ForcesWatch comment

An inclusive, emotionally supportive British Army? Not yet.
10/01/2018

ForcesWatch comment on the 2018 British Army recruitment advertising campaign

A shorter version of this article is published by The Huffington Post

The new British Army advertising campaign focuses on its ability to ‘emotionally and physically’ support recruits from all backgrounds. It is designed to promote an inclusive image, saying that it is fine to be emotional, to be gay, to be from ethnic minority backgrounds - everyone is accepted and treated well in the Army.

ForcesWatch welcomes any commitments and improvements the military makes to the welfare of soldiers. If the British Army is truly to be ‘the best’ then it must treat its personnel with dignity and respect and it must champion human rights.

However, we caution that the reality of military life is not accurately represented in this new campaign, and that the welfare of the core group of recruits into the Army should not be overlooked.

The British Army is struggling with recruitment, but it is also struggling with retention. Improving the conditions for soldiers, and recruiting an adult-only force, would improve retention rates and save money. This would be far better than continuing to splash out on expensive and often unpopular recruitment advertising campaigns.

What’s behind this new campaign?

While the core recruitment pool for the British Army is white, young, male and working class, they are seeking to diversify their intake by recruiting more females and more black, Asian and ethnic minority people. They are however, continuing to target young people and the working class as a matter of policy.

The UK is the only country in Europe and the only major military power to recruit at 16. Although under 18 year olds cannot be deployed until they turn 18, there are dangers and long-term disadvantages associated with early enlistment and training. The very youngest recruits are channelled into the most dangerous roles. Over one third of recruits into the UK army are under 18, and four fifths of under 18 year olds in the military go into the army. 

This campaign is part of the 'This is Belonging' marketing campaign launched a year ago, which has attracted criticism for its highly unbalanced view of military life and for taking advantage of the developmental stages of the adolescent brain, particularly among the most vulnerable – namely, the formation of social identity and the need to feel a sense of belonging.

The welfare of soldiers and veterans

Despite the image portrayed in this new advertising campaign, many people in the military are not happy or satisfied. 40% of non-officers are actively looking for work outside military, and only 39% would recommend enlisting to a friend. People in other jobs are more likely than soldiers to say they enjoy their work. The most common reasons for soldiers leaving are low morale, low pay, lack of job satisfaction and impact on family life. (See here and here)

A very ‘masculine’ environment with endemic bullying and sexual harassment continues to be a serious problem in the Army. In 2016, 1 in 15 soldiers said they had been bullied by other soldiers in the last year. In 2015, 1 in 8 women in the army (about 1000) said they had had a ‘particularly upsetting’ experience of sexual bullying. Women are twice as likely to be sexually bullied in the army as in other jobs. Younger recruits are at a greater risk of bullying, harassment and self-harm during training than older recruits. (See here and here.)

Stress-related mental health problems are more common in military populations than in the general population, particularly among veterans. A study in 2015 found that military personnel were about twice as likely as the general population to have 'common mental disorders' (anxiety and depression, not PTSD). This particularly affects younger recruits who also have high rates of harmful drinking and to behave violently on return from combat. Whereas defence ministers often argue that war only affects the mental health of a small minority of the current armed forces they often ignore the higher prevalence of problems experienced by veterans who have left. In the British armed forces, rates of PTSD among ex-forces war veterans have been found to be three times as high as personnel who deployed to war and are still in service. Heavy drinking, anxiety and depression, and self-harming behaviour are all serious issues faced by veterans.

The soldiers most likely to suffer mental health problems are those who :

-  enlist at a young age and/or are from a deprived background;

- are deployed to war in a frontline combat role, meaning one where the frequency of traumatic experiences is greater; and/or

- struggle to re-adjust to civilian life after leaving the forces, perhaps lacking a strong social support network.

The youngest recruits face the greatest long-term mental health risks. There is a 64% increased risk of suicide among young men (under 20) in the Army when compared to the general population.

There is clearly much work still to be done before the reality of life in the Army matches the recruitment advertisements. Stopping recruiting under 18 year olds and the targeting of socio-economically disadvantaged young people would improve the overall welfare of Army personnel..

Retention struggles (see here)

The Army could mitigate its retention struggles by improving conditions for soldiers, and by raising the minimum age of recruitment to 18.

A third of under-18s who enlist into the army, amounting to several hundred individuals per year, leave or are discharged before completing training. Almost half of those who leave school at 16 to join the army have left it within four years. Those with poor GCSE grades are far more likely than those with higher grades to drop out of training.

This contributes to a high rate of unemployment and deprivation among veterans, particularly if they are young, were in the Army, and left full-time education early. Research by the British Legion has found that the unemployment rate among working-age veterans is approximately twice the civilian rate; a lack of transferable, accredited qualifications acquired in service is a common complaint.

Even the most disadvantaged sixteen to seventeen year olds are now much more likely to be in full time education than not in education or employment. So while more young people are staying in education and getting more qualifications, the Army is encouraging them to leave

The Army must listen to criticism

We are not alone in our scepticism about this new Army campaign. Some people from the military community feel that the Army is pandering to ‘political correctness’ - soldiers should ‘toughen up’, not ‘cry harassment’ and only people who ‘want to fight and want to be soldiers’ should enlist.

However, we feel that on the contrary the Army has not gone far enough to improve conditions and the welfare of its soldiers and of veterans. A better approach would be to focus on retention, and stop recruiting and channelling under 18 year olds into roles which they are likely to leave early, and for which they may not be as well-equipped as adults. The Army should also cease targeting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and pulling them away from education; people should be encouraged to enlist only once they have gained qualifications that will help them on a return to civilian life. They must also dramatically improve support for veterans, particularly those who have served in combat zones.

What we do agree with among the common criticisms of the campaign is that people should be aware when enlisting that Army life is not all fun and games, it can be very tough and can seriously endanger your mental and physical health. You should only enlist if you absolutely are prepared for this, and if you are willing and prepared to fight, to kill, to die, and to be mentally or physically injured for the cause of current military operations - are they worth it? Do you morally agree with them? How much do you know about them?

Finally - although it is very difficult for many soldiers and for veterans to speak out about difficulties they encounter during or after military service, the rosy picture painted in this new campaign is far from familiar to all. Joe Glenton, Afghanistan veteran and author of Soldier Box, had this to say today:

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