He's trained to jump into trenches and kill. But can he also be house-trained?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
What is the image of today's soldier? Is it of a clean-shaven, politically correct youngserviceman keen to do his duty? Or is it a drunken yob, abusing locals, harassing women and bullying recruits?

The British army has suffered something of a PR nightmare, with a succession of cases of bullying, drunkenness and worse. Last month three British soldiers were fined for indecency after stripping naked in a crowded Cyprus bar. The month previously an investigation was launched after soldiers allegedly tried to scrub a black soldier "clean and white".

But perhaps the case that did most to damage was that of the sexual assault and murder of Louise Jensen in Cyprus by three soldiers who were so drunk that they could not remember for 24 hours where they had buried her body.

Perhaps heeding this and trying to usher in the era of the politically correct soldier, George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, is to issue a mission statement for the armed forces which will outlaw racism, sexism and bullying, it was revealed yesterday. "The mission statement will say they are here to defend our country and to fulfil their obligations. But it will also say that they are part of the community and have responsibilities," Mr Robertson said.

Some, like Lt-Col Bob Stewart, who served in Bosnia, thought the mission statement was unnecessary, believing that the problems of bad behaviour were limited to the few.

"[Soldiers] know exactly what the score is and it's laid down in the Queen's regulations and the Army Act of 1955," he said yesterday. "Everyone knows you shouldn't discriminate on grounds of sex or race. In the armed forces it's somewhat different on occasion but fundamentally everyone knows that."

But according to one former officer in the Horse Guards, widely viewed as one of the worst offenders, the likelihood of a "politically correct" armed forces is a slim one.

"If that mission statement had arrived while I was there my guys would have laughed at it," said the former officer. "You can't have a PC soldier. You're training people to be aggressive. The kind of guy that's going to leap into a trench and kill someone is probably not going to help some nice Indian chap cross the road."

It was not the services that were the problem, he said, but the soldiers' backgrounds.

"I had two in my troop that couldn't read properly," he said. "A lot of them come off pretty grim council estates and whilst you might be able to make a politically correct officer, with the best will in the world you're never going to do it for them."

Drink is also a factor. Kipling's "single man in barracks" looked forward to a drunken Saturday night as his only release, and the Army traditionally turned a blind eye. It had, the officer suggested, its own remedies: "If they're drunk and they're meant to be on parade and you go to their room and they're lying in a pool of piss then you lock them up for a day."

The day after the arrest of the three soldiers for Louise Jensen's murder an army spokesman said that soldiers "work hard, play hard". Such explanations may not be excuses, but it fuels an image of sanctioned bad behaviour that does nothing to endear it to civilians - or potential recruits. Less than1 per cent of soldiers are black, while approximately 6 per cent are women.

Despite attempts to recruit more soldiers from the ethnic minorities, the former officer said: "To be honest you'll get abuse whatever colour you are. If you're black you'll get called black bastard, if you're spotty you'll get called spotty bastard - it just depends what they see as your weakness."

The Ministry of Defence was keen to stress yesterday that the section dealing with behaviour in the Army was "one of the smaller elements of the review. The behavioural aspect will be caring for one's workforce, that sort of general heading", a spokesman said.

The former officer suggested, kindness can be a handicap: "They banned shouting at the young guys and, for example, they were allowed to run in trainers instead of their boots. But all that happened was that instead of weeding out the wrong guys early, these guys arrived in the regiment and couldn't hack it.

"You actually needed the toughest ones to do the job. That's what the military culture is for."