms and military equipment with fun and excitement.
Sadly, this incident is only a particularly shocking example of a common trend. At Armed Forces Day celebrations every June, children are invited to handle real weapons.
At military events from Llandudno to Sunderland to Salisbury, I have seen children aged seven or eight handling artillery pieces so big that they could barely reach the controls.
Children are not shown images of what someone looks like after one of these weapons has been used against them.
Complex ethical questions about weapons are not discussed at such events. Children and young people are deprived of their right to hear a range of views on political topics as they grow up. This is everyday militarism in action.
Militarism not only encourages war and support for it. It is also a means by which the powerful keep the rest of us in check.
As the world stands appalled by Russian military atrocities in Ukraine, Russia provides an illustration of where militarisation of children can lead.
“Teachers who have spoken out against the war and against the militarisation of children are simply being sacked and this is already normal practice,” explains Ilya, a 20-year-old Russian pacifist who experienced the growth of militarism in Russian schools as he grew up.
Writing to the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) in Britain, he said: “I am incredibly glad that you are trying to limit the cult of militarism in British schools.”
At the PPU, we receive emails and calls from teachers, parents and school students around Britain who are alarmed by military visits to schools or the promotion of cadet forces.
At the National Education Union conference in 2019, there was a noticeable increase in the numbers of teachers and school staff visiting the PPU stand to discuss these issues or to ask for advice.
As well as the involvement of armed forces in schools, we saw an increase in arms companies running programmes for young people around science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
Things changed when the Covid pandemic arrived in 2020. Now, with society more open again, militarists are returning to the streets — and classrooms.
This time, they are misusing the Ukraine crisis to present armed force as a defence against evil.
Such simplistic narratives involve very selective accounts. While ministers rightly condemn Vladimir Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine, they supply weapons and military training to Saudi forces committing similar atrocities in Yemen. Saudi pilots who bomb civilians are trained by the RAF.
Following British public opposition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, government and military leaders came up with new measures to promote support for the armed forces — and the wars that they fight. One of the first initiatives was the creation of Armed Forces Day in 2009.
The Cameron government pioneered “alternative provision with a military ethos,” amid much talk of children in deprived areas needing discipline.
The whole thing reeks of snobbery — wealthy politicians declaring that working-class young people should be controlled through a form of military authority.
Between 2010 and 2019, youth services across the UK suffered cuts of more than £400 million, according to calculations by Unison.
But in 2012, Michael Gove announced that 100 new cadet forces would be created in state schools in England.
In 2015, Cameron threw another £50 million into the Cadet Expansion Programme, declaring there would be 500 new cadet forces by 2020.
The target was achieved early and ministers promised yet more money in 2021. They are now aiming for 60,000 cadets by 2024.
Ministers boast about research suggesting that cadet forces have been “successful” in helping young people to develop discipline and teamwork.
But as my colleague Saffron Gallup puts it: “Projects are often successful when millions of pounds are allocated to them. What is missing, however, is honesty and transparency.”
There are many youth projects that can help in developing teamwork, community and self-discipline. But cadet forces also promote the far more harmful values of militarism: unquestioning obedience, nationalism and support for war.
Two years of research in Welsh schools led to a report last year published by Cymdeithas y Cymod, the PPU and Forces Watch. Researchers concluded that military visits to schools are a “fig-leaf” for recruitment.
The armed forces maintain officially that they do not “recruit” in schools. This is true only in the narrowest sense: they do not literally sign people up in classrooms.
But their promotion of a glamourised image of military life is clearly a recruiting tool. Britain is the only country in Europe to recruit 16-year-olds to the army.
Research in Scotland and London has found that schools in poorer areas are more likely to receive military visits. In many countries, including Britain, armed forces target the poorest young people for recruitment — and often dump them back into poverty when they leave the forces.
While the military in schools recruit a relatively small number of young people to the armed forces, a larger number are recruited to a military mindset and to support for the military and the wars that they fight.
At the PPU, we support teachers, school students and parents who challenge militarism in schools, whether they do so through quiet conversations or through public campaigning.
Such resistance is particularly vital as we approach Armed Forces Day in June: there is a push to encourage more schools to mark the day.
As thousands of Russians demonstrate against war in Ukraine, they are well aware that the militarisation of society has made it easier for Putin to wage war.
To stop other wars — 10, 20 or 50 years in the future — we need to tackle the everyday militarism that enables them. There is no more vital place to do so than in schools.
Symon Hill is campaigns manager of the Peace Pledge Union and a history tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association.
If you’re are attending the NEU conference in Bournemouth this week, we invite you to come for a chat at the PPU stall. Visit ppu.org.uk to find out more.
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