Military Life: Army needs black faces in the guards

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The Independent Online
The Ministry of Defence will today announce a drive to recruit more members of the ethnic minorities and admit that the armed forces have got it wrong over racism in the past. Michael Streeter previews a new policy of zero tolerance.

The message from army chiefs remains the same: Your Country Still Needs You. From this morning, however, the old First World War slogan will be aimed primarily at black and Asian recruits, with the old visage of Lord Kitchener replaced by the image of a - rare - serving black officer.

The poster will be part of a television and newspaper advertisement campaign, created by Saatchi and Saatchi, which will also feature the Guards Division under the title "The Changing of the Guard".

The launch of a new Equal Opportunities Plan will accompanied by an admission that the Army has got its handling of racism wrong. In recent years there have been a string of well-publicised cases where young, black recruits have been subjected to appalling racial slurs and physical attacks.

As one senior officer put it: "We need to own up to the fact that we have got it wrong in the past." Accordingly, the head of the Army, General Sir Roger Wheeler will "draw a line in the sand" today and urge all his troops to cross it with him. In a message directed as much at those in the Army as potential recruits, he will claim that by joining forces they can set new standards in race relations.

Equally, those who refuse to embrace the new approach will be identified and dealt with as part of the problem. To back up this aim, there will be special full-time squads, probably Royal Military policemen, whose job will be to monitor and remove racial harassment. Critics will argue that such units will only effective if all its members are fully committed to the spirit, not just the letter, of the new approach, and have the authority to back their judgement.

There will also be concern that the re-working of the Lord Kitchener poster - a symbol of white, British imperialism - is not ideal to appeal to young blacks and Asians. Apart from the national advertising campaign, recruitment will concentrate on areas with a high percentage of ethnic minorities.

Already exploratory talks are taking place in Newham in east London and Sandwell in the West Midlands, while other areas will be considered in the future.

As part of the scheme, the Army is setting up its first specialist multi- racial Ethnic Minorities Recruiting Team, which will contain representatives from nine different ethnic backgrounds - all of them serving in the Army. In addition, a long-term programme of activities within local communities is planned to support the overall campaign. Senior officers and officials across the Ministry of Defence are embarrassed that just 1.04 per cent of military personnel come from the ethnic minorities .

The problem of racism has been most apparent in the more elite units. The Prince of Wales helped to bring concerns out into the open when he confided his anxiety about the lack of black faces among the guard at Buckingham Palace.

The Commission for Racial Equality recently warned the MoD to show real commitment to race equality and make substantial progress before next spring or face legal action.