Opinion: Army recruiters can't hide reality of war

Over the weekend, leaked MoD documents confirmed what many of us had already suspected: that despite claims to the contrary, the Army is facing a major recruitment crisis, just when it most requires more willing soldiers.

The shortfall, according to documents penned by the director of infantry, is around 3,000. Apparently, numbers went into freefall after January 2005 – soldiers were rushing to hand in their 12 months' notice, while recruitment went into a sharp decline.

Various factors are thought to have played a part. The fact that the decline happened soon after the first court martial over mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Camp Breadbasket can surely have been no coincidence. Likewise, the unseemly ping-pong game of denials and accusations over kit shortages hardly created an impression of a military valued by its paymasters. And then, of course, there are the body bags.

The problem is that the bloodiness of the continuing hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq seems to have come as something of a surprise to potential and new recruits, which is hardly surprising given that for years, a career in the Army has been marketed as rather like an extreme outdoor adventure course with free fatigues.

Having in the 1990s exhorted young men to join the Army to ‘Be the Best', in 2001 the focus switched to the career opportunities, ranging from construction and engineering to education and IT. The emphasis was on personal success and the opportunity to obtain skills, rather than risk – on adventure, rather than danger. It applied a veneer of predictability and organisation that few in the arena of war would recognise.

In fact, in recent months, recruitment advertising has taken on a more realistic hue, with increasing images of combat. But the legacy of the ‘progressive approach' to Army recruitment is clear to see in the reports of ongoing atrocities in Afghanistan and Iraq. The news of the 100th British soldier killed in Iraq seemed to be marked by a collective shock among domestic journalists at the fact that war could lead to soldiers' deaths.  

So how is the Army going to maintain a steady supply of personnel? Certainly, marketing and PR are going to have to do more than trigger an adventure gene in school-leavers; and in modern Britain, relying on patriotism is hardly realistic. In the US, recruiters are targeting parents to reassure them of the wisdom of sending their children to war.

Then there's always conscription...

kate.nicholas@haynet.com

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