The British army is currently in the midst of a severe recruitment crisis. Despite the Ministry of Defence’s upbeat press release last month reporting an increase of nearly 12 per cent in recruitment, it couldn’t hide the fact the army still has a 3,500 shortfall in numbers this year, These figures echoed an earlier report that found the total army intake fell by nearly one-third between 2002 an 2005. Unsurprisingly, this manpower shortage has led to the weakening of the army’s frontline fighting capability, according to an internal Whitehall memo leaked in March.
While there is a consensus among military recruiters that recent social changes – relatively high employment, the expansion of higher education and greater opportunity to travel – have negatively affected recruitment, it is undoubtedly the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are causing the most serious image problems for the army.
The commander of the Army Recruiting Group Brigadier Andrew Jackson notes, "we cannot pretend Iraq isn’t a factor. It is reasonable to assume that the officer community might have thought more deeply about the wider implications of the army’s role in Iraq." What these "wider implications" might be were made plain in 2005 by the Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Michael Walker when he conceded that the army’s ability to attract recruits had decreased because the public saw the armed forces as ‘guilty by association’ with Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq.
So, what do you do when the reality of a job is exactly what is turning people off from applying for that job? The answer, of course, is better marketing and advertising.
Since the end of national service and the advent of an all-volunteer force, the army has used an array of tools to attract new recruits, from recruiting in schools to TV advertising – I remember an army recruiter visiting my school when I was just 13 and playing a video in assembly which was soundtracked by the 80’s hit Holding Out For A Hero.
In recent years the army’s marketing campaigns have become increasingly sophisticated and important to enticing new recruits, with a £36 million annual advertising budget aiming to bring in 23,000 young men and women a year. At one time or another top ad agencies such as Saatchi & Saatchi, Publicis and Haymarket Network have all taken on what has been called ‘the UK’s toughest marketing brief’.
Last year Precision Marketing magazine reported that the army, along with the navy and RAF, had launched direct marketing initiatives targeting teenagers. The most groundbreaking example was the Everest West Ridge campaign, in which almost-live adverts, showing an attempt by British soldiers to reach the summit of the world’s tallest mountain, were broadcast to the nation. Mark Bainbridge, then the army’s head of marketing (he quit his post last month) saw it as a perfect opportunity to show the army pushing itself to the limit in a non-combat situation. Indeed, he boasted that the campaign was the most successful the army had ever run, resulting in a 100 per cent rises in enquiries quarter by quarter.
The army, of course, denied that this campaign was part of a "don’t mention the war" strategy, pointing to their ‘Forward as one’ campaign, which featured "battlefield situations." However, no matter how ‘real’ the army makes its advertising, it is unlikely to mention the 1,500 servicemen and women who have needed psychiatric treatment after serving in Iraq. Or the recent news that there are 8,500 former soldiers in our prisons. Or that one third of homeless people have served in the armed forces. And let’s not get started on the many Iraqi and Afghan civilians killed by British forces.
Another successful army marketing initiative was the 2000 launch of ARMY magazine, aimed at 13-17 year old "pre-eligibles" – those children too young to join up but who have expressed an interest in the army. Accepting the Association of Publishing Agencies (APA) award for most effective public-sector title in 2005, Bainbridge noted that "in an increasingly challenging environment" ARMY magazine has become "an increasingly powerful tool in our war for talent." According to APA, it has done this by staying "firmly focused on the key recruitment triggers – rewarding career structures, training, travel, glamour, adventure, camaraderie, responsibility and diversity."
Prince Harry’s deployment to Afghanistan in December 2007 – with our pliant media given extensive, pre-arranged, access – can be seen as an extension of these deliberate and extensive marketing strategies. Brigadier Jackson recently noted there was anecdotal evidence that the prince had encouraged other people to join: "Young people generally, those who are seeking a challenge or a rewarding job and a bit of action and adventure, are attracted by the images they see coming back from places like Iraq and, particularly, Afghanistan … and maybe the response to Harry’s comments indicates that."
The ethics of army marketing are further damaged by the fact that it is disproportionately aimed at the most vulnerable and insecure members of society – exactly the people who will find it most difficult to counter the army’s false promises of inclusivity, masculinity and camaraderie. Army marketeers are especially keen to reach "gatekeepers" – the term they use for those, such as parents and friends, who have the greatest influence over the potential recruit. At Ease, a voluntary organisation that provides support to members of the armed services, points out that the army concentrates its recruitment on "areas where educational levels are low, unemployment is high and poverty is advancing."
Fittingly, it is the centre of military power in the world that has spawned the most effective resistance to this attempted militarization of our children. In the United States there is a vibrant nationwide counter-recruitment movement that has achieved some notable victories, with students regularly forcing military recruiters from their schools. And although Britain does not have a well-established and organized counter-recruitment movement like the US, there are groups and concerned individuals working to resist the army’s expensive marketing campaigns. For example, the courageous Rose Gentle of Military Families Against the War, whose 19-year old son died in Iraq in 2003, has tirelessly campaigned both against the war in Iraq and the army recruiting in schools. In March this year University College London voted to ban the military from setting up recruitment stalls at freshers’ fairs and to break off links with the Officer Training Corps, while the National Union of Teachers recently vowed to back any school staff who wanted to boycott recruitment campaigns by the armed forces.
This struggle between military recruiters and activist counter-recruiters is a gross mismatch. The former are specially-trained, well-paid, full-time servicemen and women assisted by multi-million pound advertising campaigns, while the latter are often unpaid, part-time volunteers on a small budget, if any at all. However, with its potential to negatively influence the British military’s capacity to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the marketing of the army could not be more important and it is therefore imperative that we act now, if only to protect our children in the battle for their minds and lives.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England. [email protected]