Journalism

Being young in a combat zone: Exploring recruitment techniques in an era of unemployment

By Ekaterina Dolgalova

War and military – frightening, fascinating or both? Personally, I’m intrigued. Almost obsessively I yearn to hear soldiers’ anecdotes. I envy that their perception of war is true, and I hate the fact that I’m too afraid to gain that truth. I assume this morbid curiosity of mine can’t be that abnormal considering that I grew up in the Soviet Union, where serving in the army was compulsory. I’ve always been used to hearing young men recalling the deafening sound of bullets and the cold hiding spots with such humor and serenity. In my childhood surroundings, these were natural conversation topics. At four years old I was already able to distinguish which cinematic and written war portrayals were realistic and which weren’t.

The sympathy I feel towards young people who are being sent off to battle is great. In their glance I sense the trauma and desperation they bring home. It’s impossible to ignore. Despite my early insight, or perhaps because of it, I still have trouble comprehending the link between politicians’ work in offices and young citizens’ work in combat zones. A soldier, who served during the Soviet war in Afghanistan once told me, that he never understood the point of him being there. “I was 21 and wasting my youth. My days were spent sitting alone, under a tree in the middle of nowhere. I was keeping guard in 57 degrees, and imagining which jokes my friends back in Moscow were telling.”

It might be a memory from the 80’s, but its reality is far from ancient. Being in the know of this boredom, this waste and risk, why do people voluntarily get deployed? Is it because we’re not needed here? Are we, the youth, useless? We stare at our computer screen up to the point of dilated blood vessels. We crunch over our books and skillfully ignore the process of damaging inner organs. We ruin ourselves economically, physically, and mentally to obtain a degree, well-knowingly that we’ll probably end up doing something where a degree isn’t required. Such as serving food at our university or tweeting local news stories. I bet that in a couple of years I’ll be pleased with a career as a “twirnalist”.

We’re not told anymore that “Rome wasn’t built in one day”. Instead we’re ‘encouraged’ to succeed in other ways. This encouragement has led to an ability of summing up demotivation phrases alphabetically: “job center”, “no Phd equals no job, no food, no roof”, “unpaid internship”. I’m expected to build Rome in half a day – and the tools needed are BA’s, MA’s, Phd’s, internships and mountains of patience. This theoretical burden results in a fear of facing the world. Rolling out of bed doesn’t happen per automatic. It becomes an accomplishment. Sure, we have goals, we have dreams – but the route towards reaching those has vanished. Someone has set up signs, though; signs that read “Route closed until further notice due to recession”. There’s a shortcut, though. Just join the army. Problem solved.

I know what you must think. Between the colonels’ pre-constructed answers to military questions and the pacifistic activists’ protests and the Tories’ claim that the army transforms young, hopeless criminals into educated heroes, it appears that our invitation to join got lost in the post. Especially women’s, seeing that only an average of 8-9% join.

The military personnel do help out potential soldiers, especially those who live near, say, Hounslow. The Tories are supportive of returning soldiers, but mostly of the ones who aren’t – the Poppies serve as an example. The activists sense a slight indication that you aren’t one of them, and goggle until you’re left with no other choice but assuming you’ve transformed into an alien. You see, I had no choice – I had to commence a researching mission myself. I didn’t want to miss out – what if the army was my call?

I went online typing army.mod.uk. I’m a pacifist. So, imagine my surprise, when after having browsed through their website for no more than a couple of minutes, I was tempted. Tempted by the happiness the soldiers‘ exited faces portrayed, by the sense of community, by the privileges and by the success. Mostly, I was tempted by the welcome. I was needed, wanted. I was invited to “Be part of it”. No job centers, no benefits, no CVs. Just come in for a talk and fill in an application. If the Internet didn’t exist, they could just re-print Lord Kitchener’s poster from 1914.

