Mar 27th 2003
From The Economist print edition
Britain’s armed forces are solidly white. That’s a problem for them
BRITISH and American troops may be fighting shoulder to shoulder in Iraq, but it’s easy to tell them apart. In pictures from the Gulf, our boys stick out for two reasons: they don’t wear sunglasses, and they are nearly all white.
Fewer than 2% of British servicemen and women are members of ethnic minority groups, compared with 9% of the population as a whole and 37% of the American armed forces. The British army is more diverse than the navy or the air force (both around 1% non-white), but that does not make it any more representative of British society, since many of those black and Asian soldiers are foreigners. This year, for instance, the force recruited 380 Jamaicans, 438 Fijians—and just 344 non-white Britons.
There is no reason why the armed forces ought to mirror the civilian population—as the police, for example, should. But the services will have to do better at minority recruitment if they want to keep their strength up. Competition from civilian employers is fierce at the moment, and the northern industrial towns that traditionally supplied men are in decline. As their populations fall, so the recruitment pool shrinks. For two out of the last three years, the army has fallen short of its recruitment targets.
The forces are now trying to bring in more non-white Brits, but they are up against some imposing obstacles. Only six years ago, the Commission for Racial Equality uncovered evidence of deeply-rooted racism in the army—and all the services subsequently signed up to a plan to improve the way they dealt with non-whites. Although things have got better since then, the military still struggles to convince ethnic minorities that its much-vaunted history and traditions do not extend to racial purity.
The whiteness of the military is in part just a numbers problem. As Chris Myant of the Commission for Racial Equality says, “if unemployed black men from Tottenham as well as unemployed white men from Salisbury thought of joining the army, they wouldn’t have a recruiting problem.” But it is also a matter of skills shortages. As the services become more high-tech, their need for recruits with mathematical and computer skills is rising. The army tends to recruit from the lower echelons of society; and poor ethnic-minority youngsters tend to be better-educated than whites in the same social group.
The armed forces have changed in other ways, too. They now spend much of their time on peacekeeping missions, where a premium is placed on tact and sensitivity. Even when fighting, soldiers are expected to make judgments about people that go beyond appearances. In Iraq, British soldiers are trying to spot the difference between civilians, reluctant soldiers, and diehard loyalists (who may be dressed as civilians); they are not just going after people with moustaches. A military that can cope with a bit of diversity in its own ranks is likely to be better at this sort of thing.