Across the world, a large majority of recruits to state armed forces and non-state armed groups are male. The proportion of female personnel varies internationally; for example, it is approximately 3% in India, 10% in the UK, 13% in Sweden, 16% in the US, and 27% in South Africa.
While many states do not recruit women for ground close combat roles (i.e. roles which would require them to kill an opponent at close quarters), several have lifted this ban in recent years, including larger Western military powers such as France, the UK, and US.
Some states, including the UK, US and Canada have begun to recognise a right of transgender people to serve openly in their armed forces, although this development has met with political and cultural resistance.
State armed forces set minimum and maximum ages for recruitment. In practice, most military recruits are young adults; for example, in 2013 the average age of a United States Army soldier beginning initial training was 20.7 years.
Historically, the use of children for military purposes has been widespread—see Children in the military—but has been in decline in the 21st century. According to Child Soldiers International, as of 2017 approximately two-thirds of states worldwide had committed to restrict military recruitment to adults from age 18, and at least 60 non-state armed groups had signed agreements to stop or reduce the use of children for military purposes. The organization reported that the so-called Straight 18 standard – the restriction of all military employment to adults – had been emerging as a global norm since 2001.
However, Child Soldiers International also reported in 2018 that at least 46 states were recruiting personnel below the age of 18. Most of these states were recruiting from age 17, including Australia, China, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia and the United States (US); approximately 20 were recruiting from age 16, including Brazil, Canada, and the United Kingdom (UK).
Most states which recruit children under the age of 18 have undertaken not to deploy them routinely on military operations, having ratified the OPAC treaty. According to the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UNSG), in 2016 14 states were still recruiting and using children in active armed conflicts: Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The UNSG also reported that non-state armed groups were recruiting and using children in armed conflict in India, Pakistan, Palestine, Libya, Philippines and Thailand.
Cross-cultural studies suggest that, in general, children and young people are drawn to military employment for similar reasons: war, economic motivation, education, family and friends, politics, and identity and psychosocial factors.
The hope of escaping socio-economic deprivation is one of the main reasons that young people are attracted to military employment. For example, after the US suspended conscription in 1973, 'the military disproportionately attracted African American men, men from lower-status socioeconomic backgrounds, men who had been in nonacademic high school programs, and men whose high school grades tended to be low'. However, a 2020 study suggests that U.S. Armed Forces personnel's socio-economic status are at parity or slightly higher than the civilian population and that the most disadvantaged socio-economic groups are less likely to meet the requirements of the modern U.S. military. A study found to technological, tactical, operational and doctrinal changes have led to a change in the demand for personnel. As an indication of the socio-economic background of British Army personnel, in 2015 three-quarters of its youngest recruits had the literacy skills normally expected of an 11-year-old or younger, and 7% had a reading age of 5–7. The British Army's recruitment drive in 2017 targeted families with an average annual income of £10,000.
Recruitment for officers typically draws on upwardly-mobile young adults from age 18, and recruiters for these roles focus their resources on high-achieving schools and universities. (Canada is an exception, recruiting high-achieving children from age 16 for officer training.)
Outreach and marketing
The process of attracting children and young people to military employment begins in their early years. In Germany, Israel, Poland, the UK, the US, and elsewhere, the armed forces visit schools frequently, including primary schools, to encourage children to enlist once they become old enough to do so. For example, a poster used by the German armed forces in schools reads: "After school you have the world at your feet, make it safer." ["Nach der Schule liegt dir die Welt zu Füßen, mach sie sicherer."] In the US, recruiters have right of access to all schools and to the contact details of students, and are encouraged to embed themselves into the school community. A former head of recruitment for the British Army, Colonel (latterly Brigadier) David Allfrey, explained the British approach in 2007:
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 the army is trying to build interest by drip, drip, drip.
Many states operate military schools, cadet forces, and other military youth organisations. For example, Russia operates a system of military schools for children from age 10, where combat skills and weapons training are taught as part of the curriculum. The UK is one of many states that subsidise participation in cadet forces, where children from age 12 play out a stylised representation of military employment.
Armed forces commission recruitment advertising across a wide range of media, including television, radio, cinema, online including social media, the press, billboards, brochures and leaflets, and through merchandising.
