It’s the month when everyone is promising to clear your skin, realign your chakras and resolve your childhood trauma. New year resolutions are big business and no brand is going to miss the opportunity to cash in on our winter malaise.
But perhaps the most unexpected of these nudges is from the British army, which on 2 January launched a recruitment campaign, #ArmyConfidence. The campaign, pitched at young people, presents joining the army as a personal rebellion against our vapid, consumer-obsessed society: the army, it claims, is the “one place” you can find confidence that lasts a lifetime.
In the main advert, laden with the dramatic atmospherics of a Call of Duty sequence, a soldier walks through an arid mountain landscape where he is taunted by ciphers representing aspects of civilian life: bodybuilding, brand-name trainers, social media and recreational drug and alcohol use on a night out. All these superficial trappings, it insinuates, are short-term fixes for a fulfilling life.
The casting relies on crass and crude cultural shorthands – the ad features an inebriated Scottish man, a black man in a Mr Motivator-style outfit and a person of east Asian origin seemingly selling pirated shoes. The advertising agency responsible, Karmarama, is said to have responded to a 2018 report by the Prince’s Trust that found that 54% of 16- to 25-year-olds believed that they were held back by a lack of self-confidence. But I struggle to see how mocking others’ lifestyles, and arguing that the military is the only viable alternative, serves young people’s interests.
We know that the military targets young working-class people with limited opportunities, as the human rights organisation Child Soldiers International puts it. These people, and especially those living in former industrial towns, face limited employment prospects. They live precarious lives working short-term contracts, in warehouses and call centres, with few rights or protections, and they are locked out of homeownership, leaving them vulnerable to rogue landlords. It is all of this that underwrites low self-esteem, not the light relief provided by the gym, the pub or social media.
These conditions are the result of free-market economic policy, which in the UK has meant deindustrialisation, the eroding of workers’ protections, and the inflating of the value of assets such as housing. In other words, the army, which the right uses as one of its cultural touchstones, is being sold as an ointment to help soothe the wounds inflicted by the right’s very own economic agenda. What’s more, it is the persistent individualism of this free-market culture that goads us into believing that the only route to happiness is through self-improvement by changing our consumption habits or improving our bodies.
If we suppose that the army’s one valid claim on confidence is that it provides stable and fulfilling work, then even this doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. Just under 15,000 people left the army in the 12 months prior to August 2019, almost 10% more than the number of people it was able to recruit in the same period. Speaking to the BBC recently, a representative of the organisation Forgotten Veterans said the shortfall was being created by parents advising their children away from the military because of reports of veterans suffering from extreme mental distress and homelessness. In early 2019, Theresa May even commissioned an investigation into the exodus. According to a recent BBC report, young people who enter the army are finding themselves with little to do and insufficient pay. Hardly a recipe for a fulfilling and stable life.
What does it say about our society that the army – an arm of the state – is exploiting a generation’s insecurity for its own recruitment purposes? We face a mental health crisis exacerbated by the material realities of poverty, homelessness and precarious work. We must not send young people into a life of military service, which, at worst, can lead to death, trauma and the perpetration of violence against others, in the name of a dubious and cynical appeal to self-confidence.
• Nathalie Olah is the author of Steal As Much As You Can
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