I persisted on being skeptical. Their commercial content could be deceiving. I couldn’t make that judgement based solely on observation. Surely, the photographs of battlefields, helicopters, machines and tanks had a luring appearance, but did they contain little substance or reflect reality? How can people, who’ve never been to war, know?

I thought I could know, because of my background, because of my acquaintances. But that was a long time ago. Things might have changed since. I longed for a personal interaction with a soldier from the present. So, I visited the Territorial Army Unit on City Road. There, against all expectations, the sensation of belonging was intensified. After having spent no more than five minutes explaining two very polite sergeants about my mission, one of them just smiled, confidently shook my hand and said: “Kate, you should join us.” Yes. Yes, well, maybe I should.

Visiting the army website and the TA never satisfied my curiosity. If I was going to fill out an application, I needed to hear a soldier’s point of view. One who wouldn’t advertise. Søren Morgils, a 23-year-old Dane, deployed between July 2010 and February 2011, agreed to share his experiences with me.

One of the first things I discovered was that for him, being a soldier was something he had been dreaming of since he was little. Even though he back then didn’t understand what it meant. After high school he signed up for 8 months of military service, which he saw as a test to see whether or not the army was for him. More than anything else, the comradeship and the adventure tempted him into applying for HRU; a Danish education which specifically prepares one for deployment. The application process includes lectures on life as a professional soldier, on places in the combat zone, and practical information. Furthermore, it’s required to attend courses on i.e. shooting and first aid. Knowing that his parents would be against, he waited to tell them until he got accepted. Even with their disapproval, he felt he had no other choice than to follow his dream. The education was intense as you’re only given 8 months to prepare for war. Whilst undergoing the training Søren was constantly doubting whether or not to go to Afghanistan. He hadn’t reached his final decision until he found himself standing at the airport.

Once in Afghanistan, the Danish soldiers were under British command. Søren and his company were sent to Petrol Base Line, where they lived for 6 months. It was part of four bases that served as a wall to stop the Taliban from entering Gereskh City. Most of the time was spent standing guard or building the base, so it was easier to protect (aka filling sandbags).

Parts of Søren’s story were similar to what I found in blogs written by soldiers, colonels, officers and sergeants. They seem bored. Day in and day out they wait – wait for something to happen or to go home. They write about how much they miss their families, their friends, decent food, luxury and a peaceful state of mind. They’re counting the days till they go home and then they’re counting the days till they go back. Some never learn to live under “normal” circumstances again.

“Needless to say, the experience was both bad and good. Several times I wanted to leave, but couldn’t because of my mates. Now that I’m home, I don’t ever want to return, even when I miss it. I’ve had enough of my dream.” Søren is now studying to become a policeman.

I had to jump through hoops to get this story. I wish that I were able to confirm my initial hypothesis simply by entering army.mod.uk. Dull everyday life in Afghanistan resembles dull everyday life in England. There’s a reason why the army is packed with people from lower social classes, and why doctors and teachers don’t join. I deduct that my chances are better off working in Poundland than risking becoming a war veteran.

After finishing my research, I took a few aspirins. I picked up the advice slip and read about the side effects: bronchospasm, gastrointestinal bleeding, vomiting, bruising, indigestion, etc. Unless I was allergic or overdosing, the pills weren’t fatal. Why isn’t the same technique used in recruitment? List all the side effects, throw in some gory pictures like they do on our cigarette packs, and then if the “consumer” still feels like taking the pill, the smoke or the job placement, they can honestly state that the decision was an informative one.

“Stomachache? Migraine? Suffer no more, Paracetamol is here! Terms and conditions apply”.

“Unemployed? Want to travel and earn money? Join the army! Terms and conditions apply”.

In the first five years since the invasion in 2001 four British soldiers died in Afghanistan. In the following five the number had risen to 343 deaths. The price on anti-terror has gone up, and we care more about the price of petrol. After all, freedom is priceless. Someone ought to write an autobiographical sequel to George Orwell’s “1984”. Aren’t we already living by the infamous slogan: “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”?

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