Note: While I am very interested in military affairs and am actively looking at joining the Army, I am still currently a civilian and student, and this article should be seen in that light.

This week, the British Army released a new recruitment campaign. While this wouldn’t usually be worthy of detailed comment, this particular recruitment drive has stirred up some controversy.

A bit of context might be useful first. Usually, the Army focuses on a fairly traditional line when it comes to recruitment adverts – see the world, new challenges every day, get the chance to use cool equipment, gain useful skills, etc. However, this does not seem to have been working in recent years as numbers of recruits have declined, and the Army is currently experiencing a shortage in manpower, not helped by retention problems.

As such, the Army has decided to go for a radically different approach, attempting to appeal a lot more directly to under-represented groups in the military (such as women and Muslims) as well as challenge preconceptions of military culture. So, for instance, there is an advert aimed at challenging the idea that you have to be super-fit to join and another attempting to dispel the notion that the Army is potentially homophobic. Perhaps the most controversial advert is one attempting to dispel the idea that you have to be emotionless or hard-hearted in the military, and which instead promises emotional support for potential soldiers.

Below is a collation of all the videos from the recent Army campaign:

As might be expected, such a radical difference has led to a backlash from certain sectors of the public. A few high-profile former soldiers have derided it as overly ‘politically correct’ or aimed at too narrow an audience. Others have suggested that it portrays an unrealistic image of what is still, at the end of the day, the profession of arms in which to ‘close with and defeat the enemy’ is a major defining role. On the flip side, many (including serving and former soldiers) have suggested that the campaign simply reflects a modern generation who are not attracted to the Army’s traditional recruitment slogans, and see it in an unfavourable light.

Before I give my own thoughts on this advertising campaign, I thought I would briefly discuss military recruitment in general, which I find fascinating as a topic. The military profession is an unusual one, not least because of its sanctioned ability to apply lethal force if necessary. Furthermore, it comes with a whole host of traditions and customs that can be quite alien to those accustomed to civilian life. How does an organisation recruit people into a job that may involve killing, and also requires the relinquishment of certain freedoms enjoyed by civilians? Military recruitment, I think, is a fascinating reflection of the Armed Forces (or at least of how they would like to be seen) and also of broader society as a whole.

A few comparisons might be in order. Contrast the recent British Army advertising campaigns with the following:

This famous recruitment poster from the First World War

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(Wikimedia Commons)

A TV advert from the 1990s

By way of cross-border comparison, what about the latest USMC recruitment ad?

Or even a Russian example?

They are all quite distinct, reflecting different cultural values at different times. The famous Kitchener poster emphasises the traditional 19th/early 20th century values of ‘King and Country’ patriotism, attempting to garner recruits through a sense of duty to the nation. The second, made perhaps for a more cynical post-war age (also, it should be added, made during peacetime), focuses on the adventurous and sporting aspects of military life. Across the channel, the USMC advert is a lot more ‘old-school’, highlighting  the Corps’ proud history of service, while the Russian video (from what I can gather) heavily pushes the ideal of the military as a traditionally-masculine, ‘badass’ career.

Of course, it would not be overly-sensible to rank these adverts as better or worse than one another, as they are all targeted at different people from different cultures and time periods. However, it does show that military forces do present themselves in different ways, and do change with the times to appeal to potential recruits.

For my own part, I actually don’t mind the new British Army adverts. While they are not the most gripping and do occasionally seem a little heavy-handed, I do appreciate the message the Army is trying to portray, and its attempt to ‘keep up’ with the modern age. For the truth is that among people of my age group, the Army does have an image problem, and to be honest it is not surprising. Almost any mention of the military in the news is something negative – significant cuts to defence, right-wing reactionary elements, retention problems, and of course the bitter legacy of Afghanistan and Iraq, which are widely condemned as pointless, dangerous excursions in the public sphere. The age-old view of the Army as a force of rough working-class white men led by aristocratic toffs persists to a certain extent, which does not help the public perception of the force either, especially amongst members of the public who do not fit in to either of those (shrinking) demographics.

More pragmatically, with unemployment down in the UK and a decent economic climate in which private sector wages are rising faster than those of the public sector, the Army does not seem like such an attractive option to young people as a career, especially as ‘seeing the world’ is easier than ever with cheap air travel, and actual chance of going on operations as a soldier is diminishing in a post-intervention climate. As such, it is not surprising that the traditional recruitment appeal of the Army is less effective than it was.

Additionally, I think there is a general confusion about what the Army ‘stands for’ in the modern age. I get the feeling that a lot of my generation want to work for organisations that share their values and have a sense of purpose with which they can agree. The problem is that nobody in the general public seems to have much idea of what the Army’s ‘purpose’ is these days, beyond the vague platitude of ‘national defence’. It has spent over a decade fighting in the Middle East in two largely-unpopular wars, seen by many as the unwilling tool of unscrupulous politicians and American foreign policy. Now, with ground-based combat operations mostly ended and with no foreseeable conflicts on the horizon, there is not much interest in or enthusiasm for the military in the public sphere. I should note that these are not necessarily my personal opinions, but how I believe a lot of the British public see the military in general and the Army in particular. In any case, the point stands. Why would young people join an organisation they don’t understand, which doesn’t seem to have a definite purpose, and is constantly associated in the news with negativity and failure?

As such, I don’t think it is a bad move to try and change the Army’s image, and dispel as many stereotypes as possible. Yes, the adverts are a little clunky, and while they don’t appeal to me specifically, I hope they do to a wider audience. The British Army appears to be in a bit of a mess at the moment (as far as I can tell as a civilian) for a wide variety of reasons. Certainly there needs to be a serious public conversation about Britain’s role in the world, and what the country wants from its military – especially the Army. Until then, I think that changing the public’s perception of the Army and boosting recruitment would be a step in the right direction towards a more positive future.