The scene was the Sir John Moore barracks near Winchester, the occasion a military law lesson for new recruits. The question was prompted by the instructor explaining that "treason", was punishable by "death".
It got a laugh, but the recruit had a point: he was in the army now, and what with all these guns and tanks and rifles about, surely anything was possible. They might just shoot you for bunking off. Just checking. And he was right, at least, in that he had joined an organisation unparalleled, to put it mildly, in modern British life. A world apart from the recruit's mid-Nineties inner-cityscape of video-surfing, couch potatodom, and Trainspotting.
Little wonder, then, that the Army currently finds itself with the mother of all recruitment crises. This year, the Army is more than 4,000 men and women below strength, while a staggering 9,000 of last year's 20,000 potential recruits were failed on fitness. Nor is the crisis simply one of getting raw material in; even more critical, arguably, is the extent to which those already in the army want out.
In 1975, in answer to the question: "Is life in the army what you expected it to be before you enlisted?", 59 per cent of young single soldiers told researchers they thought it was "better". By 1988, only 14 per cent of soldiers answered "better" or "much better". And by the early Nineties, the army was suffering a reported average net loss of around 680 men a month - roughly equivalent to a battalion - and the average length a soldier currently serves is around four years.
This produces the bizarre phenomenon of "patchworking", where battalions borrow troops from other units to make up numbers. One Gulf War battalion, for instance, used men from 20 different cap badges. General Sir Michael Rose, who as Adjutant General is in charge of recruitment, has been quoted as saying that, without emergency measures, the army's shortfall, just four years hence, could be as high as 20,000.
Nevertheless, nearly 13,000 young Britons did join the army in 1996, and, one May evening early this summer, 31 of the 1996 intake were lined up outside the living quarters of Cambrai Troop, part of the Winchester Army Training Regiment. Given the multitudes who are failing to join up, it was fascinating to inspect the few who had. Still in their civvies, they looked, perhaps predictably, a curiously retro crowd. There was Trooper "Scouse" Walker with his strange, back-to-front, David Frost hairstyle; 18-year-old Trooper Hayes, small, crew-cutted, with a comical, face-cracking grin; 17-year-old Trooper McCann, pale-faced, plump, more schoolboy than man; and Trooper Ross, straight-back hairstyle, the sort of bloke that might have turned up on a motorbike to mend your pipes in 1945.
Out shot the first salvos of army abuse: "Stop fiddling with your lips!" cried the small, shrill-voiced Sergeant Burns. "Don't SIGH - you're not at school," yelled Corporal Clarke. "Stand still! Stand still! I said, stand fucking STILL!" shrieked Corporal Evans, as the recruits flinched visibly under the assault. Moments later, they set off on their first march, and one of the Army's classic disciplinary abstracts, mechanical walking, rolled up and overwhelmed each recruit's natural, individual way of getting about.
One soldier flailed his arms like a windmill, another missed step continuously causing the strangest ripple effect right through the platoon (a Mexican Wave, in the trade), yet another, with poetic inevitability, turned left as all the rest turned right. The NCOs followed, snapping and snarling like dogs around their heels, as yet another scoop of untamed, undisciplined English youth vanished into the giant homogenising machine that is army life.
For all the undeniably Olde England flavour of so much of it (the slang strikes you immediately - "scoff" for food, "civvy street" for civilian life), there is a whole other, opposite force at work in the army today, and at Winchester you can see it in the very fabric of the place. Sir John Moore barracks, opened in 1986, has none of that red-brick slum-tenement style so familiar in the Victorian barracks dotted about our towns. Here are lushly appointed barracks in mid-countryside, low modern buildings of pale yellow brickwork hugging the peaks and folds of a shallow hill with rich farmland views. Here is an architecture about accommodation rather than confrontation, co-operation rather than dominance: a fit setting for the army's attempts to rethink itself in the face of new demands.
It is striking that the army, battered by the same forces as the rest of society, is trying to re-invent itself in similar ways. Or, as 24-year- old Lieutenant Langman, who runs the Cambrai Troop with Sergeant Burns and four corporals, puts it: "In the old days, our philosophy was a bit like the American marines: knock 'em down and build 'em up again. Today, we try to do something very different: we take people as they come to us, with all their various strengths, and build on them." Or as Major Brown, Lieutenant Langman's boss, says: "When an order is given in the army today, it is the objective which is defined rather than the precise means of attaining it."
Indeed, there is a new jargon to match the old-army slang: such modish words as empowerment, synergy and even (a touch alarmingly) "product", meaning recruit. The notion (again as in industry), is of an essentially self-motivating, autonomous organisation with power devolving down. There is even talk of flat hierarchies - all part of the lean, mean, New-Age military, although the army's NCOs, not the first people evoked by the phrase New Age, are less than enamoured of this.
"This empowerment stuff is rubbish," commented one Winchester corporal. "When I joined the army 10 years ago, people had proper motivation - they joined the army to see the world and kill foreigners. Now it's all careerism."
