This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Number of times I was held tits-first on a bed and hit in turn by a series of junior soldiers armed only with long green socks and bars of soap: zero
Number of times I was shot to death with bullets from a gun for being insubordinate by bringing my at-best-unbearable brand of civilian humour onto the base and doing it right in front of a Corporal: zero
Number of times myself and the photographer Chris got kidnapped and waterboarded until we cried or wet ourselves or gave up classified information we didn't know we held until we spilled it: zero
Number of times I got told explicitly that I couldn't sit on a cannon for a really banter photo where it looked like my penis was a cannon and cannon-sized, that I had a cannon-sized penis: one
So obviously the army was disappointing.
We are in Harrogate, specifically the Army Foundation College, Harrogate, home to anywhere between one- and one-and-a-half thousand Junior Soldiers, the technical term for kids who fall somewhere between the 16 years old they have to be to be kicked out of the school system with a couple of GCSEs to their name and the 18 years old they have to be to join the army proper. These are the wilderness teens, ferried here with ironing boards and rucksacks full of the clothing from their old life, and given short practical haircuts and dreary-looking canteen food woken up at 5.55AM a lot until they fully embrace the new. There are two intakes a year, March and September. There are two courses available, six-month and 12-month. The method takes longer but the results are still the same: to forge in the oven of discipline a group of young people who are really good at polishing boots and don't mind getting shot in them in the name of the Queen.
You probably already have an idea about whether you think that this system is A Good Thing or A Bad Thing.
The main thing I am concerned with, though, is that I have forgotten what it is like to be 17, and now I am in a room full of camouflaged 17-year-olds, and they are staring at me. At 17 you spend a year looking so wonky that surely doctors should have to get involved, surely, bones don't grow like that, surely. At 17 you give up precious forehead space and sacrifice it to the gods of skin oil and texture and hope that in 12 months' time, when they hand it back to you, those gods have been kind. You giggle maniacally at adult people saying adult words because you only understand a language of whispered half-jokes told under the breaths of fellow 17-year-olds. You think Pot Noodles are food. You are pink and you are raw and you are not sure if you're a grown up yet or still a kid. You never know whether to cry or whether to scream.
These 17-year-olds are dealing with all that within the tight loud confines of the army, an institution that teaches them marching, and boot polishing, and rifle skills, and GCSE-level maths, IT and English, and how to read maps, and how to injure an opponent in unarmed combat, and how to inflate your trousers up as a buoyancy aid if you shoot from the burning wreckage of a plane into water in the cool wet cold of the night into the depths of the sea, and also basic nutrition. These are 17-year-olds with a purpose. These are 17-year-olds with £1,000+ of disposable army income each month. These are 17-year-olds who could kill me and then run a mile about it in full kit. They are all of them really mad about soup.
The Soup Incident is on the tip of everyone's tongue for two reasons: the first is that a boy in their platoon (Waterloo Company) was busted this morning for eating a forbidden tomato and basil soup for breakfast while out on an exercise when he should have been eating rations, and the whole troop has been punished as a result of it (this, a rookie soup error, is viewed with groans and eye rolls by the assembled soldiers in front of me: after drafting in March, they are just over halfway through their training, and are completely over arbitrary punishments such as this). The second reason is that food is incredibly important to Junior Soldiers, who have otherwise been extremely reticent to talk to me – a wavy-haired journalist incapable of saluting – only exploding1 into hurried, excited chatting when I ask them about the on-site canteen.
"It's all [gurgled wretching sound]," one girl, a Scottish girl, says. It's hard to know which one of them said it because the army aims to make everyone more-or-less the same and they all introduced themselves only by their surnames anyway, which just confused me. The transcript, as you can imagine, is a shitshow.
"In the Scoff House, it's not nice," another girl says (the army have Army Words for everything: the non-army world, for instance, is called 'Civvy Street'. 'Scoff House' means 'Eating Shack'). "I don't think anyone likes it, really. Like: you'll have good days. Friday's are fish and chip Fridays. So that's a good day. We love Fridays."
