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A recent investigation into the experiences of women in the Armed Forces was published in July; it reveals that they are still facing what they consider to be unacceptable levels of inappropriate behaviour towards them by their male colleagues. The report also makes reference to similar concerns expressed by minority groups. This is compounded, again according the report, by the fact that many are not willing to come forward for fear of subsequent ill-treatment resulting from making a complaint.

In what some might regard as somewhat excessive language, reference is made to the “pack mentality of white middle-aged men, especially in positions of influence”, who are basically accused of not being interested in the problems that women face in the Forces. These men are said to be behind the times, whose “behaviours are shaped by the armed forces of 20 years ago”.

Quite apart from the use of that dreadful word “behaviours”, is this latter point so surprising? As the report points out, the people joining the Forces today come from “modern society”, and are therefore highly likely to be faced with those in “authority” who are more experienced precisely because they are older: but 20 years? That implies that the NCOs and Officers they deal with are in their late 30s – which seems rather unlikely. The average age of a tank-troop or infantry-platoon is more likely to be in the low-20s and, within units as a whole, most soldiers do not come into contact with Warrant Officers or Officers much above 30 or so.

Perhaps the curiously racist and “ageist” comment refers to people in their late 30s who influence the moral direction of the Armed Forces from behind desks. In that case it is assumed that the “behaviours” referred to involve giving orders to junior commanders to engage in the sort of conduct described. That is to say, “go out and act badly towards women and minority groups in the Armed Forces”. Or perhaps they sit around and condone such acts.  Either way, one has to question the veracity of such claims.

Is it not more likely that the military system has simply evolved at a slower or different rate than society? In which case the Armed forces are being accused of not representing or accommodating the latest trends in an increasingly disparate civil community that faces few of the specifically military-oriented tasks of the Army, Navy or Air Force?  At a time when we are being told by the likes of the BBC in their reporting that there is no such thing as “bad manners” (it’s just my manners versus your manners), perhaps the Army has to stick to its belief that adherence to a system of centralised discipline and respect for superior authority is an important part of training for war.  

Perhaps it is inevitable that some individuals who join the Forces, and then find that they cannot cope with the demands, look for other reasons to explain why they want to leave. Many new trainees will go through a phase of wondering why they were stupid enough to sign-on when their weekend leave is stopped for some seemingly miniscule reason: a bit of dust behind a cap-badge or whatever.

Many people will feel “bullied” at some point by a drill-NCO, or PTI (even worse than Drill Sgts!). Later, they will hopefully understand the reasons – but few will be sufficiently rational, when sweating like the proverbial and gasping for breath, to see the bigger picture.  Unless, that is, they see others in the group being subjected to the same “beasting”. At that point the sense of isolation, or individual persecution, is replaced by a group response which is to beat the “Beaster”, to grit your teeth and not let the team down. And so the Army’s plan worked. You were not actually destroyed – instead, you became stronger and, therefore, better prepared for “the real thing”.

In the “old days” there was an element of pride in the fact that you had managed to get into the Forces and survived whatever the training system threw at you. You took the ear-bashing on the chin (so to speak), you either largely ignored the abuse – or simply laughed at it after the event. A Colour Sgts’ comments were often priceless gems which you tried to remember and repeat in the pub at some later date to impress your friends.

Penny Mordaunt, Defence Secretary at the time of the report’s publication, made the comment:  inappropriate behaviour “has no place in society, let alone in our armed forces……In addition to the report, I want to ensure non-commissioned officers are able to address poor behaviour when they see it. They are the moral compass of the armed forces.”

Yes, Minister, but…………

The business of fighting is not the same as the business of making money. The typical worker in a high-street shop or office is not generally pushed to their physical and mental breaking point in some of the most brutal conditions to be found on this planet. They are not required to follow an order to risk their life in combat, and, typically, do not have the strains of tough operational discipline imposed on them 24/7.

So to suggest that life in the military should reflect that of the civilian world is to deny the most basic facts of life when it comes to the Armed Forces and their role. In short, our troops have to be tougher, harder, and better killers than their likely opponents. In which case we had better start to take a close look at the way in which many of those forces train and treat their own people.