Recruitment marketing seeks to appeal to potential recruits in the following ways:
Traditionally masculine associations. Historically and today, recruitment materials frequently associate military life with that of a traditionally masculinewarrior, which is officially encouraged as a martial ideal. For example, Cold WarUS Armyslogans included "Join the army, Be a man" and "The army will make a man out of you"; in 2007 a new slogan was introduced: "There’s strong. Then there’s army strong". Similarly, recruiters describe the Israeli infantryman as "discovering all your strengths"; the Russian is "beyond fear"; and the British is "harder, faster, fitter, stronger".
Teamwork and belonging. Some armed forces appeal to potential recruits with the promise of teamwork and camaraderie. An example is the British Army, which introduced the slogan "This is belonging" in 2017.
Patriotic service. Some armed forces present military life as a patriotic service. For example, the slogan for the German Bundeswehr is "We. Serve. Germany." ["Wir. Dienen. Deutschland."], and an advertisement for the Israeli Defense Forces encourages potential recruits to "Above all, fight [kravi] for your country, because there is no place better than Israel."
Challenge and adventure. Military life is promised to be exciting, including world travel and adventurous training. In 2015, the British Army presentation to schools included prominent images of scuba diving and snowboarding, for example.
Education and skills. The armed forces are often presented as a means to learn new skills. For example, the Swedish armed forces encourage potential recruits with the promise of "education that leads to a job where you can make a difference".
Typically, candidates for military employment apply online or at a recruitment centre.
Depending on whether the application criteria are met, and depending also on which military units have vacancies for new recruits, candidates may or may not be offered a job in a certain role or roles. Candidates who accept a job offer then wait for their recruit training to begin. Either at or before the start of their training, candidates swear or affirm an oath of allegiance and/or sign their joining papers.
The period between the initial application to swearing the oath may be several weeks or months. During this time many candidates drop out. For example, in 2017 about 1 in 20 applicants to the British Army were eventually enlisted.
Most state armed forces that enlist minors (persons under the age of 18) are required by law to obtain the informed consent of one or both parents or legal guardians before their child's enlistment can take place. In practice, consent is indicated on a form, which parents/guardians sign.
Once enlistment has taken place, recruits are subject to military terms of service and begin their initial training.
Terms of service
Recruits enter a binding contract of service, which for full-time personnel typically requires a minimum period of service of several years, with the exception of a short discharge window, near the beginning of their service, allowing them to leave the armed force as of right. Part-time military employment, known as reserve service, allows a recruit to maintain a civilian job while training under military discipline for a minimum number of days per year. After leaving the armed forces, for a fixed period (between four and six years is normal in the UK and US, for example), former recruits may remain liable for compulsory return to full-time military employment in order to train or deploy on operations.
From the point of their enlistment/commissioning, personnel become subject to military law, which introduces offences not recognised by civilian courts, such as disobedience. Penalties range from a summary reprimand to imprisonment for several years following a court martial.
Personnel may be posted to bases in their home country or overseas, according to operational need, and may be deployed from those bases on exercises or operations anywhere in the world.
Perks of military service typically include adventurous training; subsidised accommodation, meals and travel; and a pension. Some armed forces also subsidise recruits' education before, during and/or after military service, subject to conditions such as an obligatory minimum period of formal military employment; examples are the St Jean military college in Canada, the Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College in the UK, and the GI Bill arrangements in the US.
Counter-recruitment refers to activity opposing military recruitment, or aspects of it. Among its forms are political advocacy, consciousness-raising, and direct action. The rationale for counter-recruitment activity may be based on any of the following reasons:
Evidence that military training and employment lead to higher rates of mental health and behavioural problems than are usually found in civilian life, particularly after personnel have left the armed forces.
The fact that some armed forces rely on children aged 16 or 17 to fill their ranks, and evidence that these youngest recruits are most likely to be adversely affected by the demands and risks of military life.
Armed forces spokespeople have defended the status quo by recourse to the following:
The opinion that military organizations provide a valuable public service.
The opinion that duty of care policies protect recruits from harm.