So is it kind of like school with a canteen?
"No," Girl #2 says. "It's worse."
The school analogy comes up a lot, mainly because they all still look like schoolkids – despite being weapons-trained and physically agile there are still a lot of Junior Soldiers milling around who you feel you could duff up against a chain link fence and do them out of their lunch money – but also because the Training Camp is a legitimate alternate option to a school system many of the recruits here felt out-of-place at. The 17-year-olds remind me of a time when I was teenaged and wonky, and sort of floated into doing A-Levels and then university because it was the only real path presented to me, a natural progression, and I was academically competent enough to follow it – a lot of you will be in the same boat. But Department of Education figures put the number of kids leaving compulsory schooling in England without at least five GCSEs at A* to C at 39.7 percent; an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study found that more and more young people are leaving school classed as 'low skilled', meaning they struggle to get and hold down a job: an estimated 8% of 16- to 18-year-olds in the UK are NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training). Essentially, after compulsory education, the paths slowly dwindle to nothing. It's hard to find exactly how many 16-year-olds leave school actively dissatisfied with the previous 11 years of education (I can't find a study where anyone has ever asked them), but it's clear the one-size-fits-all approach to teaching in the UK doesn't actually fit all, and a lot of kids end up slipping through the cracks. And a lot of those kids find themselves at the Army Foundation College, breathing great huge sighs of relief to find a system geared up to accommodate them.
Anyway lets go and hold some guns:
The army is currently on a big PR push, very 'it's not just killing, you know!', reflected in everything from the Channel 5 show set at the college (Real Recruits: Squaddies at 16, which is basically Educating Essex with guns, and who, full disclosure, sent us here today) to the fact that you can sign up and receive a £10,000 golden handshake for being an army musician (are you good at drumming? Have you ever wanted to see the inside of a head? JOIN THE ARMY). Soldiers still need to know how to fire guns, though, so we are ushered past a load of doors with 'DANGER: RADIATION' stickers on them into the Indoor Range where Junior Soldiers train to fire. The tech on display here is incredible – real rifles, stripped and repurposed with parts that feed into a CO2 gas system to give the appropriate kickback, then loaded with sensors that give information on everything from how hard soldiers are pushing the weapon back into their shoulder for support to how softly they are squeezing the trigger. The advantage to this essentially building-sized Xbox is it is cheaper to train soldiers how to accurately fire – they don't have to burn through expensive ammunition, they can practice on moving, reactive digital targets, and they can do so indoors when Harrogate weather makes a day on the range a less-than-ideal prospect. Also, I don't know about you, but handing actual rifles to 16- and 17-year-olds is a prospect that fills me with dread.
No country in Europe trains soldiers from as young an age as we do in the UK, and that comes in for its own criticism. Three years ago, Child Soldiers International and ForcesWatch combined to claim that the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) thing for training soldiers from ages 16 to 18 was an outmoded practice that wasted taxpayers' money (it costs an estimated £88,985 to train a junior soldier, compared to £42,818 for adult recruits) and resulted in a higher drop-out rate (36.6 percent for minors2 vs. 28.3 percent for adults) for trainees. The MoD responded by stating that those who completed under-18s training served for an average of 10 years (vs. seven-and-a-half for adult recruits) and that the figures "ignored the benefits" training has on the young people accepted, but it's still an issue that divides the army and critics alike. Looking around Harrogate Foundation College, though, and you can sort of see the MoD's point.
First up, we visit the swimming pool, which is as massive as it can be without the Olympics getting involved and is basically every swimming pool you've ever been to apart from it has a rack of 'water guns', a weighted rifle synthesis used in training exercises, and a board marked 'COMBAT SWIMMING'. The site's swimming instructors are all from Civvy Street – many of the college's teachers are chosen because they are not trained to either shout or kill, making them more approachable to the Junior Soldiers looking to learn from them – and no recruit leaves without bringing their swimming up to the above-average standard the Army expects. "A lot of kids come here and can't swim at all," Captain Holt, our guide, explains. "When they leave here they can do widths, lengths, and dive off the board." This is a recurring theme in Harrogate: taking kids with little-to-no skills in the basics and dragging them up and beyond the level of most 16-year-olds: swimming lessons soon intensify so recruits learn to inflate their trousers up like a buoy, make a raft, and swim in pitch blackness.
