Today’s Guardian has an interesting piece on declining recruitment rates in British army. It seems that now the game is about getting shot up in Basra rather than larking about with tanks on Salisbury Plain, potential squaddies are thinking twice. The article reminded me of Billy Connolly’s brilliant antiwar song “I'm askin' you sergeant where's mine?”:
Oh sergeant is this the adventure you meant
When I put my name down on the line
All that talk of computers and sunshine and skis
Oh I'm askin' you sergeant where's mine?
The fact is, as Michael Moore showed so clearly in Fahrenheit 9/11, most military recruitment involves selling a pack of lies to vulnerable young men with few other options. In times of peace, all you lose is a few years before you can afford to buy yourself out, in wartime you can lose the lot, as Private Scott McArdle found out.
Private Scott McArdle [was] killed at 22 - along with 31-year-old Sgt Stuart Gray, 19-year-old Pte Paul Lowe and a civilian interpreter - by a suicide bomber in November 2004, one week after the Black Watch moved up to their infamous posting at Camp Dogwood, south-west of Baghdad. Scott's immediate family live on Piper Drive, up on an estate on the north side of town, where the houses look like pebbledashed bars of Toblerone. The story of his six-year career in the army says a lot about what pushes local school-leavers towards the military and, as far as its tragic last chapter is concerned, much of what is now serving to put them off.
Scott resolved to join the Black Watch after they visited his school, St Andrew's in Kirkcaldy. "They'll have a recruitment drive maybe three or four times a year," says Martin [his uncle]. "You'll see them round the shopping centres, and they'll go to every high school in Fife and Dundee and Perth, six months to a year before the guys are leaving school. That's what they do; that's why they've got such a big thing here. You're 15, 16, and you think: 'That would be great.'
"Scott wanted to keep fit; he'd done boxing and running at school. And you couldn't get made redundant; there were secure prospects. To him it was a job. He got decent money, and accommodation. And he wanted to travel, to see the world. That's why he originally joined up."
His first spell in the army, including tours of duty in Northern Ireland and Kosovo, lasted until March 2004, when, after a spell in Basra, he decided to leave. He had met Sarah McLaren, a local girl who was now pregnant, and he had resolved to stay in Glenrothes. "He left to be with her," says Martin. "He was a young guy, maybe a bit paranoid, thinking, 'What will she be up to if I'm in Iraq or wherever?' But as soon as he was out, he thought, 'Why did I do that?'"
The local job market, it seemed, could not offer anything that made civilian life even halfway worthwhile. At first, Martin - who works in "security ... debt-collecting, stuff like that" - arranged some work for him, though both of them knew it was hardly ideal. Scott also went for training with a company, offering commission-only work selling burglar alarms to the elderly. "The trick," says Martin, "was, 'How would you like a free weekend away, all expenses paid?' So when they get there, they've got this voucher, but they only get the voucher if they spend £800 on a security system. It was just a little white box with a panic button. It would probably cost about £55 in B&Q. But they were also going to pensioners and putting the fear of god in them, showing them articles: '89-year-old woman mugged and killed.'" Scott lasted a day, and never went back.
After three months living on benefits, he decided to return to the army. "He knew he was going back to Iraq," says Martin. "I said, 'Scott - why are you doing it?' He said, 'I'm fed up not being able to get a job that's satisfying.' Sarah was pregnant, and they were planning to get married, and they wanted to have a financial future for the kid.
"As strange as it might sound, I had an inkling he was never coming back that day, when I said goodbye to him. I was never emotional with him, and that day I was. He never had much money, 'cos he was living off the dole. So I gave him money for him and his missus to go and have a meal and make his last night a night to remember. And I said it to someone that evening: 'I doubt we'll see Scott again.'"