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Winter 2001 cover

National Observer Home > No. 49 - Winter 2001 >Articles

Political Correctness in the British Armed Forces

Hal G.P. Colebath

A Schwerpunkt in the present British culture war is political-military history, traditions and associations. It targets not only military history and traditions, but also the present armed forces. No previous British Government has contained such elements of hostility against its own armed forces and what they stand for. What is now happening in Britain may be viewed as a warning for Australia.

Further, the cultural attack on military history and traditions and on the armed forces is an important strategic initiative in building and consolidating the adversary-culture coalition.

For example, the B.B.C. refused to televise celebrations of a one-off Royal Military Tattoo (apparently introduced to quieten protests about the scrapping of the Royal Tournament until it was all forgotten) on the grounds it would not make "good television". Veteran broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby commented that the pageant would evoke emotions unacceptable to "those same television executives who fashionably adopt a football team and chant with fervour from the terraces to demonstrate their blokish credentials". (The Tattoo's organisers had apparently tried to obey political correctness as obsequiously as possible. An official leaflet for it showed a black sailor and a woman sailor wearing "H.M.S. Invincible" cap-tallies and another woman sailor with an "H.M.S. Gannet" cap-tally. Only blurred figures in the background, one looking distinctly overweight and peeved, might have been those politically-incorrect creatures, white male sailors.)

Beating Retreat, one of the oldest and most famous British military ceremonies, involving the massed bands of the Household Division, was scheduled to follow the Royal Tournament and the field-gun race into oblivion. This was in spite of even the commercial fact that it was an important tourist attraction.

The much-loved Naval field-gun race was abolished in 1999 as being too rough, boisterous and traditional for the modern armed services. This caused the Queen possibly to boycott, or at least not attend, the last tournament in what was coming to be seen as a typically ineffectual, or perhaps imaginary, Royal protest.

Columnist Peter Hitchens said the Tattoo, after commencing with King Alfred rallying the English against the Danes, dissolved into pop songs and the sentimental pacifist "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?".1 (Significantly, this song had been used in the ultimately Soviet-sponsored attack on U.S. morale that played a big part in U.S. forces being withdrawn from South Vietnam and the South Vietnamese delivered into Communist slavery.)

A junior Defence Minister, Peter Kilfoyle, resigned, apparently over revealed shortcomings of the Defence forces, and was replaced by Lewis Moonie, who had previously suggested that young men enlisted in the forces because they had personality disorders.2

of the most senior and influential figures in the Blair Government, speaking to an Irish radio audience in March 2000, ridiculed the Household Division as: "you know, lots of chinless wonders with bright scarlet uniforms, you know, playing and marching around . . . sort of swopping colours and doing things with flags".

Kipling had commented on "making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep". Bruce Anderson commented that just as "contemptible" did not seem strong enough to describe Mr Mandelson's comments, so "courage" and "sacrifice" seemed equally insufficient for the Guards. Their Colours, he said, were interwoven with the regiments' battle honours, won at some of the proudest and most desperate moments in the country's history, paid for in heroism and blood. He continued that it would be about as much use explaining "battle honours" to Peter Mandelson as it would be explaining Titian to a man who had been blind from birth:3

"Any such statement invites only one conclusion: that its author must dislike Great Britain very much indeed . . . he cannot wait for the day that the British history which he finds so alien joins Labour's history in the skip".

In March 2000, Keith Vaz, Minister for Europe, linked the Parachute Regiment to Right-wing extremism. The Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, let this pass without demur.4

It was reported in October 2000 that to save about £100,000 the allowances of gardeners tending British war cemeteries overseas would be cut.5 Since even senior gardeners were on very low salaries already, this meant many would not be able to continue and many war cemeteries in France and elsewhere could be expected to become overgrown and neglected.

It was announced in deference to political correctness and as a blow to the Navy's traditional ethos that Moslem women in the Navy could wear veils over their faces in naval uniform. In Islamic countries like Turkey and Pakistan female naval personnel do not wear veils. Orders might not be heard and understood correctly, and it would be rather easier for impostors or saboteurs to enter high-security areas.

Both the British and American Navies had already experienced major problems with female personnel serving at sea with women becoming pregnant and families broken up. The U.S. carrier Eisenhower took its first major deployment of 415 women in 1994-95; 40 became pregnant during the first six months. The U.S. Navy's official response was to forbid commanding officers from complaining about this.

