Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Youth and the Defence Force

The New Zealand Defence Force has long had an interest in youth training and youth-at-risk development. By all accounts its training successfully blends the needs of neglected, boundary-exploring youth with the operational abilities of the defence force. Thus John Key's recent speech endorsing the work of the defence force and holding it up as a useful model should not be written off immediately as the defence force acting as "baby-sitters" (by the right) or red-neck militarism (by the left).

For the fact is that for many young people the Defence Force is a family which provides them with a sense of purpose, a source of pride and a world with clear and enforced rules based on the ever present reality of violence (mostly from hostiles) to focus the mind. The Defence Force doesn't have pointless family group conferences, nor does it take any bullshit. This no-nonsense structure provides many kids with the best learning environment they have ever had. And when it comes to cocky know-it-all teenagers they have very effective ways of taking them down a peg or two.

But there is a world of difference between the Defence Force training its own and its training outsiders. As it is structured the Defence Force exists to train soldiers - typically Territorial Force soldiers. The job of soldiering is no longer about being given a gun and told to go and shoot the enemy. In today's world soldiering has become a serious professional career involving legal, logistical and even political assessments. It is not the sort of job for young criminals from South Auckland.

What young criminals from South Auckland need is the sense that someone cares what they do (in a positive way, rather than simply looking for an excuse to arrest them), hope that they can find a better way of life, and freedom from drugs and dibilitating peer pressure. They need tough love - with the emphasis on tough. This is because they have tough lives and people that don't - no matter how well meaning - simply can't relate to the level of resilience these kids have to have daily simply to survive. As such tough kids need tough teachers. People who they can emulate, look up to and admire and frankly the average secondary school teacher simply isn't that person.

Moreover, and lets be entirely blunt about this, the fact is many of these young hoodlums are Maori. They are Maori because Maori have significant alcohol problems, have been marginalised into crime (as for example have many other occupied peoples e.g the Irish 100 years ago), and have serious child-rearing problems relating to the breakdown of traditional family structures over the past three or four generations. Many Maori have tough lives and many Maori are tough people. However the only role-models many Maori kids see are the local gang-leaders while more deserving role-models like Corporal Willie Apiata V.C or Major General Jerry Mataparae remain largely remote from their daily experience.

Once again the problem is the terms of reference of the defence force. Because these are so narrow the purpose of the defence force is to prepare for combat. My Review concluded that given the relatively low risk of New Zealand needing to defend itself and the scope of other threats with which New Zealand is faced that combat should be considered only one of the risks that the Defence Force should be prepared for. Other risks such as civil emergencies or biohazards are equally worthy of Defence Force purview.

Unfortunately threats such as biohazards (such as H5N1) or major civil emergencies cannot be handled tidily by Government agencies alone. The way the population responds to these emergencies is equally important.

When the great Hanshin earthquake struck Kobe the Japanese population responded with a degree of civil discipline which would only be regarded as miraculous in most other parts of the world. There was no looting, no stampedes at hospitals and no riots. If a major disaster struck Wellington or Auckland, in particular, I have grave doubts that New Zealanders - especially in South Auckland or Porirua - would be as disciplined. Indeed looting, riots and even arson might be expected. Thus to achieve greater levels of civil defence the civil population needs to have a greater level of civil discipline.

No agency is better placed to train civilians in emergency response, survival and engender civil discipline than the defence force. Thus when reviewing the defence forces as part of my study I concluded that the whole training component of the defence force should be regarded as a branch of the services just as the Air Force is today. This branch would train not only defence personnel but civilians - including youth at risk - as well. It would also manage defence force exercices and audit performance to further refine new training.

Some might argue that seperating training and operations is a mistake. That operations are, in effect live training and if they are seperate trainers can become too theoretical and operations can loose touch with training. Personally I don't think this cannot be managed. Trainers can be dispatched as observers along with operational staff and trainers can also be seconded to operations as needed. There is, however, a big difference between a good coach and a good fighter and one should not confuse the two. Great coaches should not be retained in operational units simply because there is nowhere else for them to go. Moreover the skills of the great coaches of the Defence Force could also deliver great value to the civilian population of New Zealand as well as the Defence Force.

Using the defence force to re-orientate youth at risk as proposed by John Key has significant merit - but only if the defence force is re-orientated first.