Army’s attempt to appear ‘down with the kids’ simply gives credence to insults from older generation, writes Aidan Smith.
The best advert there’s ever been for the Army was Norman Wisdom. By the time he signed up at 15, his mother had walked out on her drunken brute of a husband, leaving the future comedy legend and his brother to attend school barefoot and steal food to survive.
Regularly thrown across the room by his father – “One time my head actually struck the ceiling before I came crashing down onto the sideboard,” he told me – Wisdom decided he’d be better off leaving, too, and trudged 192 miles from London and Cardiff in search of work. As a cabin-boy he sailed all the way to Argentina. Then when an attempted reconciliation with the old man failed, he was forced to sleep on the steps below the Marshal Foch statue at Victoria Station for three years.
“The Army saved my life,” he admitted, “and I owe everything to it. It gave me a bed, food, money in my pocket. It showed me some more of the world – India – and taught me how to play the trumpet. I still polish my shoes every day, one of the good habits it taught me. But most of all the Army gave me companionship.”
That’s the best recommendation for a career in the Armed Forces that I’ve heard and I won’t forget my 2002 encounter with the great knighted buffoon, king of the falling-down gag, even though he called me “Wally” throughout the interview.
The worst advert? Well, maybe we’ve just seen it: the recruitment poster aimed at snowflakes.
As it battles a recruitment problem – soldier numbers at the last count were 79,640, almost 5,000 short of the required level – the Army has splashed a reported £1.5 million on a new enlistment campaign, the latest fruits of which are a series of hopeless, get-down-with-the-kids slogans.
The posters re-work Lord Kitchener’s call-to-arms from the First World War. “Binge-gamers,” declares one, “the Army needs YOU and your drive.” Phone-zombies are wanted for their “focus”. Selfie-addicts can bring “confidence”. “Me-me-me millennials” would find the Army only too happy to channel their “self-belief”. Meanwhile to snowflakes the appeal is: “The Army needs YOU and your compassion.”
A Scots Guardsman from Irvine, Ayrshire, is the face of this poster. But Stephen McWhirter didn’t know he was going to have to portray a snowflake. Cue ridicule and mocking messages. Now McWhirter has vowed he will quit the Army. What a cock-up.
The Army should have told McWhirter they wanted to use his image to check he was okay with it. But first of all, it should have said to the advertising industry behind the campaign: “Snowflakes – are you sure?”
Not “snowflakes – are you sure we would take them?” because the answer to that is the Army would. It’s never been choosy and can’t afford to be now. No, the question would be “snowflakes – are you sure calling them that is a good thing? It’s hardly a term of endearment. As far as we’re aware, no one self-identifies as a latte-slurping, narcissistic drip who lacks character and crumbles at the first challenge”.
All the same, isn’t reacting like a snowflake to being dubbed a snowflake even if you’ve never previously displayed any snowflake tendencies and indeed regarded joining the Army as confirmation of your complete lack of snowflakiness not in itself quite, um, snowflaky?
I have some sympathy with the Army here. There was a time when I would have enlisted – upon receipt of my most desired Christmas present ever, the Johnny Seven toy arsenal, seven guns in one, but that never came.
My oldest friend used to be an Army helicopter pilot while one brother-in-law has recently given up the danger-filled constancy of military life to plunge into the economic uncertainties of Civvy Street. Another brother-in-law, meanwhile, continues his bomb disposal work in the Falklands having been made a CBE in the New Year Honours.
Like many, I’m just glad there are others willing to defend the realm, although mustering enough good men and true, and women, is proving more and more of a struggle.
Recruitment targets haven’t been hit in any year since 2012. In that time, top brass have been trying to soften the image of the Armed Forces. The “This is Belonging” campaign revealed it was okay for soldiers to cry, pray and show emotions, even while on operations. At one point, the Army was prepared to drop the “Be the Best” motto on the grounds it was elitist, along with the crossed swords logo which was considered non-inclusive, although these were ultimately saved by the Defence Secretary.
Can a drill sergeant still bark “you ’orrible lot”? Does KP still exist, the peeling of potatoes as a punishment? Let’s hope so. We mustn’t have soldiers going the way of footballers who can’t be criticised because a) they’re more powerful than their bosses now, earning more than them, and b) they’d burst into tears.
The Army has often been an easy target for the cynics with its recruitment efforts. A previous campaign was turned into a joke T-shirt: “Join the Army, see the world, meet interesting people – and kill them.”
With the latest attempt at boosting numbers, it claims to be looking beyond the stereotypes of young people and showing how those often-derided aspects of their lives can be viewed as strengths.
I get that, but this clod-hopping campaign simply ends up giving credence to the insults of an older generation. Even if the drive is challenging judgements of young people, potential recruits won’t want to be called snowflakes any more than Stephen McWhirter does.
The term is almost exclusively reserved for ‘why-oh-why’ right-wing commentators.
One thing, though: they would never have called Norman Wisdom a snowflake.