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The First Ambush?
Effects of army training and employment (70 pp.)

A report commissioned by Veterans For Peace UK.

This report draws on veterans’ testimony and around 200 studies from the last half-century to explore the effects of army employment on soldiers, particularly their initial training. The studies are mainly the work of military academic research departments in the UK and US, supplemented by research in other countries including Australia, Canada, Germany, and Norway.

The report finds that army employment has a forceful impact on soldiers’ attitudes, health, behaviour, and financial prospects. This is partly due to soldiers’ war experiences, but also to how they are recruited and trained, how they are conditioned by military culture, and how they re-adjust to civilian life afterwards.

Army recruitment and training

Army recruiters in the UK and US strategically target deprived neighbourhoods and children below enlistment age, presenting a sanitised picture of war, and romanticising the soldier’s role. The substantial risks, restrictions of liberty, and ethical challenges that follow enlistment are not mentioned in the marketing materials. It is British army policy to channel the youngest recruits and those from poorer backgrounds into the infantry, which uses the most coercive training methods, carries the greatest risks in war, and whose veterans face a particularly high rate of unemployment. [Refer to chapter 2 and figure 11]

To ensure that recruits will follow all orders and kill their opponents in war, army training indoctrinates unconditional obedience, stimulates aggression and antagonism, overpowers a healthy person’s inhibition to killing, and dehumanises the opponent in the recruit’s imagination. Recruits are taught that stressful situations are overcome through dominance, and that soldiers are superior to civilians. [Refer to sections 3.1-3.4]

To achieve these changes, army training isolates recruits from their civilian past, disorientates them, controls every aspect of daily life, keeps them under stress, and uses group punishments to enforce compliance and ‘weed out’ those who fall behind. Humiliation and violence are routine. According to US military officers, these methods make recruits more obedient, because ‘the intense workload and sleep restriction… leaves [recruits] little attention capacity for processing the messages they receive about new norms’.[1] [Refer to sections 3.1-3.4]

Many trainees leave or are dismissed. Around 35% of British infantry recruits are discharged during training, for example. Younger recruits from poorer backgrounds with limited education are more likely than other recruits to drop out. Those who stay tend to rate the army highly during training, but not afterwards: in 2016 job satisfaction among British trained soldiers stood at 44%. [Refer to sections 3.5-3.7]

Effects of army training and culture

The intensity of military training and culture affects soldiers even before they are sent to war. While more research is needed, the available evidence points to appreciable changes to the recruit population once they are enlisted: to personality (more antagonistic and conformist, and less emotional); to attitudes (more authoritarian and militaristic); to mental health (more anxious, depressed, and suicidal); and to behaviour (more likely to drink heavily and behave violently, including the sexual harassment of women by men). Traumatic war experiences typically reinforce these changes. [Refer to chapters 6, 7, and 8]

There appears to be no evidence to support the common assumption that military training speeds the transition to adulthood. Nor is there evidence that the military’s structured environment reduces violent behaviour, heavy drinking or substance abuse by recruits from deprived backgrounds. Research in the UK and US has found that military training and culture combine with pre-existing issues (such as a childhood history of anti-social behaviour) to increase the risk of these behaviours. Traumatic war experiences further exacerbate the problem. Violence and heavy drinking by veterans are serious public health problems. [Refer to chapters 6, 7, and 8]

Outcomes of army employment

Although the military has, in the past, functioned as a route out of poverty, research into the employment outcomes of veterans indicates that it no longer does so in the UK or US. Reduced military wages (relative to civilian pay), improvements in civilian education, and a high rate of early attrition, have devalued the army as a socioeconomic opportunity for people from poor backgrounds. While committed, career soldiers can fare well, these are the minority. In the UK, almost half of the army’s youngest recruits, having left full-time education early to enlist, leave within four years. They then face a high risk of unemployment and long-term disadvantage. An official 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. [Refer to chapter 8]

The army’s requirements for health and fitness, the camaraderie that many soldiers value, and the steady income, can help to buffer some of the impacts discussed here. Nonetheless, the health advantage that soldiers enjoy over civilians at the start of their career is lost in later life. Despite army trainees’ generally good health and fitness, veterans’ higher rates of drinking and smoking, common mental health problems, and physical injury, correspond with poorer general health in later life. [Refer to chapter 9]


In the process of transforming civilians into soldiers, army training and culture forcibly alter recruits’ attitudes under conditions of sustained stress, leading to harmful health effects even before they are sent to war. Among the consequences are elevated rates of mental health problems, heavy drinking, violent behaviour, and unemployment after discharge, as well as poorer general health in later life.

[1] (McGurk, Cotting, Britt, & Adler, 2006, pp. 22-23)

  • tarak kauff 04/07/2017, 13:59

    I can’t appreciate VFP UK enough for the work they do to expose the real costs of not only war itself, but militarism and military training in general. This synopsis is excellent and I am hoping that the VFP UK members who come to the U.S. for the convention n August bring copies of the booklet.

    • Ben Griffin 04/07/2017, 14:38

      Hi Tarak

      We will have copies available at our stall in Chicago.