Nevertheless, while in some ways the new army and the old are at daggers drawn, there is some overlap. One area is the modern army's constant concern with fitness and, above all, looking fit: the bronzed, tight-waisted physicality of both the men and women at Winchester is very striking. And this dovetails neatly with a much older army concern, the matter of "bearing" - on the face of it, a somewhat trivial issue, compared with the larger matters of life and death, but which has far more rationale than at first might seem.
During the initial interviews which Lieutenant Langman held with each new recruit, the matter of bearing was paramount. Seated at a small neat desk in the Cambrai Troop barracks - maps on the wall, filing cabinet in one corner - dressed in the crisp, army summer gear of fatigues and open-necked shirt, lieutenant's gold pips sitting on pale blue tabs, Langman's body language was pure New Army: brisk, energetic, full of can-do spirit. Then, with a sudden eruption of Old Army, he roared "Come in!", in a voice so different from normal that it seemed to emanate from another cosmos - and in came Trooper McCann, looking plump and insecure. Until, that is, the talk turned to football and this diffident young man nervously confessed to one tricky footballing afternoon when he had "headbutted a referee". Langman rolled with it, made a couple of notes and soon dismissed him.
Then came Trooper Short, a recruit whose "bearing" was so positive that he had already been picked to represent Cambrai at a forthcoming visit by Nicholas Soames MP. Standing comfortably at ease, with a manner that owed a great deal to his having been in the TA, Short answered Langman's questions in a deep, measured voice, although the content, as opposed to the manner, of what he said was not so far in advance of Trooper McCann.
Langman eyed me significantly. "Spot the difference," he said, with a shrug. He felt, quite clearly, there was no more that needed to be said.
Few things are more striking when you spend time around soldiers than their obsession with deportment and how their fellow soldiers look, with the signals given off by clothes and body language. But it becomes less surprising when you reflect on the unique importance for a soldier of willpower and morale and the fact that such mental states are telegraphed (and even induced) by our bodies. This military body-consciousness, in fact, is not about the body at all, it's about the mind.
Certainly, recruits need all the will-power they can get, even though the wilder, Old Army excesses have been diminished, particularly since new guidelines set down in 1989 introduced the so-called "soft launch": "bull" was to be cut, especially such notorious traditions as the daily folding of blankets into "bed blocks"; and discipline was to be introduced only gradually, especially during the first three weeks. Nevertheless, the current 10 week, Phase One basic training remains very tough indeed. Up at six in the morning, with lights out at eleven at night, each recruit has to meet, under maximum stress, a whole range of constantly escalating demands: the highest standards of physical fitness in the gym; the arcane mysteries of army drill; how to shoot; a programme of cross-country runs (the hardest, in week nine, involves running six miles in full combat gear); endless hours of the most meticulous, pernickety, cleaning of army gear. Add to this a system of rules that are in some ways almost whimsical (no use of personal radios when off-duty, for instance, in the initial weeks) and you can see why it is a very particular state of mind to which the army appeals.
Most frequently, it is the mind formed by a service-family background. This simple bias - more than half the recruits I met at Winchester had some sort of service or police connection - remains the surest influence directing recruits into the forces. Typical of this channel was 22-year- old Trooper Archer, a large, broad-smiling six-footer, heavily tattooed, the son of a policeman. Besides his parental role model, what further attracted Archer to the army was that he is dyslexic and "not very good, academically". The army, he feels, is somewhere he can compete on equal terms. Not to mention that it remains one of the few places, sociologically, where he can replicate the atmosphere he grew up in.
Talking to the new recruits, it is curious how seldom they mention that most notable USP of army life, physical violence. Few Rambos join the army, and, if recruits think about combat at all, it is perceived as a very remote possibility. Nor are they so wrong statistically. (The word within the army is that Northern Ireland is less dangerous than Germany, where the local driving causes more casualties than the IRA.) Far more apparent than Ramboism in recruit motivation is a kind of hyper, out-and- about extroversion, something you notice especially among women recruits.
The army is currently pushing hard for more women - some years, intakes at Sir John Moore's can be up to 75 per cent female - with the occasional all-female platoon. A typical recruit is 23-year-old Helen Moran, from Liverpool, who describes herself as a "fitness freak". She can't believe the range of sports the army has on offer: rock climbing, tennis, skiing - even canoeing lessons in the camp swimming pool. More curiously, this less-than-military view of army life comes with a similarly civilian attitude to her career: Moran approves of the army's opportunities for "career progression" which are very different, she points out, from her previous job as a dental nurse, where she hit a career ceiling at 22.
Nevertheless, the army still attracts people with more overt ideas of service. Twenty-two-year-old Trooper Lee Cummings, a tall, dark-eyed, soft-spoken young Welshman from Cardiff, worked in nursing after leaving school at 16. What he particularly enjoyed, he said, was working with the mentally handicapped: "I loved that."
He was made redundant, however, after five and a half years, with the added complication that his wife was pregnant at the time.
Being separated from partners is one of the main hardships of Army life. "I miss her very much," he admitted, and the good news was that Corporal Clarke had nagged the hierarchy until he got permission for Cummings's wife to visit him: "I really respected Corporal Clarke for that."
