Is the debate over the new Army recruitment adverts taking attention away from the real issues?

With the general perception of Army recruitment adverts being that they portray an organisation looking for fit, robust and committed young people, the new diversity-based ones currently on our screens are a slight departure in that they focus on the Army’s support for individuals as they enter the organisation and as they pursue their careers.

This would seem to be an entirely sensible message to be sending.  Joining the Army is a big step to take in anyone’s life and just like committing to a career in any organisation, very few will know everything about what is expected, what life will be like and how supportive the culture will be.  The recent adverts didn’t replace all the previous messages, didn’t say we don’t want intelligent, fit and committed recruits and have lowered the standards, didn’t say there are quotas and different standards for different groups; they just pointed out that if you were keen on a career for all the traditional reasons but were a bit unsure about how people will treat you, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.  And yes, they said some of that through the lens of a diverse range of people.

Private Laura Docherty Royal Army Medical Corp patrols with A Company, 1 R IRISH on l around PB Kalang

The ensuing media coverage was sparked by the comments from former senior officers who, quite correctly, pointed out that the Army needs to be capable of succeeding at everything from conflict to dealing with strikes and disasters at home.  They also correctly pointed out that the Army was not recruiting enough young people.  So far so good but probably general knowledge as much as incisive military analysis!  There then appears to be a great leap, unsupported by facts or evidence, to their next assertion that appealing to a wider pool of potential talent for the Army and reassuring those with the potential to be excellent soldiers about the reception and support they will receive, will somehow detract from the Army’s capability and effectiveness.

Beyond the emotive language and pointlessness of phrases like “not being jolly nice to people” or “PC-addled senior officers” that have appeared, the reality is that there is a set of objective standards that define good soldiers and leaders, and a few subjective ones too.  They could be pretty much summed up as competence, commitment and compassion – with plenty of historical evidence from the harshest combat environments to support them.  There is equally as much evidence that these qualities are not limited to one race, one nationality, one gender or one sexual orientation.  So, the retired officers’ view that broadening the Army’s appeal to a diverse audience reduces combat effectiveness is the antithesis of the real situation and potentially damaging to the fighting ability they are so keen to preserve.  Their own argument that the Army is under recruited even more starkly underlines the need to increase the number of people who might think positively about a career in the Army and that is precisely what the new adverts, combined with a few of the more traditional “active duty” ones will do.  If the Army manages to appeal to a more diverse pool of potential recruits its ability to pick the best, the fittest and the most talented will improve and standards will be raised rather than lowered.

What the adverts do show is that the current leadership of the Army are working hard on developing Inclusive leadership skills throughout the organisation and they may well be ahead of some other parts of the private and public sector in doing so.  The retired senior officers might better help the Army by knowing and understanding just how these skills are leading to better outputs, greater operational success and supporting dedicated and operationally experienced soldiers like the ones in the adverts.

All the evidence from the private and public sector, as well as from studying the Armed Forces of democratic nations, points to respect for others, appropriate behaviour and eradicating offensive language and actions being essential for cohesion and commitment to the organisation and its goals.  To try to argue that the opposite would create a great Army that would be fully recruited is as ridiculous as suggesting that the Army’s great work on mental health and other initiatives to support soldiers who often have incredibly stressful tasks to perform is “political correctness gone mad”.  So, ex senior officers, let’s by all means have a debate about speeding up the recruitment process or a debate about the quality of accommodation (unless good barracks make soldiers soft and there was nothing wrong with Nissen huts) but please don’t waste any more words trying to justify prejudice and uncaring leadership.

The Garnett Foundation 2018