Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Have you got what it takes? Joining the Australian killing machine

By Chris Latham

In 2002, 5836 people joined the Australian Defence Force (ADF) as regular members -about 700 more than joined in 2001. The vast majority of them were young people between the ages of 18 and 24.

While no survey has been taken of the young people who have joined the ADF in recent years, a glance at the pitch made in recruiting advertisements does not support the idea that there is any significant increase in support for the Australian military among young people.

During the last financial year, the ADF spent more than $33 million on recruiting ads in newspapers, on TV and at movie screenings.

The thrust of this advertising is not aimed at telling the truth. It does not try to convince young people to become part of the Australian military machine to kill people in other countries in order to protect Australian businesses' overseas investments. Nor does it aim to convince young people to become part of the ADF to fight "terrorism" or "rogue states": the current establishment justification for imperialist military intervention in the Third World.

Rather, ADF recruiting advertisements focus on how being part of the ADF enables young people to get fully paid training in some highly skilled, technical job or to help poor people in other countries rebuild the basic services. (Recent ADF ads highlight Australian military personnel's role in rebuilding East Timor's roads, schools and health services in the wake of the devastation caused by Indonesian occupation of that country.) The ADF's combat role is only alluded to through scenes of war games - never images of real combat situations.

Historically, the bulk of general enlistments, that is non-officers, of the world's armed forces, have been drawn from the working class, usually its poorest sections. General enlistment in the army and navy by young people from impoverished working-class families is motivated, much less by patriotism, than by the desire to obtain a regular, guaranteed income. It is for this reason that African and Hispanic Americans make up a considerable, and increasing, proportion of the soldiers and sailors in the US armed forces.

The ADF chiefs are well aware of this. That's why their recruiting ads emphasise the amount that recruits will get paid. According to the comparative employment value adjustable model (CEVAM), an 18-year-old ADF recruit who has completed basic training can expect to take home at least $690 per week.

CEVAM is a spreadsheet on the Stay Army web site that allows ADF personnel to work out what they would need to earn as a civilian to receive the same financial remuneration and benefits they receive in the ADF.

In the case of the hypothetical 18-year-old, to receive the same level of income (take-home pay and other benefits) in civilian employment that he or she would get in the ADF, they would have to earn $45,927 per annum, putting them in the top 3.5% of wage earners for 15-19 year-olds.

The desperate financial situation that the majority of university students face, whether they are working part-time or living on the poverty-level income provided through the Youth Allowance, makes joining the army reserves an attractive financial proposition. It is for this reason that army recruitment stalls are becoming an increasingly common sight on university campuses.

These stalls target students who are desperate to make ends meet with tax-free pay that doesn't affect Centrelink payments. The army reserves' advertisement of a commitment of "one weekend a month and two weeks a year" adds to the attraction of the army reserves. The time required is actually higher, including at least one night a week and the possibility of being called up to full active service.

In 2001-2, there were 1034 reservists in regular service out of the total reserve force of 21,001. This is likely to be much higher this year with the war on Iraq. On January 7, Britain announced it was calling-up 6000 of its 40,000 reservists.

The financial motivation for enlistment in the ADF increases the possibility of a growth of opposition to war within its ranks and those considering it as an employment option, as occurred in the US army during the Vietnam War.

The growth of anti-war sentiment within the US army, of course, reflected the growth of anti-war sentiment in the general population. But it was also encouraged by sections of the anti-war movement seeking to convince the ranks of the armed forces that the war was unjust and supporting the right of military personnel to publicly express their political opposition to the government's foreign policy.

From Green Left Weekly issue #522


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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