‘This Is Belonging’: How the Army Stole Utopia

by Maddy Ridgley

1 February 2018

© Crown Copyright 2014 Photographer: Sgt Brian Gamble

The other day I picked up a copy of The Locker magazine in my local swimming pool. At first glance it resembled a trite instruction manual for enlightened modern living, advocating the spiritual perks of natural lake swimming and low-calorie fish cakes.

However, the publication is actually a rather sinister output from the British Armed Forces, offering a utopic vision of the army to aspirational readers. Published on behalf of the Army Recruitment Group and found lying casually around gyms, offices and job centres across the country, The Locker curates a fantasy life that many Brits strive for – a healthy body and mind, an affinity to the natural world and a simultaneous closeness to the people around you. And unsurprisingly it suggests joining the army is the best way to achieve this.

Part of a much larger recruitment campaign, promising a gratified life in the army, full of robust interpersonal connections set to a backdrop of sunsets and blue skies, the magazine’s approach has helped boost applications; The agency behind it boasts initial results “showing a dramatic, double-digit increase in completed applications year on year”.

A quick look at army personnel statistics show it is still in the midst of a recruitment crisis—actual sign ups are still down—but last year saw a 37.9% rise in number of applications to the join from the previous year.

The ads are the third set by Karmarama, a marketing agency who initiated the new approach to recruitment in 2016. Whilst previous campaigns promised skills, danger and excitement to potential recruits, Karmarama have deployed Instagram-style images of convivial soldiers to convey the unique sense of belonging one feels in the forces.

The campaign’s newest addition is a series of adverts released earlier this month under the title “This is Belonging 2018”. The slick TV ads offer scenic snapshots into the purportedly supportive and diverse community that soldiers populate. Complementing these short clips are longer animations in which sincere voices reassure viewers that the Army is warm and welcoming no matter your sexual orientation, religion or gender. One even targets emotionally repressed men, suggesting rather absurdly that the toxic masculinity that poisons civilian society has not permeated through the army’s barbed wire barricades.

As noted on the British Army’s website, “A sense of belonging may sound like a small thing. Yet it fuels you as much as food and water, because it doesn’t just feed your body, it feeds your mind and soul”. This language and imagery clearly diverges from the fierce, macho way the Army has traditionally presented itself. Yet while a fundamentally violent institution projecting ‘Peace, Love & Acid’ vibes may seem ludicrous, the boosted application figures show it is actually a smart move. The campaign acutely taps into very real and widespread feelings of isolation and dissatisfaction in the UK and, as necessary in effective advertising, claims to possess the solution to people’s discontents.

It is, perhaps, somewhat paradoxical that anti-capitalist and left-wing utopian literature provides the most coherent analysis of the absence of belonging in modern Britain’s body politic. George Monbiot, for example, has been pivotal in documenting how social atomisation and widespread loneliness are inevitable symptoms of neoliberal capitalism. Humans are an incredibly interdependent species; belonging to a community whereby people give us love, affection and nourishment is fundamental to our survival. Yet the economic system that orders our lives rewards individualism, competition and greed. It assumes that the world is full of sociopathic actors who must aggressively pursue their own interests to become ‘successful’. Those who offer the least empathy, demonstrate the most belligerence and possess the largest egos are very likely to reap the material rewards and social status that we are hardwired to desire. As is being incrementally uncovered within psychoanalysis, this incongruence between what we need and how we are forced to live has triggered an epidemic of mental illness in many capitalist societies.

Hannah Arendt also recognised that a sense of belonging within a community is imperative for the health of individuals and societies. She exalted the benefits of ‘participatory culture’, a system whereby members of the community have the power to make local decisions. Enabling people to meet and discuss policies that will shape the environment of their daily lives not only prevents solitude, but also provides people with a sense of significance, aka a sense of belonging, within their social group – a feeling Arendt noted was essential to ‘public happiness’.

At present, however, communities are rarely asked what provisions they need. When local groups do make demands, their voices are often muffled by shadowy corporations. Mostly, we are disassociated from the people around us. Social spaces are scarce and avenues for political participation are blocked. Desolately navigating polluted streets, we struggle to find a purpose in our day to day lives.

With such a sick system sculpting our daily existence, it is no wonder fantasies of escape are commonplace in the public imagination. Our angst may be drunk away on Friday night, or satiated by a weekly immersion into SAS: Who Dares Wins, The Island with Bear Grylls, or other macho ‘survival’ shows. Rather more dangerously, the British Armed Forces are presenting themselves as a refuge for the disenfranchised, exploiting public anxieties to attract new recruits.

Of course, these anxieties are concentrated in working class areas where exclusionary neoliberal policies have hit the hardest. Army recruiters know this full well. Earlier this year, Child Soldier’s International uncovered a briefing document for the 2017 ‘This is Belonging’ campaign detailing its primary audience: 16–24-year-old “C2DEs” (the vulgar marketing code used to classify the working class) with an up weight to cities in the north of England. The 2018 ads seem to target the same age and class groups, yet also accommodate the fact that social alienation can be exacerbated by structural homophobia, sexism and islamophobia.

While the British government has long relied on working class folk as ‘cannon fodder’, it is particularly sickening that the state is now latching on to the marginalisation and poverty it has created in order to fill its military ranks. It also carries extreme dangers. As intensively explored in a recent report by Veterans for Peace, the MOD channels young and socio-economically disadvantaged recruits into the infantry. Here, they face the most brutal and indoctrinating training methods, are most likely to be injured or killed, and encounter particularly high unemployment rates upon leaving. Opposed to the logic that the Armed Forces provide a ‘way out’ for working class kids, this report concludes that military training, culture and the exposure to violence is likely to exacerbate any existing mental health problems and merely prolongs socioeconomic disadvantage into later life.

Not only does the current recruitment campaign mask these dangers, its promise of escape from the shackles of neoliberalism is also highly deceptive. In fact, since the 1980s, the extent to which neoliberal logic has been applied to the British armed forces is globally significant. With private financing, cuts, and the outsourcing of services now commonplace in military organisation, being in the forces is predicated less on non-market values such as selflessness and loyalty and increasingly motivated by individual rewards. This transformation in the soldier’s identity, alongside the strain caused by cuts and outsourcing, is making service life less attractive – contributing to the crisis of retention and recruitment that the MOD is currently facing.

It may appear foolish of the PR team to launch a recruitment campaign with anti-capitalist sentiments to redress deficiencies caused by neoliberal practices. Yet in recent decades, capitalist elites have shown a remarkable capacity to reinvent, and save, the dominance of neoliberalism. While reactionary commentators fill up news columns with claims that the new recruitment adverts pander to the PC brigade, those on the Left must speak out about the perversity of the faux-enlightened campaign. We should be worried that feelings of marginalisation are being appropriated to bolster the coercive apparatus of the ruling class, thus facilitating a violent defence of neoliberal ideology and practices around the world. The British Armed Forces tears lives apart both at home and abroad. We must therefore be critical and defiant in the face of their deceptive recruitment tactics.

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