Recruitment slogans and images
Armed forces have made effective use of short slogans to inspire young people to enlist, with themes ranging from personal development (particularly personal power), societal service, and patriotic duty. For example, as of 2017 current slogans included:
From the times of the British Raj, recruitment in India has been voluntary. Using Martial Race theory, the British recruited heavily from selected communities for service in the colonial army. The largest of the colonial military forces the British Indian Army of the British Raj until Military of India, was a volunteer army, raised from the native population with British officers. The Indian Army served both as a security force in India itself and, particularly during the World Wars, in other theaters. About 1.3 million men served in the First World War. During World War II, the British Indian Army would become the largest volunteer army in history, rising to over 2.5 million men in August 1945.
During both world wars and a period after the second, military service was mandatory for at least some of the British population. At other times, techniques similar to those outlined above have been used. The most prominent concern over the years has been the minimum age for recruitment, which has been 16 for many years. This has now been raised to 18 in relation to combat operations. In recent years, there have been various concerns over the techniques used in (especially) army recruitment in relation to the portrayal of such a career as an enjoyable adventure.
In the United States
The American military has had recruiters since the time of the colonies in the 1700s. Today there are thousands of recruiting stations across the United States, serving the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. Recruiting offices normally consist of 2–8 recruiters between the ranks of E-5 and E-7. When a potential applicant walks into a recruiting station his or her height and weight are checked and their background investigated. A fingerprint scan is conducted and a practice ASVAB exam is given to them. Applicants cannot officially swear their enlistment oath in the recruiting office. This is conducted at a Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS).
Prior to the outbreak of World War I, military recruitment in the US was conducted primarily by individual states. Upon entering the war, however, the federal government took an increased role.
The increased emphasis on a national effort was reflected in World War I recruitment methods. Authors Peter A. Padilla and Mary Riege Laner define six basic appeals to these recruitment campaigns: patriotism, job/career/education, adventure/challenge, social status, travel, and miscellaneous. Between 1915 and 1918, 42% of all army recruitment posters were themed primarily by patriotism. And though other themes – such as adventure and greater social status – would play an increased role during World War II recruitment, appeals to serve one's country remained the dominant selling point.
Recruitment without conscription
In the aftermath of World War II military recruitment shifted significantly. With no war calling men and women to duty, the United States refocused its recruitment efforts to present the military as a career option, and as a means of achieving a higher education. A majority – 55% – of all recruitment posters would serve this end. And though peacetime would not last, factors such as the move to an all-volunteer military would ultimately keep career-oriented recruitment efforts in place. The Defense Department turned to television syndication as a recruiting aid from 1957–1960 with a filmed show, Country Style, USA.
On February 20, 1970, the President's Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force unanimously agreed that the United States would be best served by an all-volunteer military. In supporting this recommendation, the committee noted that recruitment efforts would have to be intensified, as new enlistees would need to be convinced rather than conscripted. Much like the post-World War II era, these new campaigns put a stronger emphasis on job opportunity. As such, the committee recommended "improved basic compensation and conditions of service, proficiency pay, and accelerated promotions for the highly skilled to make military career opportunities more attractive." These new directives were to be combined with "an intensive recruiting effort." Finalized in mid-1973, the recruitment of a "professional" military was met with success. In 1975 and 1976, military enlistments exceeded expectations, with over 365,000 men and women entering the military. Though this may, in part, have been the result of a lack of civilian jobs during the recession, it nevertheless stands to underline the ways in which recruiting efforts responded to the circumstances of the time.
Indeed, recommendations made by the President's Commission continue to work in present-day recruitment efforts. Understanding the need for greater individual incentive, the US military has re-packaged the benefits of the GI Bill. Though originally intended as compensation for service, the bill is now seen as a recruiting tool. Today, the GI Bill is "no longer a reward for service rendered, but an inducement to serve and has become a significant part of recruiter's pitches."
While uniformed military recruiters screen and process recruits into the military, advertising agencies design and implement military recruitment strategy, campaigns, and advertisements: As of fiscal year 2020, Young & Rubicam was in charge of this for the Navy, Wunderman Thompson for the Marine Corps, DBB Chicago for the Army, and GSD&M for the Air Force.
Recruitment can be conducted over the telephone with organized lists, through email campaigns and from face to face prospecting. While telephone prospecting is the most efficient, face to face prospecting is the most effective. Military recruiters often set up booths at amusement parks, sports stadiums and other attractions. In recent years social media has been more commonly used.
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