In February 2001, it was reported that, of thirty-five females aboard H.M.S. Sheffield, ten had become pregnant in one year. Mike Critchley, editor of "Warship World", was reported as saying that when women were first sent to sea: "One senior officer said a nation that sends its women to sea is morally bankrupt and I think that is about right". Admiral Sir John Woodward, former commander of the Falklands task force, said plaintively: "We had to try it. There was a very strong demand for them to be allowed to serve on ships".

To attract black recruits, the Army published a parody of Lord Kitchener's World War I recruiting poster: "Your Country Needs You" with the Field Marshal's face replaced by a black soldier like something from "The Black and White Minstrel Show". The Army had already obeyed political correctness by adopting "gender neutral" physical standards, meaning male soldiers' strength standards were reduced so females did not feel inferior in this respect. This was despite the fact that in battle lives and victory might depend on soldiers' ability to carry wounded or ammunition or operate heavy weapons and equipment by muscle-power, apart from well-documented problems of discipline and other matters associated with having women serve beside men. The previous, politically-incorrect, ethos and procedures of keeping women out of battle had come about not as a result of sexism but as a result of thousands of years of experience. One wonders if the feminists who approved this measure had perused works like Anthony Beevor's "Stalingrad". Military author and former soldier George MacDonald Fraser commented:6

"Someone is plainly intent on wrecking the British Army. The recent suggestion that women might serve as front-line infantry is only the latest attempt to undermine its morale and efficiency, and is too wicked and cowardly to be written off as mere politically-correct stupidity. Women have not the strength, endurance or brutality for the job and every experienced officer knows it. The idea of a female teenager fighting hand-to-hand with a Panzer Grenadier or a Japanese White Tiger (or a Royal Marine) is ludicrous . . . A woman's presence would cost lives . . .

Has British manhood really so degenerated that men, at Westminster or elsewhere, would be content to sit safe at home while girls (I make no apology for the word) are bayoneted or blown up in their country's quarrel? Can they contemplate a daughter or a sister coming home in a body-bag, or falling prisoner to the kind of beasts who are all too common in warfare today?"

In January 2001, it was reported that a married female soldier chosen as the official image of women in the Army her picture in full combat gear had been widely distributed by the Ministry of Defence to highlight the role of women in the armed forces was absent without leave and suspected of running off with a sergeant. Days later senior army officers were describing as "regrettable" and "unprofessional" the behaviour of a female lance-corporal in appearing part-naked on page three of "The Sun" of 9 February 2001, an event whose news-significance also caused it to take up the whole of the front page, commencing "Eyes front everyone, and get a load of this curvy corporal . . .". The lance-corporal in question was reported as stating: "I know I'm going to get into big trouble but it's something I'm desperate to do." She did not undertake this activity as a private venture dissociated from her service persona, as those fragments of clothing she was pictured emerging from were parts of an Army combat uniform.

Writing in "The Daily Telegraph", defence expert Sir John Keegan pointed out that, given the new ethos of the army, the family of a soldier who bled to death when wounded because he had been placed in a front-line trench with a woman not strong enough to carry him to an aid post would be able to sue. He also wrote that, with emotional involvements between men and women soliders in the stress of front-line combat:

"[S]oldiers who are worrying about each other as individuals are not likely to put the enemy in fear. Battle is not a soap opera. It is the nastiest situation known to our race, in its essence a struggle for survival . . . Women who really care about the welfare of British society will see that their desire for equality even in military life must be balanced against the fairness owed to men. It is unfair to men, whose genes make them larger and heavier, to demand that their chances of survival in combat should be reduced by making them dependent on sisters-in-arms who cannot care for them in a crisis."

The Army set up a special school at Lichfield to teach drill-sergeants to be gentler towards recruits. Shouting at recruits was banned, leading one seventeen-year-old to ask: "If Army recruits can't handle being shouted at by drill sergeants, how are they going to cope with the noise of gunfire or the screams of casualties?".

