Britain’s rainbow warriors?

On Sunday October 21st 2012 the Observer Review ran a double-page photo-spread feature entitled, ‘Ethnic minorities in the armed services – in pictures’. It showed ten pictures of individuals, each with a brief caption giving biographical details, motives for joining or memories of particular experiences. Three were in the air force, four in the navy and four in the army.

Here’s a quick recap of numbers of ethnic minorities in all three services, according to latest figures from the Defence Analytical Services Agency.

In total, in 2012 the three services had 6.9%. This breaks down as follows: Royal Navy (3.5%)   British Army (9.9%)    RAF (2.0%).

Several aspects of this Observer feature are significant.

1. The timing of this news story is intriguing. The feature was introduced as a ‘minority report from the armed services’. The Observer reporter, Killian Fox, explained what had led 25 year-old photographer Kit Oates to seek permission from the MoD to take the portraits. Oates apparently told him:

“I wanted to highlight another facet of our multicultural society.”

At first, the MoD refused Oates access, but then in April there was a change of heart. Oates was allowed to spend four days in bases in the south of England photographing and ’interviewing’ recruits.

A comment by defence secretary Phillip Hammond that the armed services faced a challenge in recruiting minorities was cited as proof that the government was concerned. But there was no other mention of negative reports that might have prompted such concern.

By coincidence, Military Migrants, which documents the history of minority recruitment and institutional reform in some detail, was published on October 19.

2. None of the individuals represented in the gallery of pictures could possibly be described as recruits, a term normally used to refer to those in training. For a start, their ages ranged from 24 to 52. The three RAF representatives were all involved in recruiting and outreach. By no stretch of the imagination can a soldier who has been deployed in Afghanistan, or a navy chef who joined in 2001 and once served on the front line near Uzbekistan, be counted as trainees.

So why did the Observer report that Oates visited bases to record the views of recruits when the examples presented have clocked up years of service? The feature appears in an arts and media section probably unused to fine distinctions between a recruit and a recruiting commander. But then Oates himself places great emphasis on his subjects’ ethnic heritage as a factor in their decision to join the UK military.

3. One explanation for the army’s greater diversity is that it has recruited far more Commonwealth personnel. This is not made explicit, although Oates is quoted as saying, ‘I was interested in recruits who might not have been born here, or whose parents weren’t, but who have decided to serve in the armed forces in this country.’

Each caption gives information about country of birth, or cultural heritage of each person. Mention of the Commonwealth is conspicuous by its absence.

For example, Navy Logistics Manager Kerwin Romeo was born in St Vincent, which is described as ‘a former British colony in the Caribbean’. This seems an odd way to refer to a country that has been independent for more than 30 years.

4. Read together, the gallery of military minorities presents a coherent, united front. None of them reported having faced any problems, and only one mentioned the word racism.

Nicole Dunkley, RAF outreach officer who was born in Jamaica, commented, ‘About 5% of the force at RAF Northolt are ethnic minorities. After nine years in the RAF, I’ve never encountered any abuse. As far I’ve known it’s zero-tolerance.’

Priyum Patel, an army medic, was equally forthright. ‘For me, being an ethnic minority in the army has not been an issue. People are more concerned with your ability to do your job, look after your troops and deliver the mission at hand. In this regard, the army is more inclusive than any other working environment I’ve previously experienced.’

Another soldier, an infantryman aged 26, declared that, ‘Being mixed race and going into the army, racism did cross my mind a little bit. As I’ve always lived in London I’ve never thought about it too much. There’s a lot of diversity in the army, but we all gel quite well.’

5. One more thing: the piece also illustrates one of the final themes of Military Migrants: the emergence of militarized multiculture. This is the term I use to argue that diversity now has a value to the armed forces, and not just in the context of domestic politics. More recently, UK military leaders have accepted that diversity – whether cultural, religious or linguistic – is valuable in operations as well. Hence the inclusion of this view, articulated by RAF recruiting officer Andy Rahaman:

‘it (diversity) can positively affect the way the military is perceived, particularly in countries such as Afghanistan. “We’ve got guys who speak Urdu and Farsi as their first tongue and that’s certainly an advantage. You can break down barriers a lot faster than a white guy who only speaks English. It makes life far easier.”’


I make these points to underline why this article is significant, in this form, in this location and at this time. Readers will surmise that there is no reason why ethnic minorities should be reluctant to join the armed services. As Rahaman says of racism: ‘It’s a thing of the past’.

A text-book example of how a well-placed, carefully-scripted narrative can supply enormously positive advertising for an extremely powerful institution.

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