It’s time that the concept of militarisation is held up to scrutiny

A country’s choice to have official military forces and the impact which this can have on society is rarely questioned.
Photo: Defence Images/CC BY-NC 2.0/ Flickr

Campaigning for disarmament so far has focused on nuclear weapons, with President Trump and Kim Jong-un’s recent public threats of war reigniting the public interest in the issue.

But while just nine countries in the world have nuclear weapons, the majority of the world’s countries have military forces, and this is not often challenged.  Just over twenty countries don’t have official military forces or no standing army but limited military.  Included in these countries are Costa Rica, Panama and Iceland,  who have all opted out of official military forces.

Arguments for not having a military can range from economic factors (The United States’ military spending for example amassed to 4.35% of its GDP in 2012) to the moral implications of having a military when the country is theoretically pro-peace or even neutral (as Switzerland is, with mandatory military service yet an overall status of neutrality as a country). However, the effects of having a military on the socioeconomic development of generation after generation of youth are rarely discussed.

What percentage of the world has military training?

Globally, over sixty countries have some form of compulsory military service which equals over 30% of the world’s countries providing military training to their youth.

With more evidence coming forward on the negative impacts of combat and training in the military, it is possible that having a military service could be creating a socio-economic deficit for generations to come.

Effects of combat

The traumatising experience of going to war and the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have long been known. PTSD can leave the ex-service members with physical and mental health problems, difficulties in social or family life and occupational instability.

Analysis of the British Armed Forces Compensation Scheme statistics by The Independent newspaper showed that when comparing 2009-2010 with 2015-2016, the annual number of mental disorder pay-outs had increased by 379 percent, reaching the highest total on record so far for the scheme.

Recently, reports indicated that even if British service members did not see war, there was an effect of the training itself on the individual which rendered them less capable of living their post-military lives.

Effects of military training

A recent report by Veterans for Peace, a global organisation of military veterans and allies, finds that army employment in the UK had a negative impact on health and financial prospects of the former recruits. It revealed that “military training and culture alter recruits’ attitudes under conditions of sustained stress”, “even before they are sent to war”. This later leads to harmful effects such as physical and mental health problems, “heavy drinking, violent behaviour, and unemployment after discharge”. These impacts will make it harder for these former recruits to achieve their full socio-economic potential and contribute meaningfully to their society.

A personal account of British military training

Young veteran Wayne Sharrocks began his career with the British military at age 17 and after seven years and two deployments to Afghanistan, left the military and told Veterans for Peace that he “struggled to adapt to civilian life and suffered from mental health issues such as depression,” however he asserts that “it was not to combat trauma that led to any of my mental health issues. It was the training itself”. He describes the military training as a reprogramming of the brain’s natural way of thinking to be “conditioned with militaristic attributes and the ability to release (controlled) aggression when ordered and ultimately to remove your natural aversion to kill”.

“it was not to combat trauma that led to any of my mental health issues. It was the training itself”

He describes the military training as a reprogramming of the brain’s natural way of thinking to be “conditioned with militaristic attributes and the ability to release (controlled) aggression when ordered and ultimately to remove your natural aversion to kill”.

This is done through teaching following orders without question, breeding loyalty to the unit, the removal of the aversion to killing and changes the body’s natural flight or fight mechanism to continue towards danger. Sharrocks said that he couldn’t just “switch off” his army training when he left and believes the army training to be “massively damaging” to young minds.

The socioeconomic deficit

The socioeconomic potential of former recruits is damaged through their early army employment at a young age, lower standards of education and job skills which do not translate into the average job market, mental and physical health problems which originate even in basic training and as a result, have more chance of being unemployed and homeless in their later years or at the very least, struggling to adapt to a civilian life.

In 2014, the Royal British Legion found that working-age veterans were nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as their equivalents in the UK general population. A British newspaper investigation in 2013 found that one in ten rough sleepers across the UK had a military background. Sociology professor Meredith Kleykamp was quoted to have said that higher unemployment rates amongst military personnel returning to civilian life could be attributed to the fact that “the kinds of experience they may have attained may not be the kind of experiences that translate into the work world.”


Child Soldier International has spoken out against military recruitment in the UK, saying “Adolescent boys with few economic and social opportunities are seen as easy recruits and are actively targeted by its advertising campaigns,”. The British armed forces are exempt from the requirements of the Education and Skills Act 2008, meaning 16/17-year-old recruits receive significantly lower standards and fewer hours of education than the legal minimum.

In a study led by Robert Ursano from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress in the US, it was found that US army recruits with the least education were twice as likely as other recruits to attempt suicide. The study also indicated that the stresses on recruits during basic training are greater even than in war. Between 2004 and 2009, the rate of attempted suicide peaked in the second month of army basic training, after which it fell away but remained elevated. The UK’s national equality body, The Equality and Human Rights Commission, identified that British workers suffering from mental health problems such as depression and panic attacks earnt up to 42% less than their counterparts with no mental health issues.

“Adolescent boys with few economic and social opportunities are seen as easy recruits and are actively targeted by its advertising campaigns”

The UK’s 10 million-strong armed forces community is not a small percentage in a country of around 66 million people. A report in 2013 found that 30% of British infantry soldiers who left the army within four years were still not in work or education 18 months later. This represents a loss of potential economic contribution to society which these former soldiers could have made. Not forgetting the additional economic burdens on an already overstretched national health service, given that depression costs Britain over £8 billion a year already and drug abuse costs society over £18 billion a year, both common symptoms of PTSD.

Unanswered questions

As with all statistics, the individual differences of each case cannot be ignored. However, there is more evidence coming forward now that it is not just the experience of active combat which leads to the veteran populations not reaching their full socio-economic potential but even the training itself.

Isobel Edwards

Isobel has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and a master’s degree in Emerging Economies and Inclusive Development with a focus on gender from King’s College London. She has worked in various areas of international development including cooperation and development for the EU in China, peacebuilding and statebuilding for the OECD and in environmental affairs for the UN, both in Paris. She now works in Geneva mainly on UN affairs relating to peacebuilding and the prevention of violent conflict, the human impacts of climate change and food and sustainability.
    One Comment
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    Jeremy edwards
    11 October 2017 at 2:24 pm
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    Excellent, thought-provoking article.

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