At the Pirbright Depot, training-ground of the Guards Brigade and once acknowledged as producing the smartest parade-soldiers in the world, trainees were issued with red and yellow cards. Should they pull out a yellow card, it would show their drill-sergeants they were upset and should be left alone for fifteen minutes while their delicate nerves recovered from the shock of being shouted at. Should they be really upset and pull a red card, the drill-sergeant would have to explain his behaviour to a superior officer.

(Shouting was not, however, entirely forbidden the armed forces. In May 2000, trainees at H.M.S. Cambridge, the Naval gunnery school, were told to shout "Bang!" rather than fire guns owing to ammunition shortages.)

At Christmas 1999, the Royal Navy could keep only three ships at sea. The other services reported comparable shortages and deficiencies, with new ships, aircraft and vehicles all missing out on up-to-date equipment. The Falklands War had been only the latest demonstration of how easily cheaply-built ships with skimped equipment like H.M.S. Sheffield and H.M.S. Coventry could be sunk.

There had been huge cuts in the armed forces with the end of the Cold War from 306,000 personnel to 208,000

in theory: there were fewer actually available, with the army short of 8,000 men in 2001 but smaller numbers had not been balanced by high quality of equipment. It was announced in July, 2000, that the Navy's planned Type 45 destroyers would lack the latest weapons and control systems. Navy chiefs claimed the ships would be "toothless and impotent".7

A report on British peace-keeping operations in Kosovo by Brigadier Adrian Freer, who commanded the 5th Airborne Brigade, and Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Gibson, who commanded the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, revealed "a shambolic under-funded army . . . sent into battle with guns which do not work". Some troops had had to buy their own equipment.

General Sir Peter de la Billière, commander of British forces in the Gulf War, said that British servicemen were over-stretched and under-equipped. Serious faults with equipment identified years before, for example with radios and the SA80 machine-gun, had not been corrected. A third of the radios had not worked and those that did could not transmit securely.8 Sir John Keegan commented that the services were all overstretched in both financial and human terms.9

At the time the Freer report was leaked, further defence cuts of £1 billion were scheduled. Three weeks later it was reported that 133 of Britain's 186 Tornado bombers were grounded and more than 60 per cent of the Jaguar and Harrier fighters could not be scrambled at short notice. Most helicopters were out of action, as were a third of the Army's newest tanks and more than half its older tanks.10 Serving soldiers, including some officers and veterans of Northern Ireland and Kosovo, were having to claim social security benefits to make ends meet.11 Admiral Sir John Brigstocke, a former Second Sea Lord, said defence medical services were in such a parlous condition that 1,500 naval personnel had been left unfit for duty.12

It was reported that with further cuts to the Navy's budget one of Britain's remaining small aircraft carriers, H.M.S. Invincible, might be scrapped to save money, as well as possibly one of the navy's amphibious assault vessels, H.M.S. Fearless, three frigates or destroyers, sixteen training ships and seven anti-mine vessels. Three-quarters of the Navy's Lynx helicopters were withdrawn as unsafe. As I predicted in my book "Blair's Britain", it appeared two projected new aircraft-carriers, dubbed by the Navy H.M.S. Nebulous and H.M.S. Improbable, were unlikely to eventuate, and it was unclear if plans had even been drawn for them.

Another official report, leaked in April 2000, indicated British troops in Kosovo had been down to their last rounds of ammunition, and vital military medical supplies such as morphine auto-jets were almost past their use-by dates, these dates being extended by fiat. It was also revealed that the R.A.F. had run critically low on stocks of laser-guided bombs during the Kosovo operations. Later reports indicated that only 2 per cent of 1,000 unguided bombs had hit the targets a figure described by the House of Commons Defence Select Commttee as "distressingly low," the Committee adding:

"U.K. aircraft were, even compared to other European allies, relatively few in number, delivered few munitions relative to even their small numbers, and were not well-equipped for the tasks they faced . . . Our major contribution to the bombing campaign was in the form of unguided cluster bombs a contribution of limited military value and questionable legitimacy".

