So what are today's soldiers good for? (apart from sex scandals, of course)

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SEXUAL harassment hearings are not usually the kind of thing that you need to dress up for. Certainly, the question of a hat never crossed my mind. But, then again, I had never seen the way the Army does it - much posher than your average tribunal. For starters, it is called a court martial and there are more medals on show than a Sotheby's auction. It also helps if you've got a hat - or a headdress, as they are called.

Most of the witnesses at the court martial of Army chaplain Richard Landall were certainly wearing one last week at the Aldershot Court Martial Centre. Some headdresses even had plumes (or hackles as they are called) which vibrated as the soldiers marched into the light-blue room and past the padre and his military escort.

They then stopped to salute the president - a brigadier - and turned into the witness box. There the men were told to take off their headdresses and swear an oath on the Bible. "There is no need to replace the headdress yet," they were told.

No indeed. That moment would come later and they would duly be instructed. Such is the pomp of a court martial that you can see why they are so popular with the press. The British Army may not be what it used to be - smaller, poorer, fewer wars etc - but it really does put on an embarrassingly good sex case. Some of the stories are better than Hollywood.

Remember Lt-Col Keith Pople and his affair with Lt Cdr Karen Pearce, a naval officer? He gave her a vibrator known as the Pink Friend. Their sex life was fuelled by jump jets taking off above them. In the end he was acquitted, but not before every roaring detail had been reported (with sound effects). Yesterday, the chaplain would have had an inkling of how Lt-Col Pople felt, when he was partially cleared of harassment charges before the hearing was adjourned for the weekend.

Entertaining, yes, but also unsettling for civilians who wonder what exactly the military is to do in this post-Cold War age. Why, we ask, do peacekeeping and sexual harassment cases seem to be the Army's main activities? "What is it with the Army and sex?" said one observer, looking up from coverage of the "Flirting Padre" ("Unfortunately, I am a flirt and have been all my life," the captain testified.)

But it is not only sex. There is also drugs and violence and general bad behaviour. Every week reveals another example. A quick review of cases recently past or pending reveals a showcase of gang rape, assault, drugs, lesbianism etc. The military, it seems, is out of control.

They do not see things like that at the Ministry of Defence, of course. Nor do they see it that way in the ranks. "You've got to remember, the Army is another world," said one soldier who, like almost everyone in the military, refused to speak on the record.

But the Army has always been another world: the difference is that now it doesn't really know what its world is. The identity crisis is on several levels. The first, and most basic, concerns its role. The second, its image, and the third revolves around its attempts to become more a part of our world (and thus have more ethnic minorities and women, etc).

All of these are interlinked, but key to it all is the role. No one worried much about this during the Cold War. Then came the clinically "clean" Gulf war, the mess of trying to keep the peace in Bosnia and the realisation, with the likes of Sierra Leone, that many military missions are private affairs these days.

So, what exactly is the Army for now? "We need to recognise what we are actually doing - and that is peacekeeping and humanitarian aid," says Major Eric Joyce, the author of a Fabian pamphlet on the future of the military who has upset his employer by being so outspoken.

The Army, however, sees itself as a high-intensity warfare machine. Paul Rogers, a professor of peace studies at Bradford University, says this is to be expected with a defence review due out within weeks. But he sees the modern British Army's role as something different: a highly mobile and versatile force that can make war - and peace.

Prof Rogers calls this "versatile power projection". "They need to have troops who can engage in combat and also be peacekeepers," he says. "So they are trained to kill and then be able to adjust to sorting out villages at risk."

The Army, however, will not budge from "fighting machine" talk and that locks it into a way of thinking that is pure Army. Brigadier Robert Gordon explains. "Delivering fighting capability is based on three things: the brain, the muscle and the heart. The most important is the heart, the moral component. Every military thinker from Alexander to Napoleon to the present has understood this."

The moral component, evidently, is that bit of a soldier who will advance towards enemy fire when every cell in his body says that he should be going the other way. The Brigadier sees teamwork and high moral values as creating this spirit. He calls it "cohesion".

"This is why we take issues of team-building so seriously. Anything that starts to break up that cohesion or undermines it is detrimental to our capacity to deliver our fighting capability. If you have dissension in the ranks because of, say, adultery, then the cohesion is being broken and your ability to deliver your fighting capability is undermined."

The rest of the world does not see the Army like this, however. I put it to the Brigadier that most people see the army as run by the upper classes and as having a culture that is both sexist and racist.

"I think that is stereotyping, but you are right - that is what people think. We ran 34 focus groups across the country and you are right, there are these perceptions of a socially stratified army. Officers are seen as public school-boys and squaddies as sort of football hooligan in uniform essentially. But this is not the real Army anymore."

Some people in the real Army, however, do not agree. Major Eric Joyce talks of "hardcore conservative" values and sees class as the main culprit. "It all extends from the norms that dominate the army. They are misogynistic, racist etc. That is part of the culture in the upper and upper-middle classes."

The spark for recruiting more ethnic minorities and women came from the outside - mainly from European legislation - and they have a long way to go. For instance, all three services today have a grand total of 2,380 female officers compared with 30,295 male. In the ranks there are 12,450 women as compared with 165,700 men.

The Army is now playing catch up. It has put in place such things as "gender-free training", a 24-hour helpline and a "harassment team". Some say this is political correctness gone mad, others insist it is not enough. PR is not the Army's strong point (perhaps because it is carried out by soldiers whose ideas of spin have nothing to do with doctoring).

The Army, for instance, insists that the sexual harassment court martials send out the right signals to recruits and soldiers. "We are aware that we are taking a risk in terms of PR in exposing some of these cases. But we are determined to root out indiscipline and what we consider unacceptable behaviour," says the brigadier.

And this takes us back toAldershot and the evidence given by some of the soldiers with hackles on their heads. One has said that the padre had an "earthy" sense of humour and gives this example: "The padre asked me if I had any risque photographs to show him of my wife. I said no and he asked me if I wanted any. I laughed."

The hearing is expected to end early next week. The identity crisis is expected to continue for some time.

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