Soldier cadets practice marching with pace sticks at Sandhurst military academy

How The Army Has Learnt, And Led, On Tolerance

Soldier cadets practice marching with pace sticks at Sandhurst military academy

The last 30 years has been a time of incredible change for the British Army.

The end of the Cold War saw not only a huge reduction in troop numbers, but also huge levels of social change, all occurring against a backdrop of ongoing military commitments around the world.

Writer and former soldier Andrew Richards has covered this recent period in his book, ‘After the Wall Came Down: Soldiering Through the Transformation of the British Army, 1990 – 2020’. 

Here, Andrew talks about the major changes he has documented in his book, and how liberal society has helped transform the Army for the better. He also ponders what broader society can learn from how the Army has refashioned itself in the last 30 years.

Article by Andrew Richards

For any large organization or entity, change can be difficult, slow, and sometimes have long-lasting, unintended consequences. 

It has been generally acknowledged that changes which have occurred in Army over the past three-to-four decades can be attributed in large part to the influence of a more liberal society. 

By the end of the 20th Century, the Army was perceived as an antiquated monoculture but it eventually managed to open itself up more and allow access by a broader percentage of the general British population. Change was inevitable and change the British Army most certainly did. 

In fact, the reforms that have taken place in the last several decades have been so thorough and complete as to beg the question: could society and the general public now learn a thing or two from the Army?

It is, for example, worth taking stock of precisely which aspects of social change have occurred, and just how quickly.

Just a few decades ago, for instance, women were barred from serving on the frontline while homosexuals, if discovered, were subject to military law followed by discharge. Meanwhile, the percentage of ethnic minorities serving was below one per cent.  

Changing a culture that was considered overtly masculine, homophobic, and racist was never going to be easy. Despite cries to the contrary coming from senior officers and ministers of state, a long line of damning articles detailing bullying, hazing, and racism worsened the Army’s reputation. 

In 1994, it all came to a head when the Commission for Racial Equality began an inquiry under the Race Relations Act.

Today, by contrast, the British Armed Forces is praised for being one of the top equal-opportunities employers. 

Many senior officers are rightfully credited for bringing about these changes, but this transformation did not happen simply because it was decreed that it must. Many officers and soldiers resisted, but most either left or were blown away by the winds of change. Those who remained helped make the Army become what it is today.

While doing research for my book ‘After the Wall Came Down’, I was pleasantly surprised to learn just how many veterans had either moderated their views or changed them entirely. 

For instance, before the year 2000, 80 to 90 per cent of service personnel were against homosexuals being allowed to serve in the armed forces, whilst almost 70 per cent of the general public were in favour of it. 

Yet, today, the situation has completely changed. Between 80 and 90 per cent of those I interviewed now support the idea homosexuals serving in the military.

Male and female trainee British soldiers on the parade ground
Graduation Parade at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, North Yorkshire (image: MoD)

Regarding the issue of gender equality, meanwhile, I was initially shocked to hear from so many female veterans who had been poorly treated during their service. Some of the worst stories came during the 1990s, after the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) was disbanded and women were integrated alongside their male counterparts in non-combat roles. 

Not only did they feel they were second-class citizens, struggling to get ahead in a male-dominated environment, but they experienced a massive gender pay gap. Even women who were doing the exact same jobs as men were being paid far less for their work.

Yet, again, 30 years later, both male and female soldiers are now paid equally, with pay varying only by rank and not by sex.

Of course, not all discrimination has been entirely eliminated - change is an ever-evolving process, and rarely happens without some setbacks. For instance, there have been reports of racism, homophobia, and sexual discrimination over the past decade, and the Army does sometimes struggle to be transparent, with proceedings and disciplinary action mostly taking place behind closed doors. 

But it is refreshing to see a new-found openness, with high-ranking soldiers not afraid to speak up when once it would have been unheard of for them to do so. 

In 2018, the senior ranking sergeant major in the British Army recorded a message which was posted on to social media. He was responding to a court case that involved two British soldiers accused of racism and of belonging to extremist groups. 

He was blunt: 

‘If you hold these intolerant and extremist views, as far as I’m concerned there is no place for you in the British Army, so get out.” 

While it is encouraging to see this much progress, it is important to note that the Army has made important strides in another realm too: that of class.

In this case, the progress made is of particular note because the Army is an organisation that places tremendous emphasis on its traditions, and those traditions have sometimes been steeped in a centuries-old class divide. 

It was only a few decades ago that many of the Guards and Cavalry regiments recruited officers who wore the accepted school tie or came from a certain family background. Most of these turned into fine and very capable officers, but many did not, and were only there because of their social or class status. 

Conversely, many gifted soldiers and officers were excluded from serving in some of those regiments, not because they were not capable of having done so, but because they did not fit in socially.

Some civilian organizations and companies still tend to employ those who attended a certain university or grammar school, and likewise exclude many because they did not. 

Perhaps, in this case, they would do well to follow the Army’s example. Over the past three-to-four decades, it would appear that the British army has broken down most class barriers that have previously hampered or blocked the progress of able soldiers from different class and social backgrounds.

The other impressive thing about the Army is the way in which it has reformed itself against a background of very demanding commitments, carried out despite a hugely reduced force.

British Soldiers on parade in the rain at Sennelager, Germany
The Army’s ethos is to try and make things work despite trying circumstances (image: MoD)

Since the end of the Cold War, the British Army has shrunk considerably, downsizing from 152,800 fulltime personnel to 80,040 in just 31 years. Despite cutbacks in both personnel and funding, the commitments that the Army found itself involved in seemed to increase yearly. 

Just six days after announcing major cuts on 25th July 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Despite the Gulf War, ‘Options for Change’ (the post-Cold War restructuring of the military) became a reality and the Army was reduced by 20 per cent. 

As well dealing with the ongoing violence in Northern Ireland, the Army then found itself in Bosnia, first with the United Nations, and then under command of NATO. This was followed by commitments in Macedonia, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone

The post 9/11 world saw even more soldiers committed to combat despite the cuts. Although the Army would go through some traumatic experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, it showed what its core ethos was, always trying to make things work despite being over-committed and without the necessary resources.

Away from the battlefield, the Army has shown a level of adaptability rarely found elsewhere. Helping civilian authorities and the general public in times of need has always been a trademark of the British armed forces. 

Whether it was during the firemen’s strike, the Foot and Mouth outbreak, or the London Olympics, soldiers are able to deal with most situations they are asked to face. Even more recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the British Army responded at short notice when asked to help with testing, and at vaccination sites.

In short, the British Army has undergone a massive transformation in a very short time, while having huge commitments. 

Society demanded those changes, and now society might want to acknowledge the progress, and take a closer look at lessons it too can learn from the Army.

To learn more about the recent history of the British Army, including its adaption to and transformation by changes in British society in recent decades, read Andrew Richards’ book, ‘After the Wall Came Down: Soldiering Through the Transformation of the British Army, 1990 – 2020’, which can be purchased here, where it is currently being sold with a £5 discount.

Cover image: Marching practice with pace sticks at Sandhurst Military Academy (image: MoD)

British Soldiers on Parade in front of Duke of Cambridge in Dusseldorf
Soldiers on parade in Dusseldorf, Germany (image: MoD)