Countering the Militarisation of Youth


– A new area of work for War Resisters' International

In Europe, and to some degree on a global level, there are presently two trends which both contribute to an increase in the militarisation of youth. The first trend is the end (or, more exactly, the suspension) of conscription in most European countries since the 1990s. In 2011, Germany, one of the last major military and economic powers in Europe which still maintained conscription, suspended conscription. The second trend is one of an increasing “normalisation of war”. Since the war in the Balkans, but even more so since 9/11 and the announcement of the “war on terror”, the political use of military force has increased – war is no longer seen as a failure of politics, but as one of the tools of politics. This led to a radical restructuring of military forces, oriented towards mobility and military intervention. But it also brought with it new justifications for the use of military force: first “humanitarian intervention” (Yugoslavia, Somalia), then the “war on terror” (Afghanistan, Iraq) and the “responsibility to protect” (Libya). Both trends reinforce each other, and one outcome is the increased militarisation of youth from an early age on.

War Resisters' International's “Right to Refuse to Kill” programme focuses on military recruitment, conscientious objection to military service, and resistance by military personnel (be it conscientious objection, desertion, or going AWOL). It is therefore important that we respond to shifts in military recruitment – away from conscription and towards “voluntary” recruitment – and address the challenges this poses for an antimilitarist movement. Paradoxically, the end of forced recruitment through conscription leads, in some respects, to increased militarisation, as the military has to recruit personnel and has to justify its present and future wars. The militarisation of society – and especially of youth – is one prerequisite for military recruitment and war. Consequently, War Resisters' International is now broadening the scope of its work on the Right to Refuse to Kill to include work against the militarisation of youth, and our international study conference in Darmstadt, Germany, from 8-10 June 2012 will be an important milestone in developing this work.

The end of conscription?

The end of conscription has long been one of the objectives of War Resisters' International and other antimilitarist organisations, and rightly so. Shortly after WRI was founded, it launched a campaign and a manifesto against conscription in 1926. Now, almost 90 years later,few countries in Europe maintain conscription. After even Sweden (on 1 January 2011) and Germany (on 1 July 2011) suspended conscription, it is mainly some Scandinavian and Eastern European (former Soviet Union) countries, plus Austria, Switzerland, and Greece that still hang on to compulsory military service. But even in these countries there is a move towards professional military units based on “volunteers” for the more “serious” tasks: military interventions abroad.

So, have we won then? Yes and no. Yes, because it has become increasingly difficult for governments and the military to justify conscription. In many countries that abolished conscription, public opinion had turned against it long before it was abolished. However, this was rarely based on antimilitarism, but rather on the infringement on personal freedom caused by conscription, and an unwillingness to personally be part of the military, rather than opposition to military action in itself. In fact, in most countries, it was the military that pushed for an end to conscription as part of a drive to professionalise the military. Conscription was seen rather as a burden than as an advantage, for a lean, mobile, and professional military, ready to engage in military operations all over the globe.

With the end of conscription, the Armed Forces face the challenge of recruitment. The presence of the Armed Forces in the public sphere – through advertising on TV, public billboards, magazines and newspapers, but also through use of public space for military parades and ceremonies – and especially the presence of Armed Forces in educational institutions – schools, colleges and universities – is crucial for the military to create a culture and environment favourable to recruitment.

The normalisation of war

Before the end of the Cold War, war was commonly seen as a failure of politics. However, this has changed in the last two decades. The wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia have been used to justify military intervention as “humanitarian interventions”. Following the genocide in Rwanda, the concept of the “responsibility to protect” [1] was developed, which amounts to little more than a thinly disguised justification for war.

In parallel, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), originally set up with the alleged purpose to defend the “democratic West” against the Soviet Bloc, refocused its attention to military operations “out-of-area”, which meant outside of the territory of the NATO member states. NATO's intervention in the wars in Yugoslavia – from Bosnia to the war against Serbia and “peacekeeping” in Kosovo – was the first step of the transformation of NATO. With the European Union following suit – and later taking over NATO's role in Bosnia – EU member states that were officially “non-aligned” (such as Ireland, Sweden, Finland, among others) were also dragged (or joined happily) into this militarisation.

The “war on terror” provided the backdrop for the next step in the normalisation of war. For the first time in history, NATO invoked article 5 of its treaty – a situation of collective defence – following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Today, NATO maintains military activity in a variety of places: among others in Afghanistan since 2003 with presently about 129,000 soldiers under NATO's command, in Kosovo since 1999 with today about 5,500 soldiers, in the Mediterranean sea since October 2001 as part of Operation Active Endeavour [2]. The NATO-led bombing of Libya last year “to protect civilians” was a new “highlight” in this normalisation of war.

While this development might not seem very dramatic from a US, British, or French perspective – countries that are somewhat used to conduct military interventions globally (in the case of France and Britain, with a focus on former or present colonies) – it has meant a very dramatic change for most European countries, which have not been involved in combat operations since the end of World War II. Today, all EU member states with the exception of Cyprus are involved in the war in Afghanistan, and many are involved in other “robust peacekeeping” operations, such as in Lebanon, Congo, Bosnia, etc.


