Yes, society has changed. But we still need hard men (and women) in the British Army to defend us, writes MAX HASTINGS
The British Army, pride of Henry V and the dukes of Marlborough and Wellington, is telling prospective new recruits that they are welcome to pray; get emotional; even cry.
As a result, across the land, the sound can be heard of veteran sergeant-majors gnashing their false teeth.
Generations of soldiers, who themselves stood ramrod-straight on parade grounds amid bawled imprecations to ‘get some in, you horrible little man!’ will tremble at the prospect of seeing their successors parade to be tucked up in bed.
The fuss has been prompted by the appearance on YouTube of teaser animations for a new recruitment campaign with the strapline ‘UK Army Ad: This Is Belonging 2018’.
The British Army is telling prospective new recruits that they are welcome to pray; get emotional; even cry (pictured: British Army soldier in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2008)
With all three armed services struggling for manpower, market researchers have persuaded the Ministry of Defence that a new approach is needed, especially to attract more women, black and Asian minority soldiers.
General Sir Nick Carter, head of the Army, yesterday defended the advertising campaign, saying that it is all about promoting teamwork, esprit de corps and a sense of belonging.
Old warhorses nonetheless complain that the ads play to a spirit of ‘touchy-feely political correctness’ completely inappropriate for a force that exists to fight, to kill and to die.
Like many of my generation, I instinctively recoil from the soppiness of the ads, yet also recognise that the world has changed.
All three armed services struggling for manpower, leading market researchers to persuade the Ministry of Defence that a new approach is needed (pictured: the Yorkshire Regiment on exercise in Calgary, Canada)
By chance, I had lunch yesterday with Field-Marshal Lord Guthrie, who has seen more service than most men.
He was recalling with delight youthful experiences with the Welsh Guards and SAS.
He recalled an SAS observation post in a Muslim graveyard overlooking the Crater district of Aden during the 1967 insurgency, when the main fear was that the circling vultures would fall upon his men’s exposed posteriors.
He also described fighting almost naked warriors in the New Hebrides alongside the French Army, and combatting Somali bandits on the Kenyan border while he commanded President Jomo Kenyatta’s bodyguard. ‘We killed a lot of people’, he observed with relish.
Yet today, with only small contingents deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the British Army has become a very different beast from the adventurers’ paradise of Guthrie’s youth. It is predominantly a garrison force, fulfilling humdrum training duties.
In consequence, while applications for officer jobs remain strong, it has lost its appeal to young rankers who once welcomed opportunities to test themselves under fire.
With only small contingents deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the British Army has become a very different beast (pictured: British soldiers fire mortars in Basra, Iraq)
‘Things are much more difficult since we quit Afghanistan — our best recruiting sergeant’, a senior officer says ruefully.
Tiny as is the Army, with an established strength of only 82,000, it can today field only 80 per cent of that strength.
Many of those who do join up seek to acquire skills. Thus, specialist areas are well up to strength, apart from electronic technicians.
The key shortfall is in infantry numbers — riflemen to do the nation’s dirty work at the sharp end.
Young men considering a career realise that the talents of an infantryman — courage, toughness and dexterity with weapons — have no application in later civilian life unless, like many special forces veterans, they join security companies.
Thus Army chiefs scratch their heads about how to offer prospective recruits — ‘millennials’ born into the 21st century, for whom even the Falklands war is only a dim legend — a new proposition.
The market researchers’ answer is to emphasise the opportunity to belong to a great institution, to join a team. A general said to me yesterday: ‘We must deal with Britain as it is, not as it once was. A lot of soldiers, owning homes rather than living in barracks, are now weekly-commuters with working wives.
‘A new generation joins with a requirement to be nurtured, which is hard for older people to understand.’
We all know what he means.
My own memories of dalliance with the Army more than half a century ago involved an insouciance with weapons, vehicles, parachutes — indeed, risk of all kinds — that would give heart failure to the modern Health & Safety Executive, not to mention foolish civilian coroners.
The British people need to acknowledge that, if our Army is getting soppier, this is because the changing mood of our society is making it so.
We are almost insanely risk-averse. Innumerable legal cases brought against the Armed Forces, for alleged failures in a duty of care, have created a climate for which the nation, and not its generals, rightfully deserves blame.
An officer explains the new recruiting campaign: ‘To attract young men and women, especially from minorities, we have to get past the “gatekeepers” — head-teachers and parents who have read stories about bullying and victimisation.
‘They need to be convinced that their pupils and children are safe in our hands.’
He adds that, today — just as many so-called sports fans only watch others play, rather than get involved themselves — so, many aspirant military heroes feel more comfortable about dreaming a dream than living it out.
Thus, recruiters feel a need to promise that the new entry —many of whom are shockingly overweight because so is much of the youth of Britain — should not fear that they will be forced to exert themselves beyond their powers. And feel able to have a good cry if the mood takes them, because that is what we are all being urged to do by shrinks, telly pundits and the compassion industry.
General Sir Richard Shirreff, a former Nato deputy supreme commander, says he sympathises with his successors who have to
Tiny as is the Army, with an established strength of only 82,000, it can today field only 80 per cent of that strength (pictured: British soldiers at Camp Bastion marking the end of combat operations in Afghanistan)
deal with the pressure to comply with the spirit of the times.
‘The Army must do what it needs to do to get people in — it is trying to send an important message to anxious mums, that if their sons and daughters put on uniforms, they will get emotional support,’ he says.
‘What is also critical is that we should not drop standards, never lose sight of the fact that the Army exists to fight, and that fighting is a brutal, nasty business.’
Maintaining very high standards, in a world in which the mood of the times demands much less in other areas of life, is a tough proposition.
Also, many soldiers think it was a mistake to outsource recruiting to a civilian company, Capita Market Research, whose staff inevitably don’t even have the smallest understanding of warfare and its psychological demands.
I doubt if these civilians would laugh at the sort of harsh battlefield joke all soldiers share, exemplified by a memory of my own, from the 1982 Falklands war.
One dawn, on a crag outside Stanley, I stood beside a gunner officer who was correcting artillery fire by radio on groups of fleeing Argentine soldiers. We watched smoke-puffs landing amid the distant, tiny figures, some of whom fell.
He called on his battery, slightly to lengthen the range. As more puffs exploded, I mused aloud that it was a cold-blooded process, killing by remote control.
‘Yes,’ he said dryly, recalling our own night of fear under Argentine fire, ‘but it’s terribly satisfying, isn’t it!’
I can see why today’s British Army feels obliged to assure the nervous nellies, who compose an increasing proportion of our population, that their uniformed sons and daughters will not be treated as ’orrible little people by martinets wielding swagger sticks.
Many soldiers think it was a mistake to outsource recruiting to a civilian company, Capita Market Research, whose staff inevitably don’t even have the smallest understanding of warfare (pictured: former British Army Major Stewart Hill, now a painter after being seriously injured
But we should also recognise the limits of compassion among warriors. We need hard men, and now also hard women, to defend our national interests.
I remember Lord Guthrie saying, when he was Chief of the Defence Staff: ‘We’ve got used to being expected to fight wars without getting too many of our own men killed. But it is depressing that we are now also told that we need to be careful to avoid killing too many of the enemy!’
The spirit of Blenheim and Waterloo, of D-Day and, indeed, of the Falklands, has served Britain well.
We should not deride tears among our warriors, to which many of the greatest, Winston Churchill included, have been vulnerable.
But nor should we refuse to recognise, as Whitehall’s market researchers seem to wish to do, that toil, blood and sweat also remain indispensable.
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