We move through the gym, which is massive. Massive. There are, like, six squash courts. That is an unnecessary number of squash courts. Fitness is, obviously, an important aspect of soldier life, and sport is viewed here as something close to holy. "If someone turns up with a passion for a sport – any sport – we'll do our best to accommodate it," Holt says. That's why there are indoor and outdoor football pitches, a huge hockey pitch, multiple immaculate tennis courts, an expansive gym with an eerie mural of Dame Kelly Holmes (former soldier, former Olympian) glaring intensely over it like some sort of brutal dictator obsessed with hurdling, and an enormous sports hall. "Even darts?" I ask. No. Not darts.
Back in the room of 17-year-olds, I was trying to figure out why any of them were here when one girl said, "Fitness: I like doing fitness." It didn't make sense until I saw the facilities proper, which were something akin to an adult playground: fitness – or, at least, the opportunity to tear around outside actually doing something, instead of being confined to a dull back-home menial job or some in-an-office-until-you-die deskbound thing – is a big motivator in a lot of 16- and 17-year-olds joining the army. Actually, I made a quick list: you can roughly split recruits wanting to be here into five reasons:
— Their uncle was in the army and now they want to be in the army;
— They always just wanted to be in the army, an uncle was not important;
— Want to make mum dad proud w/ a career;
— It was either this or be one of those sort of aimless kids who sets off fireworks outside a provincial branch of Londis a lot and gets into trouble and general shithousery, known by the local police on first-name terms;
— They tried civilian life – college, maybe, or a job cleaning, or for some reason there are a lot of former beauticians here – and it just Didn't Work, and that restlessness with it pushed them into the loving open arms of the Armed Forces;
There were zero instances of the motivations I most expected to see most of, which was:
In fact, to say they all wake up at 5.30AM a lot to the sound of a man screaming, the Junior Soldiers I spoke to were all remarkably well-adjusted. A young Welsh recruit, Shaw, freaks me right out by speaking in an offhand way about his career plans eight or 10 years down the line – "My local regiment is actually right next to me in south Wales, so I'm hoping to get into that when I'm 20 or something, 25" – and the rest of the Junior Soldiers are similar calm about their long-term career prospects in the Army. And their attitudes to their friends back home – after six weeks, the JSs are let off-base for a week to taste the old life they used to have, and most of them come back grumbling about how immature and work-shy the kids they used to knock about with turned in the six weeks they were away. The army teaches them to be grown up in a way that I can barely comprehend: these kids know what they want to be doing at 25, and have planned for it. I don't even know what I want to be doing at 25, and I was 25 four years ago.
It's not just a career, though, because obviously not every career involves jumping out of the way of live grenades, so we start a tour of the Army's coping facilities after crossing the parade square (some things are very important in the Army that are not important in real life: parades, berets and neat wardrobes are amongst them). Harrogate is a multi-faith college, and has an on-site chapel with its own padre and prayer rooms to facilitate every god. There are Sunday services and camouflaged Bibles, but the chapel acts as more than just a place to pray: a remembrance garden gives the JSs a place to reflect, battle-centric history lessons are given out in one of the chapel's many rooms, and there are places to have a quiet cup of tea and a biscuit (cups of tea and biscuits are also very important in the army) if any of the kids are feeling under pressure.
Junior Soldiers average 12-hour days – a combination of practical lessons, theory lessons, fitness training and English, maths and IT – and after that they are allowed to change into non-tactical clothing and unwind at one of two places: Welfare, essentially a youth club where everyone is double-hard and is staffed 24/7 by counsellors there to listen to every problem the Junior Soldiers might have; or Sandes, a quasi-religious on-site serviceman's café where all the soup-obsessed canteen-hating kids can buy food they actually like and where there are a lot of leaflets about god. Harrogate has a gun range and a focus on discipline, sure, but it also has a lot of on-site dogs, pool tables and sympathetic non-army adults there to offer help and support.
