Why should young people join the Army?

It should hardly be surprising that recruitment and retention are too low

Artillery Row

Recruitment centres up and down the land were filled with cheering young men on Monday morning. From their schools, and from their lecture halls, and from their offices, and from their workshops they streamed — caps in hands and “Rule Britannia” swelling in their throats. Such enthusiasm for national service has not been witnessed since 1914. It brought a tear to the eye.

This might have been what Grant Shapps — our modern-day Lord Kitchener — envisaged when he called on young people to consider joining the Armed Forces. “Please apply,” said Mr Shapps, who commented darkly this week that Britain was “moving from a post-war world to a pre-war world”.

To be fair, Shapps also denied that the British Army faces a crisis of numbers — pointing out, reasonably enough, that Britain’s ability to project force cannot be reduced to the number of boots it can put on the ground. But you still need boots. British Army recruitment goals have not been met since 2010. According to The Times, numbers could drop below 70,000 in two years. “American and European generals,” we are told, “Fear the UK is no longer a top-level fighting force.” (Admittedly, this is a little rich coming from most European generals).

Yet how can we expect a lot of people to join? God bless those that do, of course. The desire for adventure remains strong with them, as well as the desire to serve their country. They have all of my respect.

Nonetheless, it would be silly to ignore the need for incentives. There are incentives in terms of wages and job security, of course, but there are also incentives, or disincentives, in terms of inspiration and fulfilment. Here, the government has been doing a dismal job.

It can hardly help that Britain was embarrassed in its last two major conflicts. As someone with a natural aversion to war, I don’t want to project my dovish attitudes onto the troops. Let’s face it: most soldiers don’t sign up hoping not to be deployed any more than most football players hope to sit on the bench. (That’s not meant to be disparaging. Soldiers are allowed to get a kick out of real or potential conflict. It is when opinion columnists or politicians do the same that we have a problem.)

But I doubt that soldiers want to be sent to stupid wars — wars where the national interest is tenuous, the goals are ill-conceived and the consequences are destructive. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have happened now. We cannot take them back. But when young people tell researchers that being in the Armed Forces wouldn’t “fit with their values”, those wars must have had some effects. Politicians have to internalise that and be better going forwards.

We should also ask ourselves what sort of example politicians are setting

We should also ask ourselves what sort of example politicians are setting. Members of the Armed Forces sign up to protect Britain from external enemies. But how safe are politicians keeping British citizens at home? Jihadis who should never have been in the UK in the first place have been able to carry out attacks. We can’t deport leaders of grooming gangs to their homelands because their homelands — nations we support through foreign aid — don’t want to take them. Members of ISIS have swanned out and in. A lack of seriousness about security at home hardly inspires people to care about threats from abroad.

Add this to the RAF’s active discrimination against white male applicants in order to reach its diversity targets, and attempts to judge officers by the “inclusiveness and diversity” of their units, and you can understand why patriotic young people might feel too demoralised to join. I know that Conservatives can be too quick to blame “wokeness” for everything and its mother but that does not mean that spilled egalitarianism has no ill effects. Extending recruitment should not mean alienating the traditional base.

Recruitment is not the only problem, of course. There is also retention. It is one thing to make people join and quite another thing to get them to stay. It would be hubristic of me to act like an expert on how to keep people in military jobs, as if I have worn camouflage beyond the paintball field, but there seems to be a disconnect between the adventurous, explorative spirit of recruits and the “bureaucratic rubbish” they often end up being tasked with (to quote the sources of Professor Justin Bronk, Senior Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology at the Royal United Services Institute). 

Online chatter also suggests that the pay is simply not attractive enough when compared with civilian jobs to justify the disruption of family life. One user on the r/BritishMilitary subreddit answered the question of whether allowing people with asthma to join the British Army would make a big difference to recruitment with a brusque, “No, give them a pissing good wage.” Pay has risen, which I’m sure was very welcome, but if recruitment and retention remain too low that means that the market is speaking.

If the government is serious about the UK having to be “prepared” for war then it has to be more serious itself — serious about the social attachments that unite Britons and serious about the infrastructure that protects them. Army recruitment and retention is just one example, but if Britain cannot get that right, how could it face a broad conflict?

Granted, being prepared for war is not the same thing as having a war. You can prepare for a fire without having one, and being prepared for fire hopefully averts the possibility. But if I forgot to change the batteries in my smoke alarm and casually leave the gas on, well — I’m asking for trouble.

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