Labour M.P. Bruce George, head of the Defence Select Committee, said earlier that severe underfunding meant Britain could no longer afford to wage a war. Almost half the fuselage-mounted missiles on Sea-Harriers operating from H.M.S. Invincible were damaged because of heat and vibration. A £1 billion upgrade on the Tornado bomber the backbone of the R.A.F. bomber force left it unable to drop some bombs.13 An R.A.F. officer from a squadron using the upgraded Tornadoes told the B.B.C.:"We have ended up with an aircraft that is less capable than when we started". To save a relatively small sum of money the British version of the Eurofighter would not have a gun and therefore would not be able to engage in strafing operations, although the German, Italian and Spanish versions would keep the gun. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee reported in August 2000 that waste and mismanagement in the handling of 25 major defence contracts had resulted in the loss of £2.8 billion the cost of 15 frigates.14

Late in 2000 Britain's entire fleet of 12 hunter-killer nuclear submarines was recalled and was expected to be out of action for months because of blunders in servicing their nuclear reactors which had led to risks of leaks. One, H.M.S. Tireless, had a crack in pipework leading from the reactor, which had been known about for six months but not repaired. All conventional submarines had been scrapped in 1998.

It would be easy but wrong to suggest the problem is entirely a parsimonious Treasury, and that a bigger Defence budget would put matters to rights. At least as important must be attitude. Adequate spending is necessary witness the cut-price floating death-traps of the Falklands but not sufficient. A hostile or politically correct government is able to destroy morale and efficiency.

Soldiers are allowed to sue officers for giving the wrong orders, in accord with the European Convention on Human Rights. Eight other countries, from Russia to Liechtenstein, had asked for their armed forces to be exempt. Sir Peter de la Billière said that this was almost impossible to believe and that he could think of no decision which would do more to damage morale in the armed forces. He continued:15

"I am confident senior officers will have warned Ministers in no uncertain terms of the potentially disastrous consequences of their proposed action . . . [T]here are ample and well-tested procedures in place to redress grievances, discipline incompetent or unfair officers and provide compensation when avoidable disasters occur."

General Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff, said the "creeping advance" of health and safety legislation in the armed forces might be creating a climate of "risk aversion" and future soldiers might be able to sue the army for putting them in risky situations.

It was reported in March 2001, that because of the shortage of recruits the Army might relax its ban of drug-taking, a move said to be supported by Defence Secretary Hoon. A senior source reportedly said: "The Armed Forces recruit from a wide range of social backgrounds and, as drug-taking becomes more common in society, that will have its effect on whom the Army can take in".16 This was despite the fact that Armed Forces personnel by definition handle highly expensive and dangerous equipment up to and including nuclear weapons.

In September 2000, British soldiers were taken hostage in Sierra Leone and only rescued with loss of life. The Ministry of Defence, without any formal proceedings, announced that the officer in charge had made an "error of professional judgement" and "grave mistake". This public condemnation of an officer, apparently with no chance to defend himself, could hardly be expected to improve armed forces' morale.

A "task force" (a term appropriated from American terminology) chaired by the Employment Minister, Margaret Hodge, recommended that the armed forces be compelled to employ disabled people and that the exemption of the armed forces from legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of disability should be dropped.

Much of the foregoing represents an unintelligent adoption of political correctness for the armed forces, and much represents governmental lack of under-standing at best, and hostility at worst. The debilitating consequences of such actions should not escape the attention of Australians.

1. "International Express", 18 July 2000.

2. "The Weekly Telegraph", 9 February 2000.

3. "The Spectator", 18 March 2000.

4. "The Spectator", 27 May 2000.

5. £100,000 was the amount given by the relevant union. A figure of £300,000 was also given but even the higher amount was trivial in the context of government expenditure in other areas.

6. "The Salisbury Review", Autumn 1999.

7. "The Weekly Telegraph", 10 January 2001.

8. "The U.K. Mail", 11 July 2000.

9. "The U.K. Mail", 11 January 2000.

10. "The Weekly Telegraph", 4 January 2000.

11. "The U.K. Mail", 25 January 2000.

12. "The U.K. Mail", 1 February 2000.

13. "The U.K. Mail", 1 February 2000.

14. "International Express", 2 May 2000.

15. "The U.K. Mail", 22 August, 2000.

16. "The U.K. Mail", 7 March 2000.

17. "The Weekly Telegraph", 21 March 2001. As a logical extension of these processes, the British Army has been paying £7,500 per operation for increasing the breast size of female soldiers "to make them happier", and has also been paying for sex-change treatment. Servicemen who change to become "women" are eligible to remain in the Army: "The Melbourne Express", 27 and 30 April 2001.


National Observer No. 49 - Winter 2001