Armed Forces Day: exposing reality behind UK's sugar-coated military propaganda
Action Man: Battlefield Casualties is a series of short films produced by Veterans for Peace and artist Darren Cullen.
DANIEL Campbell wakes up drenched in sweat. Every muscle in his body is tense. The dead child, the one he couldn't save, is back. He creeps to the bathroom. The child is waiting for him. Its bloodied face stares at him accusingly from inside the mirror. He splashes cold water on his forehead and returns wearily to bed.
Daniel Campbell was a child soldier in the British Army. "I wanted to see the world and I wanted to help people," he says, remembering the day he stepped, aged 16, into Portsmouth's recruitment centre. And see the world he did: left with severe PTSD after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army abandoned him as if he were a broken toy.
The basic brutality that underpins the work of the British Armed Forces is not something that recruiters tend to dwell on when pitching to kids. So a group of former soldiers, Veterans For Peace UK, have taken it upon themselves to highlight the harsh realities of life and death in, and after, the army.
Action Man: Battlefield Casualties, a series of darkly funny short films produced with artist Darren Cullen, is their attempt to show the shit beneath the shine of polished army propaganda. Featuring PTSD Action Man ("with thousand-yard stare action"), Paralysed Action Man ("legs really don't work") and Dead Action Man ("coffin sold separately"), the films are being released to coincide with Armed Forces Day.
"No matter how bad anyone thinks this film is, the reality is worse," says artist Darren Cullen. "It's not sick to show what actually happens in a war. It's sick to convince people to join that war without telling them what's possibly going to happen. Recruiting 16-year-olds into the army is sick."
Figures released in 2014 revealed that one in four new recruits were too young to vote, smoke, or drink. In Europe, only Britain still stubbornly enlists 16-year-olds. Globally, this places us alongside North Korea and Iran.
"These recruits are typically from poorer backgrounds," says David Gee, Child Soldiers International. "That means they are more likely, in the course of their army career, to suffer a debilitating traumatic stress reaction. Trauma or adversity during childhood markedly increases the risk of PTSD over the course of an army career."
While they can't legally be sent to war until they are 18, because of the army's recruitment rules, most 16-year-olds are sent straight into the infantry. These rules, says Gee, "discriminate against the younger age group, much to their detriment in the long-term." In Afghanistan, the infantry's mortality rate was seven times higher than the rest of the armed forces.
Unlike adults, who only have to sign up for four years, children are made to sign away six years of their lives. And while the Army promises action, adventure, and an education to kids who might not have had much of any of these, in reality the MoD considers its obligations fulfilled if recruits have attained a reading age of nine to 11 after basic training.
Child recruits are also far more likely to die. A study conducted by ForcesWatch and Child Soldiers International found that, in Afghanistan, recruits who joined at 16 were twice as likely to be killed as those who joined in their adult years.
Officially, the MoD denies actively recruiting children. The 11,000 visits made to schools every year, along with the £36 million that has been ploughed into the government's sinister "military ethos in schools" programme, and the £10.8 million invested in 100 new cadet forces in state schools are all acts of beneficence on the part of one of the world's most efficient killing machines.
"The Armed Forces does not recruit in schools but provides career advice and curriculum support," is the MoD's stubborn line. While it is true that baton-twirling sergeant majors aren't actually striding into kindergartens and thrusting the king's shilling into the grubby palms of uncomprehending toddlers, they are targeting children as young as five with sugar-coated propaganda.
"Britain's Armed Forces have an incredibly proud history... every single one of us benefits from the freedom they secured... I hope this will be the beginning of your interest in Britain's Armed Forces – the finest and bravest in the world," writes David Cameron in The British Armed Forces , a "learning resource" created by the MoD and promoted to every single school in Britain.
Aimed at children aged five to 16, the resource is, according to ForcesWatch, a "one-sided and politically-directed presentation" that "promotes recruitment to the armed forces". A career in the Army, General Sir Peter Wall promises his infant audience, is "always challenging and fun." Why not go down to your local careers office and "personally speak to a soldier"?
Certainly, Daniel Campbell had a positive image of the armed forced when he joined up – thought he was going to be making the world a better place. "I went to Afghanistan thinking I was going to go to dispose of IEDs that were killing kids," he recalls of his 2012 deployment to Afghanistan in 2012, advising the Afghan army on the disposal of roadside bombs.
For a while, that's exactly what he did, until a routine disposal turned into a disaster.
Campbell and his team had been working on an IED, found on Afghanistan's main arterial road, from dawn until dusk. Traffic was piling up in both directions, civilians climbing out of their cars to watch as they sweated over the device.
When, finally, the bomb was made safe, its explosive contents were carried out into the desert for detonation.
"Disposing of the main charge is sort of the 'packing up shop, let's return home' part," says Campbell. Normally, Campbell and his team would pose for photos in front of the blast. "If we'd done that it would have killed us," he says.
"What we think happened was it was [on top of] another, an old dead shell that went in the ground that we couldn't see," says Campbell. "It made the explosion ten times the size it should have been."
The explosion mushroomed up; shrapnel tore apart the surrounding vehicles. Hot metal rained down on a distant family.
"It took a couple of minutes for us to actually work out what was going on," says Campbell. "We got told that a baby got shot in the head. We thought that we were getting contacted."
The child was beyond help. The mother's femoral artery was fatally severed. The father suffered severe amputation to his left arm, but he survived.
"I really qualified my role in Afghanistan as saying, 'No, no. I'm actually making a difference here, I'm looking after civilians.' But then civilians ended up dying anyway. I found that really difficult to cope with," says Campbell.
Campbell was already suffering from PTSD after coming under repeated mortar fire during his tour in Iraq. He had changed from a model soldier, with an almost perfect disciplinary record, to someone who drank heavily, got into fights regularly, and even considered driving his car off the edge of a bridge.
A clearer case could hardly be described. "I am PTSD Action Man for all intents and purposes," says Campbell. But rather than giving him the treatment he desperately needed, the Army forced him to submit to random drug tests. They came up negative every time.
After Afghanistan, Campbell really started to crumble. The dead child from the desert entered his dreams and kept him from sleep. His seniors failed to recognise the severity of his condition for months. When he was, after a long and stressful ordeal, finally medically discharged, the treatment on offer was utterly inadequate.
PTSD is a life-altering condition, but veterans are entitled to a mere six months of treatment before they are thrown to the goodwill of charities. "They broke me," says Campbell. "They should fucking well fix me."
The army, however, is unwilling to fix its toy soldiers. Instead it looks to the nation's classrooms and kindergartens for cheap replacements.
"Our new model is about raising awareness, and that takes a ten-year span," said Colonel David Allfrey, the Army's head of recruitment strategy, in 2007. "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."
"This is about prying open a crack in the spectacle of military propaganda," says Ben Griffin, former SAS commando and founder of Veterans For Peace UK. "Warfare isn't glamorous. The wars we fight are not noble causes. All of this propaganda is an attempt to recruit society to the idea that Britain has a noble and great military, and that we should use it. But there's another side to that story."
Watch the films when they comes out on the 24th June here. The action figures and film will be on display at Red Gallery, Rivington Street EC2A 3DT from the 24th of June to the 2nd of July.