This Russian training unit subjects troops to the harshest tests including smashing a concrete block resting on someone’s stomach with a sledge-hammer………

That is not to say that we want to emulate them – but we should be under no illusions about the opposition. One of those ancient Chinese warriors said “Know your enemy”. As we used to be taught in the Army, the next question should be: “So what?” In this case the “So what” is that we need our own troops to be capable of meeting the enemy on any ground and take him on, expecting him to behave in the worst possible way and employing all the tricks of this deadly trade.

…….or aiming and throwing an axe while upside down when vaulting a barbed-wire picket

One of the reports statements reads: “Our new generation, which includes a greater proportion of Bame, women and other underrepresented groups, has grown up in a more open and permissive society prior to joining.” Again – the question is “So what?” Are the authors suggesting that troops on the battlefield should expect their enemy to consist of like-minded characters from a “more open and permissive society”? If so, then we had better inform the Russians, Chinese (or religious fundamentalists), of this requirement just in case they missed the news.

As far as the “moral Compass” matter is concerned, actually, Mrs Mordaunt, morality is the business of the whole of the Armed forces, not just the NCOs. Ships, airbases and regiments are a team and all parts of that team should be working together to achieve whatever aim happens to be relevant. A young NCO – who might be only a year or two older than a new recruit, can not always be expected to provide the detailed moral guidance the Army or Navy might seek to engender as a whole. That NCO might be promoted because they have leadership skills or experience that is specifically useful to the task at hand. They might not be strong on the ethical side of the house – but that guidance might be on hand from their SNCO or officer who can help keep them on the straight and narrow.

And so we come back to the initial statement about women and minorities feeling that the military does not look after them. This implies that they are being targeted for especially bad treatment that would not be meted to other people in the Services. At which point one has to state clearly that that is wholly unacceptable behaviour, period.  

One of the pillars of “fairness” in a system like the Armed Forces is that of consistency. As already mentioned, if you are being beasted, but see that everyone else is getting their fair share – then fine, you cope. But if you are the only one being shouted-at, it is understandable that you might feel you are being unfairly treated and, if it goes on, that you are being bullied.

But, and this is a “big ask” for any individual new to the Forces, before concluding that you are the victim of unique and specially foul treatment, ask whether you have done anything differently to the others that might cause those in authority to have behaved towards you in that way. You might be a man or woman, of Indian, Chinese, Scots or whatever descent, but if you do not come up to scratch you are going to attract the wrath of the Parade-ground Gods, the Physical Torture Instructors, or the unit Training NCO.  

Their only mission should be to get you up to the standards expected of the whole team. They might use foul medical and other invectives, and might even work up a sweat as they rant and rave a few inches from your face. But at the end of the day they are on the same side as you and would be there with you when the shooting starts.

All the above having been said, a sense of personal-oppression is a difficult thing to shake-off once acquired. This is especially true if the mistreatment is based upon “low-level” and quite secretive acts of spite or aggression which might not be visible to others in the system. It is also hard to deal with mistreatment where a person feels they are regarded as the odd-one-out in a group (and many of us will have been in that situation). For this reason, it is not the intervention of “white males, 20 years older” that is likely to be relevant, but instead the collective view of the miscreant’s peers who can quickly step in and put a stop to the unacceptable behaviour before it even comes to the attention of the middle-aged pack-men.

If, however, the accusation is that the system is so deeply flawed that there is no-one to whom you can turn, no matter how awful the actions of the perpetrator, then that is something else altogether. But even in this case, it will be necessary for the person concerned, and indeed their advisers, to be certain that this is actually the case and that they have not developed a sense of persecution in order to avoid the conclusion that they are perhaps not cut out for life in the Forces.

Many of us will have seen people fall by the wayside in training, or in service. Many people decide to leave after a single tour or deployment. Others stick it out for longer and some even make it a lifetime career. We can probably all point to times when we felt alone and unfairly treated. But it has to be said that no-one should feel that way simply because they are a woman or an ethnic minority. The latter makes even less sense given that some of the finest and most highly respected soldier’s in the Army are a “minority group” called the Ghurkhas.

Speak Out

The Army’s Speak Out team provides confidential support for anyone experiencing unacceptable behaviours and also offers support to the CoC. It is staffed by military personnel and is open every day from 0830-1700 Monday to Friday excluding bank holidays and Christmas stand down.

Speak out signposts Service Personnel to suitable contacts in their units to enable the problem to be addressed at the most appropriate level of escalation. Contact us on Mil 96770 4656 or Civ 0306 770 4656 and the e-mail address is: Army-SpeakOut@mod.gov.uk

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