Scotland has a deeply embedded military culture stretching back to the inception of the British Empire. The minimum recruitment age for the British Army is 16, but campaigners argue indoctrination begins at a far younger age. Jay Sutherland, only 16 himself, organises the Scotland Against Militarism campaign…
What is Scotland Against Militarism about?
Militarism is quite a broad concept, but it involves the types of things we don’t see every day. It can mean coming in to schools and talking to young people about the military, but it could also be used to describe a wider culture. Militarism isn’t seen how we feel it should be seen. It’s not just the fact they’re attempting to recruit teenagers, but it’s also a class issue. Why do the military target working class areas like Govan so much, for example? We felt setting up a campaign was important because here’s not been one group dedicated to taking it on in Scotland. There’s work being done in England – Forces Watch and the Quakers being good examples – and we don’t want to be left behind. Opening up this debate has already been positive: the SNP have agreed in policy to raise the age of recruitment.
What inspired you to start the campaign?
There was a news item about the cadet expansion in Scottish schools earlier this year. I’d already formed a group in Ayrshire, but when we saw that we realised it was important to branch out nationally. On a personal level, I became politically involved after the independence referendum. I was particularly interested in debates around the military and became active within the anti-war movement. Although our campaign isn’t pro or anti-independence, I was very much inspired by that referendum’s debates on nuclear weapons and military culture. On a firsthand level, I’ve also had the army come to my school and witnessed a lot of kids just not questioning it or why they’re there.
Why do you think militarism is so harmful?
It’s partly because it involves young people going into roles they don’t yet fully understand. But the army coming into schools specifically also removes the ability for kids to question things and hold debates around war and pacifism etc. The military is a discipline-oriented organisation and by inviting them into schools you remove a key component of education, which is encouraging you to question the world around you. It closes your mind off.
What ages do the forces target?
Legally, they can’t recruit anyone until they’re 15 years and 7 months. Then, they can’t officially join until they’re 16 and can’t serve operationally until 18. Either way, it’s far too young. The army claim they don’t go into schools to ‘recruit’, but the promotion of the military and the materials they use demonstrate they go in with a recruitment mindset. It’s very underhanded. If you’re promoting the army, that has the same effect as physical recruitment in my opinion. I’ve seen kids aged 11-12, so first year of secondary school, taught lessons by BAE Systems and arms dealers. It starts at a very young age – they instill the idea that this is somehow normal.
What action have you taken so far on the campaign?
We pushed the MOD into cancelling their Armed Forces Day in Glasgow and we’ve campaigned for certain statues to be removed etc. There’s not really been an organisation before us devoted to tackling this issue, but protesters have done things like climb the shipyard cranes with banners bearing anti-militarism slogans. We’re currently working with groups across the country to form a strong base of people who are against it.
What’s your opinion on cadets organisations, who many people see as quite innocuous but have a strong presence in schools?
They make these things out as ‘teambuilding exercises’ and ways to learn about organisation and discipline. But you don’t need a gun to learn about teambuilding. You don’t need to dress up in an army uniform or practice as soldiers or aim at targets with fake guns. That’s military training and nothing more. Instead, you can sit down with people and actually communicate ideas and learn about others’ opinions instead of simply accepting commands.
It can be quite forceful, too. We heard recently about a young private school girl in Glasgow who had her hands taped to a gun during cadets training. A lot of private schools have cadet units installed and the government have discussed expanding this into state schools.
How can people reading this get involved in campaigning against militarism?
Social media is a big part of our campaign (so shares and retweets on this article even help awareness). We do stalls, but often young people will walk past them without interacting. We’ve found online that little things like hijacking the army’s hashtags make a difference. We’re working with others across the anti-militarism movement to make a difference and have learned a lot from other school-based projects like the TIE campaign.
How can young people respond to any perceived indoctrination or school recruitment tactics?
We understand it’s harder for school pupils to organise than college students. The sensitive nature of schools mean it’s harder to be direct, whereas we can be in college and university. But I would say those concerned should get together with like-minded people and approach activists like myself. We’re looking to build up a database in future so we can better help people.