Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
This week, we remember.
Yesterday was Armistice Day: at 11 o’clock many observed the Two Minute Silence. The first was in 1919, on the anniversary of the guns finally falling silent in what the victory medal awarded to 5.7 million Allied veterans stated was the Great War for Civilisation.
On Sunday, the annual service at the Cenotaph will honour the dead of both World Wars and subsequent conflicts. The Queen will attend but will be absent from Saturday’s Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall.
A Remembrance poppy is not just a symbol of respect for past sacrifice but a reminder to civilians about present-day military service. As the Second World War and even National Service becomes the stuff of history rather than living memory – the last National Servicemen were demobbed in 1963 – few consider themselves members of the “Armed Forces Community” of serving personnel, veterans and their families.
With the total full-time strength of the regular Armed Forces currently hovering around 159,000, employees of Tesco or NHS Scotland are probably more familiar to most of us than Service personnel.
Since the end of combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, the Armed Forces have largely been off the civilian radar. When they have come to our attention, it’s generally because of the helpful if slightly hum-drum stuff of Military Aid to the Civil Authorities rather than the heroics of battle. Building Nightingale hospitals or dealing with floods might show off the can-do spirit of the Forces but lacks a certain derring-do.
A recent exception has been Operation Pitting, the August rescue mission to evacuate thousands from Kabul following the unanticipated Taliban advance. Suddenly, Forces’ personnel were more than first responders with weapons-training. The public was getting some bangs – or the prospect of some bangs – for its buck. Or rather for the £39.8 billion annual defence budget.
Jo(e) Public seems unbothered if the Armed Forces remain largely invisible, venturing out for crowd-pleasing displays of clockwork-like ceremony, such as at the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. After all, despite their comparatively low profile, in the Hansard Society’s 2019 Audit of Public Engagement, 74 per cent were confident that the Forces would act in the public’s best interest. The Government scored 33 per cent. The favourable findings reflect stellar levels of public support for the military ever since the late Blair era.
Neither the Government, some MPs nor some Ministry of Defence civilian staff seem fully to share the public’s admiration. Instead they appear actively to dislike a culture which has made Britain’s forces globally respected military players, reflected by the Royal Marines’ recent performance against the US Marine Corps. (One American military blog reports that the RM are the US troops’ favourite foreign military to train with, not least because they ‘almost drank us under the table’.)
On Monday, Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, had ‘full and frank discussion about a range of issues’ with senior Army commanders. Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, Army Chief General, stated there were ‘core and cultural issues’ which need addressing. The carpeting seems to have been prompted, in part, by a Defence Committee Report, Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces, largely based on a survey of Servicewomen and female veterans.
Almost two-thirds of female personnel have experienced bullying, harassment and discrimination, including sexual assault. Such findings are at odds with the Army’s Values and Standards, formalised in 2000, which prioritised ‘respect for others’. Institutional soul-searching and wheel reinvention can be expected over the coming months, together with a long overdue overhaul of complaints’ procedures.
When not inevitably banging on about career-family life balance, the report also stated that ‘without compromising physical standards for ground close combat roles’, women’s fitness tests ‘should have due regard for hormonal changes linked to pregnancy and menopause’. Although the levels of abuse in the report produced shock-horror headlines, less widely reported was that 90 per cent of women who participated in the voluntary survey would recommend a career in the Forces to other women and 84 per cent said their overall experience of Forces’ life was good or very good.
The Defence Committee tut-tutted that aspects of their culture highlight the Armed Forces are still a man’s world. On Tuesday this point was almost conceded by General Sir Nick Carter, the outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff, who observed to members that a ‘laddish culture’ was not exactly discouraged, not least because ‘ultimately our soldiers have to go close and personal with the enemy’.
For all the CDS’s focus on the ‘long term cultural change’ needed to quell anti-social behaviour within its ranks, what is being overlooked is the military’s main mission: defeating the country’s enemies, often by killing them.
Those who would prefer to see an inclusive rainbow flag rather than the Union Jack flying permanently over MoD’s main building seem to forget the demands of combat effectiveness.
In the past few decades successive governments have been keen that the Armed Forces should reflect the civilian society they serve. Why? Two-thirds of civilians are overweight; one third obese. The 2020 British Social Attitudes survey highlights that the proportion who agree that schools should teach children to obey authority fell from 85 per cent in 2004 to 72 per cent in 2019. This suggests that some might not have much truck with hierarchical, rules-based organisations.
Reflecting society is often a euphemism for recruiting more women and people from ethnic minorities. For all the Forces’ talk of ‘technical trades’ and playing down combat, most women would not contemplate joining up any more than they would glove up and get into a boxing ring with Tyson Fury. Nascent research suggests the majority of Our Girls already have family links within the Services.
Whether nature or nurture, most civilian women have no problem accepting the Forces remain a male domain, just like Lord’s cricket ground or the construction industry. Perhaps the MoD should start asking them. After all, despite being ruled by their hormones – a message implicit in the Defence Committee’s report – women taxpayers finance the defence budget.
In these woke-not-bloke days, laddish culture is of course only a step or two away from toxic masculinity.
As the country gathers around its war memorials on Sunday, the service and sacrifice of the fallen, their stoicism, resilience and courage, will be contemplated.
There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, listed on those memorials commemorating Britain’s war dead who fought in uniform for Queen (or King) and country.
Lest we forget, with very few exceptions, all of them are men.