The normalisation of war would not have been possible without massive militarisation of civilian society and space, especially in those countries not normally used to seeing “their boys” (and it's still mostly boys) killing and being killed abroad. The objectives of this process are two-fold: creating acceptance for war within society (supporting “our boys”), and creating a climate favourable to recruitment, with the aim to recruit sufficient numbers of soldiers to maintain the capability for military operations.

Militarisation of schools

For example, the UK Ministry of Defence youth policy states: “The MOD is engaged in curricular activities as a further way to reach out to Youth in support of the overall MOD Youth Policy. In particular it offers unique and subtle ways of enhancing understanding of the Armed Forces within wider society, particularly of the values, culture, traditions and ethos which are essential to maintaining military effectiveness. More directly, it offers opportunities to raise public awareness and empathy with the Armed Forces and finally, it is a further, powerful tool for facilitating recruitment especially if the skills developed through curricular activities have a direct bearing on military requirements.” (emphasis added) [3] This is also very clearly stated in the “Armed Forces Overarching Personnel Strategy”: “We will need, in particular, to increase efforts to explain the role and requirement for the Services to society as a whole and to sow the seeds for our future growth by establishing our links with parents, teachers, community leaders and other ‘gatekeepers’. We will want to consider our approach to schools, AFCOs (Armed Forces Career Offices) and public military events to enhance our recruiting outcomes.” [4]

It is therefore no surprise that in February 2007, the head of army recruitment strategy, Colonel David Allfrey, told The New Statesman: “Our new model is about raising awareness, and that takes a ten-year span. It starts with a seven-year-old boy seeing a parachutist at an air show and thinking, ‘That looks great.’ From then on the army is trying to build interest by drip, drip, drip.”

This is echoed in the approach of the German Bundeswehr. As Michael Schulze von Glaßer writes in The Broken Rifle No 88: “If young people can't be convinced to take up arms themselves, then at least they should be convinced of the need for military interventions: the military leadership and the government want to turn the Bundeswehr into an actor operating globally, and aim long-term for the creation of stable political support within the population. Therefore, they focus their agitation on (still easily persuadable) young people – tomorrow's voters. And (former) Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (CSU) knows where to find the young people: 'the school is the right place to reach young people.'

Instrumentalisation of veterans and Armed Forces Day

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been popular, and counter-measures had to be taken to shore up support for “our boys”. In Britain, these came partly in the form of a newly introduced “Armed Forces Day”, which began as “Veterans Day” in 2006, and is celebrated as “Armed Forces Day” since 2009, “to raise awareness and appreciation for those on active duty”, or, as the Ministry of Defence writes in a press release, “it allows the nation to show their support for the men and women who make up the Armed Forces community, from serving troops to Service families, veterans and cadets”. [5]

Remembrance (or Armistice) Day – originally introduced to remember the victims of World War I – is also increasingly turned into a propaganda event for war. In November 2010, several UK veterans wrote in an open letter: “A day that should be about peace and remembrance is turned into a month-long drum roll of support for current wars. This year's campaign has been launched with showbiz hype. The true horror and futility of war is forgotten and ignored. The public are being urged to wear a poppy in support of "our Heroes". There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle. There is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict.” [6]

These are only two examples where and how militarisation works. However, militarisation is a process that encompasses all aspects of our lives, and is difficult to avoid.

Countering the Militarisation of Youth

Luckily, this militarisation is not unchallenged. When War Resisters' International initially discussed how to respond to the challenge of changes in military recruitment, we were encouraged by the long and inspiring history of counter-recruitment work in the USA. However, it quickly became clear that recruitment itself is only the tip of the iceberg – it is only the potential end result of the ongoing 'drip, drip, drip' that Colonel David Allfrey referred to. Militarisation does not only lead to an environment favourable to recruitment, it is also needed to prepare and maintain the public support of the “home front” for war and the military. Countering this militarisation is therefore not only part of counter-recruitment work, but is the core of antimilitarism.

There are many inspiring examples of work to counter the militarisation of youth. Several schools in Germany have now declared themselves “military free”, denying the Bundeswehr access to the schools and not participating in events organised by the military. In the US, limiting recruiter access to high schools and universities has been one of the main “battlegrounds” between the military and the counter-recruitment movement.

But schools and universities are only one example. Queers are countering the military's outreach and recruitment attempts within the queer community, for example through participation in gay pride events, and NGOs are fighting the recruitment of under eighteens through lobbying at different levels.

The role of War Resisters' International as an international pacifist and antimilitarist network is mainly to foster debate, to facilitate the exchange of experiences, and to strengthen the networking of antimilitarists globally working against the militarisation of youth. The international study conference in Darmstadt in June is hopefully an inspiring first step.

Andreas Speck


[1] The Responsibility to Protect. Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 2001,, accessed 23 May 2012
[2] NATO: NATO operations and missions, Last updated: 29-Apr-2012 16:09,, accessed 23 May 2012
[3] Ministry of Defence: Strategy for Delivery of MOD Youth Initiatives, A paper by Directorate of Reserve Forces and Cadets, April 2005,…, accessed 23 May 2012
[4] Ministry of Defence: Armed Forces Overarching Personnel Strategy, July 2003,…, accessed 23 May 2012
[5] Ministry of Defence: Armed Forces Day preparations underway, 11 May 2012,…, accessed 23 May 2012
[6] The Guardian, 5 November 2010,…, accessed 23 May 2012

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