Angus Colwell Angus Colwell

Your country needs you, Gen Z

Angus Colwell has narrated this article for you to listen to.

Gen Z doesn’t look like it wants to fight for Britain, but last week, General Sir Patrick Sanders, the Chief of the General Staff, said we might have to. He suggested that people my age should be prepared to join a ‘civilian army’ in case we go to war with Russia. But could we handle being cut off from our phones and friends? Do we have the fellow-feeling necessary to defend our country? What if we won’t submit to authority?

There are any number of reasons why my generation might reasonably not want to enlist. Accommodation will be uncomfortable and the food will be grim, according to army discussion forums. The application process will take 18 months, and at the end it’s just a 50 to 60 per cent acceptance rate. Then if you do serve, the future of war looks bleak. One in three soldiers fighting in the Russia-Ukraine war has died or been injured. An academic who is also a reservist tells me: ‘AI and drones mean every-thing can be seen all at once, so the next conflict could be medieval in nature: hand-to-hand trench warfare in urban environments.’ Your fate is also in the hands of politicians, who in the past two decades have given us soul-destroying and often counterproductive wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

We may have just the skills the army needs. We’ve spent a decade training via first-person shooter games

The main objection to war among Gen Z, however, is simple: ‘I love not dying,’ says Harry, a university student. Another Gen Z-er, adds: ‘Yes, I’d be called a coward if I didn’t fight, but what use is it being a hero if you’re dead?’

Giving your life for your country is no longer a given. Is wokeness to blame? One senior defence source reckons so. ‘It is making all this harder,’ they say. ‘The army is a bit rough: you get shouted at, and fewer young people want that.’

Nigel Farage agrees. He told me that ‘we have poisoned the minds of our younger generation with constant anti-British messages’. No wonder no one wants to serve.

Quite a few Gen Z-ers I spoke to said that they wouldn’t fight for our current political class. One friend went so far as to say: ‘I’d rather die fighting our own government.’ Another added that she ‘couldn’t fight for the people who are currently representing our country’. This is a big issue, according to one MP: ‘When you look at the mess that is modern politicians, why on earth should people want to put their life on the line for the likes of us? Those of us who are politicians should respect what we are asking them to do.’

But it could be that Gen Z has the skills that the army desperately needs. We’ve spent years gainsmaxxing at PureGym. We know the protein content of a chicken breast to the milligram. We’ve spent more than a decade training via first-person shooter games and we’ve seen so much of Gaza on TikTok that we can’t be shocked any more.

And some of us do actually believe that this country is still worth fighting for. Alex, a 21-year-old who is studying at Durham, thinks we have to be ready to defend our principles: ‘If you believe in the values that we are supposed to hold dear – democracy, freedom of speech – then I think you have an obligation to defend that. You can’t enjoy those privileges for your whole life and then as soon as you’re asked to defend them, you say no because you don’t agree with the current government.’ Gen Z-er Tom says he would rather ‘die on his feet than live on his knees’, and thinks his contemporaries are too naive about our enemies. Charles, who served in the RAF’s University Air Squadron, said he was driven by a ‘low-level sense of duty, maybe even generational guilt. Others have fought to preserve my current way of life. I should be prepared to do the same for future generations.’

Simon, who has been an officer in the RAF for three and a half years, says serving is a way to influence and respond to global events. But he admits that everyone’s idea of duty is different: ‘Others quite legitimately may view themselves as having a duty not to risk their life when their friends and family want them alive.’

For some, duty doesn’t come into it – the army is the end in itself. Lucy, who’s finishing her degree at Bristol and thinking about applying, says that she ‘couldn’t be less patriotic’. Yet she’s interested in joining the army because ‘I have no idea what I want to do after university, and it’s a commendable thing to do’. Plus they’re giving the impression that ‘they’ll take anyone’.

Should Lucy start scrolling through army subreddits and discussion forums, she might find herself less keen. For my generation of servicemen and women, the work is often no fun any more. An increasingly corporate culture has made serving more like any other job (‘Would you risk your life for Shell or BT?’ says one reservist). Yet, as a former general told me: ‘If there’s a good war on, recruiting is rarely a problem.’

Perhaps the reason so few Gen Z-ers say they want to fight in a war is because life in the army sounds boring. In barracks across the land, soldiers will be tidying their rooms, staring at the ceiling and preparing for another parade. They probably wouldn’t mind a scrap.