An Army advertising campaign promoting the emotional support available to recruits has been criticised for failing to target those most interested in joining the forces.
The recruitment drive includes a series of films which ask “Can I be gay in the Army?” and “What if I get emotional in the Army?”, in a bid to appeal to potential soldiers from different backgrounds.
It comes just weeks after Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson halted plans to scrap the Army’s “Be the Best” slogan and historic crest following a public outcry.
The re-branding exercise was reportedly based on market research which found the slogan was considered “dated, elitist and non-inclusive” by key audiences.
The latest campaign, which will be broadcast on television, radio and digital platforms, seeks to address concerns recruits may have about issues including religion, gender and sexuality in the forces.
Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, said it was “neglecting the main group of people who are interested in joining” and will not solve the “recruiting crisis”.
In one animation, which highlights emotional support, a voice-over says: “Man up. Grow a pair. It feels like, as a man, you can never express your emotions. I thought joining the Army would be a thousand times worse. That any sign of emotion would be a sign of weakness. That we’d have it ripped out of us.
“But once you are in, you realise no-one is a machine. The Army is family. I’ve probably told them things I wouldn’t tell my own family. There’s always someone there to talk to.”
Other videos trailed on YouTube, focusing on “Army belonging” and inclusivity, ask “Can I practise my faith in the Army?”, “Will I be listened to in the Army?” and “Do I have to be a superhero to join the Army?”.
Colonel Kemp told BBC Breakfast: “The main group of people who are interested in joining aren’t worrying so much about whether they are going to be listened to or if there’s an emotional issue.
“What they are worried about more is how they are going to face combat and, not only that – they are going to be attracted by images of combat because that’s why people join the armed forces.”
He added: “This also reflects the fact that the Army, like the rest of Government, is being forced down a route of political correctness.
“What is most important is that the Army recruits and is full of soldiers. It’s of secondary importance that they reflect the composition of society.”
The campaign comes amid growing concern over recruitment to the armed forces.
In the year to April 2017, 12,950 recruits joined the regular armed forces, but 14,970 service personnel left in the same period.
The head of the Army, General Sir Nick Carter, said that in Britain today there are 25% fewer white 16 to 25-year-old males, who formed the force’s traditional recruitment base, forcing a rethink of how to address a personnel shortage.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Combat ethos and fighting power remain the British Army’s highest priority post-Iraq and Afghanistan, and I can’t remember a time in my career when we’ve had a more combat-hardened Army.
“But what this campaign is about, frankly, is a recognition that we don’t have a fully manned Army at the moment, that the demography of our country has changed, and that we need to reach out to a broader community in order to man that Army with the right talent.”
Sir Nick added: “Our traditional cohort would have been white, male, Caucasian 16 to 25-year-olds and there are not as many of those around as there once were, and our society is changing and I think it’s entirely appropriate for us therefore to try and reach out to a much broader base to get the talent we need in order to stay in that combat effectiveness.”
Sir Nick said applications to join have gone up by 30%-35% in the last nine months, when the Army has been running an updated advertising campaign, with “new types of applicant” requiring a shift in approach of how they are nurtured into the Army.
And he turned the tables on presenter Nick Robinson amid the row over unequal pay at the BBC.
The Chief of the General Staff said: “I happen to be very proud of the fact that the British Army really does respect the background, ethnicity and gender of anybody.
“We are the sort of employer who, incidentally I might say, Nick, don’t have different pay scales for anybody in our Army, they are the same whatever your gender might be.”
Robinson replied: “Touche.”
The former cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith, who served as a lieutenant in the Scots Guards, said the ads were too negative.
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britan: “When you’re under fire the people on your left and right are your family, they protect you, you protect them, their lives matter to you. I would like to see a lot more of it couched in terms like that rather than, ‘Me, personally, can I express myself?’.”
The retired major general Tim Cross said he backed the recruitment initiative, but stressed recruits must be able to deliver high-intensity fighting power.
He told Today: “We must ensure that everybody knows that they have an opportunity of joining the British armed forces and joining the army in particular, but we are not going to be soft and we are not going to be nice to people.”
However, Dr David Martin, a former officer and Afghanistan veteran, said both old and new campaigns shared status and belonging as motivations for signing up.
He said: “What Karmarama (the company behind the adverts) is trying to do is tap into the two things that subconsciously motivate people to fight, even when there is a risk of dying. Those two things are status and belonging.
“Even the war-fighting adverts are doing that because they focus on belonging, as often the activities shown are done in teams, and status as well, as for young people there’s that sense of cool.
“I don’t see these new adverts as a particular diversion from that, but a lot of people have painted these adverts as ‘Well, what we did before was war-fighting and now it’s all soft and cuddly and about belonging’.”
Dr Martin, who is also a visiting research fellow at King’s College London’s War Studies Department, said his personal experience, particularly in Afghanistan, was that the Army was “100% a place where you could belong because you had teams working under pressure”.
He said: “People only cared about whether you were able to keep your people alive, or whether you were able to deliver whatever your job was, not what particular flavour of human you were.”
He added: “I find that the criticism from outside of the Army is often unknowing of the realities (of Army life).”
Questioning the “non-argument” of a “soft” Army, Dr Martin pointed to the thousands of troops currently deployed in places like Somalia and Nigeria as well as the Army’s 15-year role in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even people who criticise this approach because it's soft would accept that the most important part of fighting power is the teams that you generate to deliver that fighting power. Dr David Martin
“That’s what military training is all about. It’s about creating robust teams that don’t fall apart when they are under extreme pressure.”
Speaking about the drop in enlisting numbers, Dr Martin said: “It’s pretty simple. If you look at the economy and the employment rate in the UK over the last 30 years and peg that against Army recruitment, you’ll see a very close relationship.
“Secondly, we’re not fighting any wars at the moment.
“Young people ... want to fight in wars. So when Iraq and Afghanistan were on, people joined the Army because they wanted to fight.
“That’s why I joined the Army. I wouldn’t have joined a peacetime Army. I joined because I wanted to go to Afghanistan. That’s really why recruitment is suffering at the moment.”