The Critical Geopolitics of RAF Recruitment
Matthew Rech was awarded an ESRC linked studentship in 2008, and in 2012, an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship, to research the geographies and politics of Royal Air Force (RAF) recruitment practices.
This research is based on the assumption that, to be persuasive and to convince individuals that a career in the military is a reasonable prospect, states and militaries must provide prospective recruits an imagination of what the military is, what it does and where it does it. For the contemporary RAF, this has entailed the mediation of its recent military engagements in Middle East in particular across various platforms and as magazine advertisements, online videogames, blogs from the ‘front line’, and as part of ‘experiential’ marketing at large events such as military airshows.
Based in literatures around critical geopolitics, and military and cultural geography, the research develops a critique, in these terms, of RAF recruitment as it attempts to account for the violent world of states and militaries, and as it comes to constitute lived experiences in public spaces. More specifically, the research demonstrates that RAF recruitment readily draws upon the designation of foreign spaces as the logical sites for military intervention; to reproduce problematic cultural stereotypes of enemies and proximate civilian populations; and to entrain particular spatial imaginaries which have been central to historical campaigns of imperial and military dominance. With a focus on the lived-in cultures of military recruitment and popular militarisation, it also demonstrates how these same imaginaries are instantiated in practices of perception and material engagement where RAF recruitment exists beyond images and texts as a set of practices and experiences in public spaces.
The research has three main strands:
- Representation. Dealing firstly with the most recognisable materials of recruitment – posters, films and other advertisements – the research provides a history of RAF recruitment since the Second World War, and has considered the changing nature of recruitment as it has accounted for Britain’s role and place in the world through to the Cold War, the First Gulf war and the War on Terror and more recent, Middle Eastern deployments. This element of the research used recruiting posters, films from RAF archives and other archival images to suggest that recruiting follows the dominant spatial and political imaginaries of each respective geopolitical ‘era’, and works to tie the prospective aspirations of the recruit directly into anxieties around respective boundaries and borders, and discourses of alliance and difference.
This strand of the research has also considered how RAF and British military recruitment is produced, and has accounted for the complex set of state, commercial and creative interests which make recruiting possible. Specifically, it suggests that the ‘finished product’ of recruitment, though bound to dominant Western imaginaries of geopolitics, is also limited and licenced by political economies of its production. In considering how recruitment is a product of government reviews of defence procurement, of nuanced relationships between the Ministry of Defence, Government Information departments and global advertising agencies, the research demonstrates how recruitment is as much a record of the state’s continuously changing apparatus of advocacy as it is of national military imaginaries.
- Visuality. In an attempt to move beyond representation and a representational analysis of popular media, the research considers the role that visual practices play in the entrainment of particular geopolitical and military imaginaries through recruitment, and the extent to which ways of seeing are central to military promotional cultures. In particular, drawing upon the concept of ‘Observant Practice’, the research has involved ethnographic studies of British military airshows as spaces of spectacular consumption, and spaces in which unproblematic and valedictory notions of the military are given literal form through, amongst other things, the prescription of photographic visualisation.
This element of the research has also provided an analysis of recruitment and videogames where the RAF provide the opportunity for prospective recruits to play out various combat and support roles in the contemporary War on Terror as part of an online careers site. Utilising contemporary theories of the image and geopolitics, this part of the research attempts to understand how, when considering games as events which mediate between lived and imagined worlds, RAF recruiting constitutes a more fundamental set of representational practices which entrain, and allow for the performance of, dominant imaginaries of the Middle East, and particularly that of aerial warfare.
- Materiality. Lastly, the research considers the extent to which bodies, materials and material engagements have become central to modern British military recruiting. In the first instance, it has shown that the potential recruit’s body has, over time, expanded beyond its normal confines, and now exists as part of military promotional cultures inherently. Namely, the assessment of whether the body of the potential recruit is ‘fighting fit’ is extended as part of the RAF’s online recruiting content by way of suggested fitness and training regimes. The research, in this sense, suggests that rather than existing as a set of inscriptions and prescribed movements, the abstract of military body in recruitment constitutes a technology of the self, insofar as the military attempts to extend the ideal of the military body in and through the habits of civilian bodies prior to enrolment into the military.
In the second instance, the research has led to an exploration of the use and utility of the objects, materials and ‘stuff’ (pens, posters, keyrings) so central to modern recruiting and military promotional practices. Focussing principally on the airshow, the research has suggested that the ephemeral nature of these events works to literalise imaginations of boundaries and difference where, for example, showgoers might engage with weaponised and other military objects. More importantly, this strand has argued that the ability for the show to be used to distribute mundane objects such as military-branded pencils, mouse mats and lanyards to showgoers points to important, though nearly imperceptible, enrolment of essentially militarised materials into everyday civilian spaces. Using an autoethnographic approach to material cultures, this part of the research has tracked the utility and veracity of such objects as they find their way from the airshow and into domestic spaces, and into spaces of work.
Matthew will spend this academic year (until early September 2013) developing these themes into academic publications.