This libidinous major is a model Army officer

To those of us raised in barracks, the idea they're hotbeds of misbehaviour is rather startling
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Now that the fruity and rather diverting case of the randy major and over-available warrant officer has reached its conclusion, with both protagonists losing out at an employment tribunal, an intriguing back story has emerged.

Now that the fruity and rather diverting case of the randy major and over-available warrant officer has reached its conclusion, with both protagonists losing out at an employment tribunal, an intriguing back story has emerged.

A former fellow-officer of Major Alistair Ross, whose affair with WO Angela McConnell led to allegations of sexual harassment, has revealed that, even in his bachelor days, Ross had something of a reputation. While out hunting in Yorkshire - an essential character-building exercise for future tank commanders - he met a woman and, as they say in equestrian circles, pulled. Later that day, on his way back from hunting, he was seen in a gateway, holding two horses while, as the account has it, "fumbling" with the woman.

Only readers who have enjoyed riding to hounds will appreciate quite how impressive an achievement this must have been. It is not unusual to find romance on the hunting field, where brisk activity is interspersed by long periods of hanging around, but it is normal to return home, unsaddle and feed your horse before taking the matter any further. On grounds of technique alone, the business of fumbling with heavy tweed and britches while holding both his horse and hers, suggests a combination of qualities - enterprise, chivalry, an ability to multi-task under pressure - that would stand Major Ross in good stead as an officer.

But it all went too far. Years later, the subaltern had had become a major, the dashing bachelor a middle-aged adulterer. In its ruling, the court described Ross as "no stranger to extra-marital affairs" and he certainly seems to have had trouble keeping his mess trousers zipped up, particularly when female junior ranks were around.

More interestingly, evidence in the case has suggested that a culture of predatory promiscuity has established itself in some parts of the Army. Officers in Ross's regiment, the King's Royal Hussars, kept a "bet book" on which women in the regiment might be seduced. Even the commanding officer entered into the spirit of things, sending, it was said in court, a sexy Christmas calendar by e-mail to some of his officers. "The Army is a hotbed of sex," says Angela McConnell.

All this will doubtless have caused huffing and puffing over breakfast tables as retired cavalry officers lament the decline of gentlemanly standards in the mess. Others might suspect that, although women can progress in the armed forces as never before, a bullying, semi-coercive attitude to sex lives on among the men. Either way, it will be assumed that these revelations will have harmed the Army's image.

I wonder. Over the past 25 years or so, perceptions of the armed forces have changed considerably. During the 1970s, its recruiting drives emphasised fun, sport and the chance to travel - not unlike an ad for one of today's adventure holidays. For the ambitious and career-minded, the Army was rarely a serious option.

Four high-profile wars and a general air of international crisis have changed all that. Military life suddenly has the drama, seriousness and engagement with important events that is missing on Civvie Street. Films and books, notably the SAS stories of Andy McNab, have taken advantage of the military's new glamour, presenting soldiers as contemporary heroes who do a dirty, dangerous job the rest of us have neither the nerve nor the strength to do.

On reality TV shows, old-fashioned army training, with sergeant-majors screaming into the faces of recruits, has established itself as a truer test of character than anything dreamt up by management psychologist. In one of the better of these programmes, The Carrot and the Stick, one team of young men, nurtured and motivated in a caring, huggy way, competed against another, which was bullied and brutalised in military fashion; it was no surprise that the military bunch, now hard-eyed skinheads, won the day.

These sharply glamorised versions of army life offer a seductive alternative to modern proprieties. There, violence in pursuit of an objective is not only acceptable but right. Action is superior to thought. Uncertainty, analysis and feeling are signs of weakness. Rank and hierarchy are essential.

So, far from running counter to the Army's new image, the idea that sex too can be direct and simple, a matter of achieving a goal without rendering oneself vulnerable, is entirely consistent with it. Like SAS training, it may be rough, tough and old-fashioned, but it seems to work. In an odd sense, the well-publicised misbehaviour of the major and the warrant officer in the medals room during a Christmas party might have added to the allure and glamour of life in the modern military.

To those of us raised in barracks in Catterick, Sandhurst, Tidworth and Lisburn, the idea that they are now hotbeds of misbehaviour, that, as Angela McConnell put it, "if they discharged everybody... who had an affair, there wouldn't be an Army" remains rather startling. On the other hand, there was perhaps always something suspect about officers' obsession with dressing up, with all that marching about in full dress - garish uniforms jangling with metal, extraordinarily tight trousers, shiny boots with spurs. Sex and soldiery, one suspects, have been messmates for rather longer than one might think.

terblacker@aol.com

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