Is the Army going soft with recruitment drive?
Some years ago, in the dying days of the Cold War, I was in charge of a party of industrialists from the West Midlands.
They were visiting British Army units on exercise in Germany to see how their equipment was being used.
It was cold and drizzly and we were knee-deep in mud in a vast training area.
I approached a group of soldiers of the Royal Scots who were having a brew beside their Warrior armoured vehicle with their SA80 rifles slung over their shoulders. At that time SA80, with a reputation for jamming, was loathed by the infantry.
These squaddies were wary, irritable and exercise-weary. The last thing they wanted was a chat with some Sassenach officer and a bunch of civvies.
I explained that the visitors waiting to talk to them included some executives responsible for the design and build of the Warrior.
A Glaswegian corporal smiled a grim, toothless smile and asked menacingly: “Ye have nae brought the **** who invented SA80, have ye?”
In that moment I was reminded of the saying, sometimes attributed to Churchill and sometimes to George Orwell: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
The chief purpose of any army is to close with the enemy and kill him or force his surrender.
I have never heard a simpler or shorter job description than the one an old friend who served in the SAS gave me: “We kill the Queen’s enemies.” It is a job for ‘rough men’ like those mud-smeared Jocks in Cold War Germany or the Marines and Paras who fought in the Falklands.
The snag is that the supply of fit young men capable not only of fighting but of understanding hi-tech equipment is drying up. The Army needs to widen its net, reaching out to those who may have thought their sexuality, faith or ethnic background might rule them out.
Hence a new generation of touchy-feely adverts designed to reach the kids that the Army’s old ‘Be The Best’ slogan failed to attract.
Today’s message is that this is a modern Army, open to all whether they are gay, straight, religious, male or female. The theme is ‘This is belonging’ and, to be fair, some of the TV ads capture perfectly the camaraderie and mickey-taking that goes with service life. It is good, too, to hear an army medic talking about being gay and being accepted – although gay Army medics are hardly anything new.
And yet there are two problems with this new campaign that should not be overlooked. The first is that it could alienate the white, working-class lads on which the Army overwhelmingly depends for recruitment.
How many kids from the backstreets of London or Wolverhampton, especially those coming from families with a military tradition, want to serve in an Army which seems more interested in empathising than fighting?
The second problem – and the one that could end up costing the MoD millions – is of creating a false impression of the British Army and being faced with a flood of resignations or even lawsuits from recruits who stick it out for a few months and then hand their boots in.
The truth is that no army can live up to the super-sensitive image being created in some of these new adverts. At the heart of this new advertising campaign, dismissed by one retired general as merely ‘being jolly nice to people’, is the idea that you can be yourself and the Army will always support you. The reality, as anyone who has ever worn khaki can confirm, is that when you join the Armed Forces you leave some of yourself behind and surrender some of your freedoms. How could it be otherwise?
It is a dilemma. The Army cannot fight without large numbers of rough men. And rough men have a tendency to use the wrong words and say the wrong things.
I would like to think that those rough, tough Royal Scots in Germany would accept a gay or Muslim soldier in their ranks without letting slip the occasional bad word, but I don’t think anybody could guarantee it.
You could, by chucking out the irredeemably rough men and re-educating the others, create a ‘jolly nice to people’ organisation where everyone is equally cherished, everyone’s opinion is equally valid and if you’re feeling a bit weepy the drill-corporal will make you a nice cup of tea.
It would be a worthy organisation. But it wouldn’t be the British Army, would it?