A crisis across the pond … and here, too?

This is just a bit of a rant …

There is an article in the Daily Mail by retired Colonel Tim Collins (who was, briefly, famous for a speech he gave to his regiment in Iraq in 2003)  that offers a harsh condemnation of the British defence establishment and, by extension, of the British nation and modern Western society at large. It is headlined: “How can our chubby, drug-addled and right-on Army protect us from our enemies?” It’s a bit of a rant, too.

Tim Collins says that “Not too long ago, the British military was regarded, with some justification, as one of the most effective, battle-ready and fittest fighting forces in the world … [but] … Today it is threadbare, ill-equipped and undermanned. It can’t recruit soldiers, sailors or airmen. And those who do manage to find their way through the painfully slow recruitment process are often in terrible physical shape.” I hear similar words when I visit Canadian officers’ messes and, in fact, I see visible evidence of some likely physical fitness problems when I walk near National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.

An extraordinary 17,602 members of the Army, Navy and Air Force have a body mass index of more than 30, the official measure for obesity,” Tim Collins writes, and “In the Army’s case, it is more than 11 per cent of its personnel … [and he says, and I agree] … This is a disgraceful situation … [but, he asks] … will the offenders be drummed out? Have they been given extra physical training to help them get into shape, or even a few choice words to chew over and digest?” He answers his own rhetorical question by saying that “I very much doubt it – because in today’s world, the Army is a ‘non-judgmental’ and supportive organisation.” part of the problem is that many Western militaries are having trouble recruiting and retaining the people they need. here in Canada the economy is booming, military pay is no longer high, compared with what’s available, especially for skilled technical people, and the sense of adventure, spiced with some real danger, and challenge that was present from 2002 to 2012 is pretty much gone. Instead we see this on the Canadian Army’w own, official web page …

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… which is a far cry from this …

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… which is what fit young soldiers really look like and which is what most of them want to be doing.

Where once it was a force to be feared and respected,” Colonel Collins says, the British Army “now prides itself on being liberal, welcoming and all-inclusive. And for this, its senior commanders expect diversity awards, official pats on the back and knighthoods … [and, he adds] … At least the secret is now out: our Armed Forces are a shambles … [of course, he says] … I accept that the British Army is constrained by the society it serves, and long has been … [and] … The fact is that today’s young people are overweight and unfit thanks to less active lifestyles and an epidemic of junk food. Rampant drug taking is another feature of modern life contributing both to discipline problems in the Forces and to a serious recruitment crisis.” Once again, this echos what I hear from a few serving officers in Canada.

But Tim Collins gets to an issues that really does frighten me, because I suspect it applies to Canada, too, in equal measure. “Nor,” he says, “can we blame the military for inventing the corrosive political correctness and identity politics that, in wider society, are proving so disruptive … [but] … when the drive to promote gender issues and the celebration of diverse sexuality comes at the expense of military effectiveness – and this is now the case – something has to change and urgently … [he suggests that] … First, the military leadership must shoulder its share of blame for this disastrous situation and take responsibility for its remedy. So far, there has been a whiff of cowardice in the air … [and, he says] … I can reveal that an Army ‘guidance note’ has been circulated which, instead of identifying the problem, attempts to silence its officers. Senior Army figures, the note says, ‘have become aware that serving personnel are not following guidance and have demonstrated negative opinions’ about a series of training videos concerning Muslims, LGBT people, and other ‘sensitive’ individuals … [and] … Military superiors, it continues, are ‘increasingly frustrated by the perceived negative impact that serving personnel are having’, warning that anyone who reacts negatively ‘can be dealt with under disciplinary or administrative action as appropriate’.

Now, for a part that isn’t just a rant …

This is, I am pretty sure, a multi-faceted problem:

  • There are serious recruiting and retention problems in the military … the processes are painfully slow and salaries, especially for skilled technicians, have not kept up with the civilian marketplace;
  • Society is changing and the soldierly ‘virtues’ of the 20th century are fading away;
  • Governments are trying ~ and have been since at last the 1980s ~ to use the military as a social engineering tool which means that being fit and able to fight takes second place to a whole host of other factors.

The military is, understandably, reluctant to toss out a person with, say, 12 or 14 years of service who is a) a skilled aero-engine mechanic or electronics technician, for example; and b) a bit, say 10 kg for a man, overweight. He explains to his supervisor that his knees hurt when he runs, but, by golly, he can always keep the mission critical NNXX radio control system working so the supervisor excuses him from the annual physical fitness test. Next year he goes to the medical clinic with a nagging cough and is, yet again, 1538702729330excused the physical fitness test, but he’s a damned good technician, even if the commanding officer does comment that he looks a lot less than military … and now he’s 15 kg overweight and bordering on being obese. Next year a new supervisor send him to the base clinic and he is declared obese but, by now, there is a policy to remediate problem so the fat man is retained in the service while doctors and psychologists try to help him overcome his weight problem. he (or she, there are a lot of less that fit women in the military, too) is not a bad person, it may be that by age 30 the stresses of work have taken a toll and maybe we need to have better fitness and recreation Pic2_5.jpg.755aee3aprogrammes for our people to promote good, age and occupation appropriate health and fitness … maybe not everyone has to finish the ‘ironman’ or ‘mountain-man’ competition every year; and maybe we need to recognize that there is a difference between being big and being overweight and that different occupations might require different fitness standards. What we do not want and cannot afford is people who cannot do their job under harsh, difficult, stressful conditions … that means we need people who are both physically and mentally fit. The late, great Field Marshall Lord Wavell called it “robustness,” and he defined it as the capacity to withstand the shocks of war.

So what is the answer?

Step one is to accept that people are a resource and decide that if we want the ‘right’ people to join then we have to pay them a competitive salary and offer them the challenges that young people, especially, seek ~ adventure and so on … then, but only then, the Canadian Forces can be more and more selective in who they recruit, telling the overweight ‘wannabes’ to slim down before they come to the recruiting office.

Once people are accepted the military has to move to step two which means offering good training and competitive remuneration, which isn’t only salary but also includes working and living conditions. For good, operational reasons, many Canadian Forces bases are in less than popular locations ~ think Cold Lake or Valcartier, for example. The military needs to make the work challenging and enjoyable and the lifestyle attractive … that may mean finding ways to give jobs to dependents, as just one example.

Step three involves providing careers that are challenging and rewarding for the individual member and which also provide a good life for families.

None of these steps involve the sort of quota driven ‘social engineering’ that so many people want to do with our military, and all of them recognize that the good people we want are probably not from the middle of the socio-economic bell curve. The military is not the ‘right’ job or career or ‘life’ for everyone … there is, indeed, “no life like it,” but it is not for everyone, and everyone who wears a uniform must be bale to balance a wide array of requirements, including being fit to fight.

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