Best school in the world?

2010-05-27 00:00

SO our Minister of Defence wants to send all the young people off to the army.

“Best school in the world,” they say. “They’ll learn some real­ discipline.” “Make men out of boys.” And my favourite: “It didn’t do me any harm.” All the clichés come rolling out like well-used goodies at a garage sale. This last is always said with such conviction (usually about some mindless behaviour or destructive environment). I have to bite my tongue not to say something like: “It didn’t?”

Such clichés are spoken with a great deal of unsubstantiated authority. The “men out of boys” comment especially appears to be an internationally held belief, no more true, however, for being repeated so widely.

It’s the process of growing up that turns boys into men and (presumably, but I haven’t heard anyone say it) girls into women. That process, which involves interacting with others and learning to make decisions, among other things, will take place wherever the young person finds her or himself. And I can think of a whole lot of places where it is more likely to happen more effectively than the army.

What about discipline? After all, “that’s what the youth of today need”.

What? In the army, where destructive actions during a recent strike showed an appalling lack of discipline there? The South African Institute of Race Relations quotes commentators who “suggest that the SANDF [South African National Defence Force] was the last place in South Africa to find discipline, moral fibre and the will to work” (, May 7, 2010).

And what is discipline anyway? What is desperately needed is self-discipline. You don’t get taught that in the army. Not at the basic recruit level at least. All you get taught there is mindless obedience: “Do as you’re told;” “Don’t ask questions;” “Obey orders;” and, most important, “Don’t get caught.” How exactly is this supposed to help a young person become a thinking, contributing, adult member of society? Those of us who went through the apartheid’s army­ call-up managed to grow up (some may even have become men) in spite of our time in the army, not, I assure you, because of it.

I was told a number of times during my basic training: “You are not here to learn how to die for your country. We are going to teach you how to make sure the other guy dies for his country.” Pretty standard fare for armed forces around the world, I’m told. And when you’re young and naive I guess it sounds very funny the first time you hear it. But is that really the sort of “skill” we want our young people to learn?

The skills we need in this country more than anything else are skills that enable us to understand and relate to others who are different from ourselves, to learn from them and to build a future together. These are in short supply in most communities. They are not found in great abundance in the army. The armed forces are ultimately about force of arms. When all else fails, we’ve got backup. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trashing the army. I’m glad to have the backup available, and I’m glad that there are those who are able and willing to provide it. But the endemic violence in this country suggests that force is our first choice, not the last. We don’t know any other way. There is a desperate need for skills that will ensure we don’t resort to violence­. The army­ has an important place and an important role to play, but don’t let’s pretend that it can ever be something it was never meant to be.

If there is money to pay for this type of exercise then let’s ask, how could young people develop the skills that would be most valuable to them and to their communities? How best could they develop those skills while serving the communities that need them most? Then let’s put our money there.

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