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Monday, 12 March, 2001, 14:44 GMT
Changing face of the army

As the army signs up a recruitment firm to bring in new soldiers, we look at whether it is indeed moving with the times.

To many people's minds, the army is just a male institution, with soldiers and officers divided by social class.

True in the past, perhaps, but today it is keen to be seen as a modern-day employer, staffed by people drawn from all walks of life.

This is, in part, a virtue born of necessity. The army is about 8,000 below strength, and is not expected to make up numbers until 2008.

Not only are recruiters struggling to find sufficient candidates with the required levels of fitness and commitment, the army has been haemorrhaging staff for years.

So does it reflect the world the rest of us live in?

Cultural safety

Moves to recruit more ethnic minorities have been on the go for several years - with varying degrees of success - both to boost numbers and to turn around the perception of the army as a racist institution.

soldiers working
"Do ya wanna be in my gang?"
Among the moves to make non-Christian recruits more at home include the introduction of "quiet areas" in barracks for prayer, and regulation skullcaps for Jewish soldiers.

Muslims wishing to pray five times a day can do so, so long as they are not otherwise engaged in a firefight.

Other changes include permission for Sikh men to wear turbans - although not under combat helmets - and short beards. There have also been proposals to introduce a Sikh division.

Food glorious food

The days of bully beef and hard-tack biscuits in the field are over.

As of last year, service men and women keen to stick to their vegetarian principles have been able to request non-meat emergency rations.

The move came a year after the Army introduced Muslim, Hindu-Sikh and kosher ration packs for operations and exercises.

"After all, they say an army marches on its stomach and we have to make sure that stomach is properly filled," a ministry spokesman has said.

Gender division

There are some 17,000 women in the armed forces, or 8% of the total.

GI Jane
Women must match men to make it to combat zones
Although still barred from frontline combat, the number of potential posts open to women has improved from 47% to 70% in the past two years.

For several years, women have been able to work as mine clearers and combat engineers - often the most exposed soldiers in a combat zone.

Yet despite political pressure to allow women into the frontlines, defence chiefs remain reluctant to allow them into the trenches.

Role for the disabled?

Moves to open up the military to those with disabilities have also been knocked back.

Training march
Recruits are put through an arduous year of training
Although disabled rights groups argue that the computer age has thrown up many suitable roles, defence chiefs argue that all staff must be combat-ready.

Major Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, says: "There are many documented cases of cooks, clerks and bottle-washers being pressed into the frontlines in an emergency.

"After all, one in three potential recruits are rejected on medical grounds as it is."

Bureaucracy gone mad

Concerned about long hours in the battlefield, or over-loud rifles damaging your hearing? Then the armed forces may not be for you.

The chief of defence staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, and his predecessor General Sir Charles Guthrie, have both said that military effectiveness is undermined by EU directives on employment rights.

They have said that the Working Time Directive, for example, is totally unsuitable for the armed forces. One week, soldiers may be on exercises in Wiltshire, the next on peacekeeping duties in Sierra Leone. The UK pushed for an exemption for the military.

And the Ministry of Defence's review of noise levels in the workplace was met with howls of derision among the military establishment.

But Major Heyman is in no doubt that the army has changed dramatically.

"I left 15 years ago, and I don't recognise it now as the same army I served in. It's a genuine meritocracy, with people from all backgrounds doing all sorts of jobs."

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See also:

12 Mar 01 | Scotland
Army recruitment goes private
28 May 00 | UK
Battle for equality
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