Everyone's worried I'm getting a bit too pro-army – I keep asking things like, "and if you're 29, can you still join?" and "what's the biggest gun you get to fire in the shortest amount of time?" and "what's the basic wage, again? Do you need writers?" – so we mooch around to watch well-drilled Junior Soldiers do an obstacle course and get bollocked for not having shaved properly, i.e. proper army. This is the most on-steroids PE lesson I've ever seen – kids in full kit have to crawl along the ground after an instructor yells "GRENADE!" as a warm up, before getting into the session proper, which sees them climbing up over sheer walls, and I'm not really here for it. The reality of war – intense physical activity – is too much for me, a fey glorified blogger.
A quick sweep around the sleeping quarters, and then we're out: Junior Soldiers sleep in 12-person dorms, which as you can imagine is banter central. After six weeks, JSs are given certain post-initial training privileges – they can see their family again, for instance, leave the camp unaccompanied, use their own bedding – and the boys take this opportunity to buy each other My Little Pony duvet sets that they neatly fold and arrange for inspection each day. We are shown how to fold T-shirts army-style – keeping a neat locker is essential, and a number of recruits keep a toothbrush, toothpaste and shaving set in their cupboard literally for show, their spares holstered under their bed – and ironing is a vital part of Army life, too. Ask the recruits what they spend their first pay packet on and it is normally "an iron", "clothes" and "McDonald's". They are normal 17-year-olds in most senses apart from really knowing how to do a trouser crease.
As we make our way out – past the BEWARE MARCHING TROOPS signage – in my head I am making the pretty obvious comparison between the university halls life I knew and the barrack life I've just seen. Both are throw-you-in-at-the-deep-end experiences where you are forced to bond with people of a similar age and attitude who you either love or detest. Both put a lot of focus on playing pool and buying junk food from subsidised cafes. Both put you on this weird path to adulthood at a crucial point in the arc of it, setting you up as the person you are going to eventually be. I mean there are differences, obviously – I never learned how to crawl under barbed wire, Junior Soldiers don't know both the joy and horror of a £2 pint of snakebite – but there are similarities, too. When I went to university because it just felt like a logical conclusion to 13 cumulative years of education, Junior Soldiers are embarking on an Army life they see as a long-term career. When I was fucking about doing a temporary admin job because I "wanted to live in London", a lot of 21-year-old soldiers were already a few ranks up the ladder they wanted to climb.
Bloodlust aside, you can see the appeal for the people it appeals to. I assumed the army was terrible, but it would just be terrible for me: I'm soft-edged and too tall and in the field I would be shot to death by snipers within seconds, and I hate being shouted at and I cry really easily, and I like food that doesn't come vacuum-packed in a weird foil sachet that I have to cook myself over an impromptu fire. But some people love that, and thrive on it, and it makes them who they are, and the Foundation College is home to 1,500-odd very proud young soldiers as a result. It's weird: a whole world of swimming pools and berets and discipline and ironing boards, nestled at what looks like a school in the middle of our own.
The army is without its drawbacks, though. We're back on food again, and the canteen offerings that day.
"You think they're chicken nuggets and they're nice and all," says one girl, a thousand-yard army-hewn stare on her. "You're proper buzzing that it's chicken nuggets, then you go to eat them and it's… fish? Or it's actually vegetarian." War might have changed, but it's still hell.
1. In hindsight I realise this choice of word is borderline insensitive because, statistically, the 17-year-olds assembled in front of me today are far more likely than I am ever to explode↩
2. Harrogate didn't have exact drop-out rate figures available when I asked but anecdotally it's a bit lower than that – one or two dropouts per intake of 45, in general.↩
More stuff where we go places and do things: