At one level, the row that has broken out about the British Army’s new recruitment campaign — “Army Belonging 2018” — is part of the intergenerational cleavage that divides much of UK politics. Among certain groups, the armed forces are seen as outdated and stuck in the early 20th century.
The new social media campaign addresses these issues explicitly. It’s fine to be gay, to cry, to show emotion, to come from different faiths — the Army is very much an equal opportunity employer. This is a message to recruit the Millennial generation for whom inclusiveness, tolerance, and belief in a meritocracy are taken for granted. The negative reactions, by and large, comes from a generation of critics all too willing to dismiss such “pandering” as “political correctness.
This is not to say that the Army and the MOD has always got its recruitment campaigns right. Over the last decade, many TV ads portrayed jobs in the Army and Royal Navy as international social work without mentioning the fact that all branches of the armed forces are fighting arms of the British state. This attracted recruits with a somewhat rosy-eyed view of what they were signing up for.
The Army tag line “Be the Best” has come under fire for being “elitist and dated”, unfortunate as it is meant to be about personal betterment and self-fulfilment. The American version on which it is based, “Be All You Can Be”, captures the intention with less ambiguity and is still in use.
At present all three UK services are significantly under-recruited, with the Army 4,000 below its greatly reduced target of 82,000 and the Navy even worse off. This is partly due to the large number of 18-year-olds who now go to university, and partly to the fact that women and ethnic minority members are less willing to consider a military career. Appealing to these groups has shaped the new ad campaign.
The armed forces also face the dilemma of not having an enemy to focus on. While engaged in Afghanistan, recruitment to the infantry was healthy. Absent the prospect of that sort of adventure, the appeal to 16- to 25-year-olds is much more limited. Meanwhile, the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, with both the danger and the political ambiguity of the missions, has made the parents of this age group far less supportive of their children enlisting, a concern magnified in families from black and Asian communities.
Whether the new ad campaign will fill these gaps is also only part of the personnel issues. As well as difficulties over recruitment, all three services have problems over retention. The armed forces are underfunded and overextended as Britain tries to project an image of a full spectrum military capability without being willing to pay for it.
Lacking a clear focus on the strategic mission and trying to fulfil all roles on a shrinking budget, it is no surprise that within the Army the slogan “Join the Army – be the best” is parodied as “Join the Army – be depressed”.