In my last column for openDemocracy I asked how the recent history of war has altered the social and cultural mechanisms that propel young people towards a military career. This question relates not just to the future representation of military work – whether in video games or new ads on TV and the internet – but also to the issue of whether the armed forces should broadly represent the society which they are supposed to defend.
It’s strange to think that when I started researching Military Migrants in 2008, there was a British Army recruiting office on the Strand, a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square. This was the main port of call for Commonwealth applicants and therefore one of the first destinations for my research. I carried out one of my earliest interviews there, meeting some of the officers who had been leading the overseas pre-selection teams to the Caribbean and Fiji.
That office closed a while ago, but I often think about it as a place where so many potential migrant-recruits would have visited, unnoticed by all the tourists and commuters scurrying past as they made their momentous decision to open the door and begin the process.
Today one of the latest developments in the UK is that the recruitment of Britain’s military workforce, employed on a volunteer basis since 1960, has been outsourced to Capita. For the next ten years the business of attracting new soldiers to the profession will be managed by a private corporation. This is supposed to save money and resources although it will inevitably change local patterns of recruiting as more offices are closed.
In a recent interview Phillip Hammond, the defence secretary, revealed some of the ways the MoD have been planning for the future. Hammond said: ‘Many people in Britain will regard the end of combat in Afghanistan as a very good news story, but for many young men and women joining the Armed Forces, the lure of operations is a big recruiting sergeant and we have to think how we are going to replace the excitement of operations for them with equally stimulating training and exercising.’
He was photographed in Norway as he chatted to marines carrying out one such exercise in an Arctic training camp. Dressed all in white, the men appeared to be demonstrating how they would fire rifles while simultaneously balancing on skis.
But while the MoD worry about how to make military work look more exciting – in this case, like extreme sports with guns – it’s important to hold the armed forces to account as a public institution at home.
As Military Migrants has documented, the political and legal pressure to enforce equality and diversity in the British Army over the past fifteen years has had predictably uneven results. In the concluding section I confirmed the fact that after more than a decade of attempts to diversify the workforce, the level of UK born minority ethnic personnel was still only one third of the total figure for all ethnic minorities in the army.
There’s lots more to say here, but in the meantime I’ve been looking at the figures for different nationalities across all services in 2011 and 2012. Here’s a brief tally of increased and reduced numbers among those nationalities currently well represented in the army – which has the highest proportion of Irish and Commonwealth citizens:
Trained soldiers 2011 2012
Total FCs 7150 7120
Bangladeshi 0 10
Citizens of Fiji 2100 2060
Cameroonian 60 70
Gambian 240 280
Ghanaian 800 790
Irish 280 330
Jamaican 440 410
Kenyan 190 210
Malawian 220 230
Nigerian 170 180
South African 790 770
St Lucian 270 260
Vincentian 330 320
Zimbabwean 360 320
Nepalese 460 520*
Unknown 20 10
*Nepalese soldiers (Gurkhas) who have served more than four years are now entitled to apply for UK citizenship. When they become UK citizens they must transfer to the British Army as they are no longer permitted to serve as Gurkhas.
As the redundancies start to take effect in terms of overall numbers we will monitor the statistics – available through the Defence Analytical Service Agency (DASA) – to test the MoD’s commitment to representing multicultural Britain. It is evident that attention is currently focused more on gender than ethnicity, but in demographic terms, young minority ethnic citizens constitute a valuable pool of potential recruits.