The British Army hasn’t gone soft with its ads – it’s made a shrewd military move

As General Sir Nick Carter, head of the Army candidly admits, its old reliable recruiting pool of young white working class lads has been shrinking, a product of changing demographics, including a gradually falling birth rate

Wednesday 10 January 2018 17:44 GMT
New Army ad criticised for 'neglecting main group of people interested in joining'

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The usual cliché about the British Army is that it is always ready to fight the last war, rather than the next one. So the top brass are to be congratulated for trying, at least, to drag the Army’s recruitment strategy into the modern world, and attempting to build up the strength of undermanned battalions by appealing to the youth of 2018 – and not 1918.

To listen to some you’d think that the Army should still be relying on the Union flag and that famous Great War poster that had General Lord Kitchener staring out wearing his huge walrus moustache with pointed index finger, telling “Britons” that he “Wants You”. In any case the Army still “Wants You”: it’s just that the “You” has changed from being what it was in great-granddad’s day.

There is nothing wrong with the Army asking these sorts of question, in its modern campaign, such as: can I be gay in the Army? What if I get emotional in the Army? Can I practise my faith in the Army? Will I be listened to in the Army? Do I have to be a superhero to join the Army?

These are questions that would-be recruits have always fretted about, and honesty about them might have come in handy in the past.

The truth, as anyone who has served in the military will tell you, is that some of the Army’s greatest heroes and everyday soldiers at every rank have been gay, in or, rarely, out of the closet, and no one should really be too bothered about it. The same goes for Air Force and the Navy.

Indeed, the new Army “inclusive” recruitment drive is far from being unprecedented in its novelty or lack of raw patriotic appeal. I can remember British Army ads in the 1970s that told you that “we’ll help you see more of the world”, though they were less than frank about telling you that that included being tortured by the IRA in some barn in South Armagh.

Lads joined the army to “learn a skill” that would be useful in civilian life, like being an electrician or driving a truck. There were balmy images of life around the beach on the sun-kissed RAF bases on Cyprus. Only later did they discover it also meant going out and beating civilians until they told you where the terrorists were hiding. Ads for the armed forces have always been, shall we say, tangential, about the killing and maiming aspects of the role.

Nor is this new campaign so audacious as the gayest recruitment drive ever, for the American navy. Some four decades ago the United States Navy approached the Village People, of all people, to ask permission to use their new disco number “In The Navy” for a naval recruitment ad. The Village People, you may recall, had just had a huge hit with “YMCA” (go on – do the dance, and the actions) and their appeal was well understood. The People agreed – on condition that the group could film the music video/recruitment ad on a proper naval ship, which was duly what happened. I don’t think it did the US Navy, or the Village People, any harm.

The serious point is that our Army is too small to do what the politicians are asking it to do – even more the case if Northern Ireland kicks off again. Moreover, even though it is too small in its theoretical strength, its actual strength is even smaller because they can’t get the men and women they need to join up. As General Sir Nick Carter, head of the Army candidly admits, its old reliable recruiting pool of young white working class lads has been shrinking, a product of changing demographics, including a gradually falling birth rate. The other point is that to “Be the Best” the British army needs quality recruits from every background, and can no longer afford to ignore talent that happens to be female or brown skinned. We cannot afford – and nor can the country – to have a divisively white male armed forces, unwelcoming to women or people from minority ethnic backgrounds. The next stage is to make sure they get the responsibility and promotions that will continue to make the British Army the most effective force in the world, for its size.

In America, for example, it is perfectly apparent that black Americans can get to the top of the armed forces, and especially the US army, in a way they have not yet done in Britain. On the other hand, and, for some bad reasons, black troops have been overrepresented in all the wars America has fought, certainly since 1945, and notoriously in Vietnam, as the white college boys were much better at dodging the draft (ask George W Bush or Donald Trump). Latterly, to fight for freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan, black youngsters in depressed towns with no prospects were in fact targeted by the US army’s recruiters.

So increasing BAME representation in the armed forces has a bit of a double edge to it. I’d applaud the decision by members of the Royal Family to appoint BAME soldiers as equerries and ceremonial guards, but no one wants to see a situation where black men and women are fighting Britain’s wars because white Britons fail to join up in sufficient numbers, or are disproportionately used just to fill up the officer classes.

Still, the most urgent issue, to be honest, is to break down the dual no-win/catch-22 that afflicts young potential recruits who happen to be Muslim. On the one hand the racists and reactionaries argue that Muslims don’t want to join the forces because they aren’t “loyal” or “British” enough. But when Muslims do show up in the Army, Marines, Air Force or Navy, these same keyboard warriors say that they shouldn’t be there because Muslims cannot be “loyal” or “British”. It is one of the most pernicious of lies out there, and I for one am relieved that the Army, where teamwork and loyalty is literally a matter of life and death, is setting out to nail that lie and make this country a safer, better defended place for us all. The Army are the best and they can be better.

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