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.

Why is it always ‘the foreign legion’?

“British foreign legion trebles in a decade” asserts a Sun headline in September 2012. Using a Freedom of Information request, the paper found that ‘Those from overseas now top 12,000 — a new record and 12 per cent of the 101,290 full-time troops’.

The report followed a well-worn formula, familiar to those of us tracking similar articles – not always confined to the tabloids – in the British media since 2005. It goes like this:

  1.  A comment on the high numbers of migrants in the army
  2. Reference to Grenada-born Corporal Johnson Beharry VC, the most famous example.
  3. Note to the effect that: ‘fears have been voiced that the trend could dilute the army’s “Britishness”’.
  4. Observation from military chief/politician confirming this anxiety.
  5. Staunch rebuttal that there is any problem with numbers from another military chief and appreciative statement about the contribution of Commonwealth soldiers, both historically and now.
  6. End of story, with graphic illustrations of the above themes, including picture of black soldier in Afghanistan.

In this latest example, the Sun provided a helpful diagram which is actually quite useful in conveying where Britain’s migrant soldiers come from. 

Military MIgrants explains why the example of the French foreign legion is always wheeled out whenever the question of numbers of migrant soldiers is raised.

It describes how, in 2009, a cap of 15% Commonwealth soldiers was instituted in certain sections of the army in response to this ‘unease’ that there were ‘too many’ non-UK citizens accumulating in particular trades, such as logistics and dentistry. This measure had been on the cards for a few years but the Equality and Human Rights Commission was not prepared to sanction an overall quota. The cap has been in force since 2009.

A very British army?

The British Army currently* employs over 6,000 men and women from Commonwealth countries. Without the presence of these migrant soldiers, heavily recruited since a regulation change in 1998, it would not have been possible to maintain continuous deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

Opening the ranks to Commonwealth citizens in their own countries was a response to the chronic shortage of suitable volunteers in the UK. It was also intended to redress the army’s failure to attract minority ethnic youth into its ranks. The organisation’s reputation for racism and bullying came to a head in the 1990s when the Commission for Racial Equality threatened to take legal action against the Ministry of Defence.

How has the presence of so many cultural minorities changed the army? Military leaders can now assert that the army is multicultural, multi-faith and fully committed to equality and diversity policies. But how would members of the public know if this was true? And why should we care about what happens in our national military organisations, especially if and when we are opposed to the wars that they are instructed to fight?

*On July 11th 2013 the MoD announced that it had reinstated the five-year residency requirement for Commonwealth recruits. The ruling does not affect those who are currently serving although it will undoubtedly reduce the numbers of black and minority ethnic recruits. What will be the effects of this decision to stop recruiting non-UK citizens?

In conjunction with the bookMilitary Migrants: fighting for YOUR country, this website will provide a new space to explore these questions.