And you could sense that Trooper Cummings would get on very well with the old-style, service-orientated side of army life; for here was a man whose whole life, not just his nursing career, was about relationships. Both he and his wife come from huge, extended families back in Cardiff; despite her pregnancy, his wife was determined to come down for his passing- out parade - and there would, apparently, be no shortage of other relatives from both sides. How many exactly? "Oh, about 19," breathed Lee, softly. "They're hiring a bus."
It was curious to see how very different motivations co-exist within the same intake - within the individual, even. Take 27-year-old Lucy Rainbird - warm, radiant with health and enthusiasm. She had owned a hairdressing business, she said, but got fed up and sold out last year. Unsure of what to do next, she'd worked in a factory, where the girls were "brilliant" but the work was dull. Meanwhile, she'd always fancied the army - the sport, the comradeship, the need to get things done - so she volunteered.
Lucy also liked the idea of doing her bit for world peace. Both her parents were in the RAF, a sister is a nurse, and going to Bosnia wouldn't bother her in the least; in fact, she'd welcome it. If you had to die, she said thoughtfully, getting killed in a cause like that would be "an admirable way to go".
It was curious, as she talked, how this strange, dual personality emerged, a kind of microcosm of army psychology. On the one hand was her quite remarkable maturity - her acceptance of discipline, desire to help others, readiness, even, to die for the right cause; on the other, an equally remarkable immaturity in her apparent total lack of questioning of, say, the British Army's political role, or the formidable regimentation of her everyday army life. One recently won privilege, she explained, had given her special delight: she and the other recruits had been allowed to break the rule about not playing the radio during leisure hours. "It's marvellous," she cried, and seemed genuinely thrilled.
Lucy Rainbird's attitude was characteristic of the women recruits. They are far less inclined to complain about army "bull" than are the men. This has nothing to do with their being more gently treated: the disciplinary system is the same for both sexes, the physical demands virtually identical. Indeed, the system, if anything, is rather harder on the women. Until the early Nineties, for instance, they had to resign if they became pregnant.
What is true, however, is that the British army still keeps women out of combat - with the frequently quoted rationale of the experience of the Israelis who, apparently, found that men would stop fighting in order to look after women wounded in battle. Good chivalry, bad warfare.
Thus the army's position on gender, it argues, is perfectly PC - in this and other ways, moving happily with the times. Its staffing difficulties, they claim, are due to other factors.
They cite, for instance, the coming of the teenage video surfers, with their "utterly fantastical" approach to life. (One study found, that among the Army's 16-24-year-old target group, that newspaper reading had plummeted from 76 per cent in 1992 to under 30 per cent by 1994.) They cite the breakdown of "traditional values": 43 per cent of recruits now come from broken homes.
But, above all, they point to the volunteers' lack of fitness. Almost half of all potential recruits fail the army's initial tests, including running a mile and a half in 11 minutes 30 seconds, by no means a taxing demand. It's a phenomenon they put down to the decline of sport and PE in schools. In 1987, 35 per cent of schools failed to meet the Government's target of at least two hours of physical education per week. In 1995, that figure was 75 per cent.
Nevertheless, one cannot help wondering whether the problem does not remain, at heart, cultural. The army may or may not be PC on gender, but what is its position on race? There was just one solitary black face in the new intake of 31, while, in the army as a whole, the percentage of "minorities" falls clean off the graph. In 1991, for instance, there were just 152 minority recruits compared to 12,847 whites.
By week nine, it was remarkable how effectively Lieutenant Langman's platoon had been processed through the military machine. Their marching was homogenised, their drill movements alert, all of which climaxed in the grand passing out-parade, held on a veritable scorcher in mid July.
There was simmering excitement among the NCOs, looking superb in parade- ground dress; there were the relatives, swarming in great crocodiles onto the square; there were gay, gaudy flags; there was even a half-way decent bit of gossip to fuel the general sense of expectation. For the one thing there was not going to be, apparently, was a band, on account of the camp band being ordered away, the back-up band being unable to make it, and someone, somewhere, forgetting to pass the message on. "Heads will roll!" said the NCOs, looking pleased.
So the recruits swung onto the square to the sound of silence; Lieutenant Langman joined them moments later with magnificently slow, stately, guardsman- like steps; the dignitaries saluted, the relatives applauded, and one of the camp staff announced: "Regretfully, today, the band has had to pull out, because they have been deployed at short notice to Bosnia."
A whopper! (Well, half-truth.) But who cared? Because the whole day was about triumph and congratulation.
Outside the Naafi, everyone was taking photographs, and in one corner there was an especially large crowd: Cummings's relatives. A mere 14, as it turned out, including his wife, hugely pregnant. His father, broad and proud, looked on smiling, while Cummings stood to attention, a grinning sister on each arm.
His brother-in-law took me aside. "True, there are a lot of us here, but we felt we had to come down and support him, really. He only joined up for his wife and baby - to give them security"Reuse content