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Changing Perceptions

As public understanding of the role of the Armed Forces declines, so does the support to recognise veterans’ capabilities, actions, and contribution to society.

Many in the workshops consider there is already “a positive, but false, outdated view of what the military do today”. The concern, which unless addressed, is that “we are in real danger of consigning ourselves to obscurity”. As one expert saw it, “the biggest threat to the Armed Forces is a complete loss of public understanding about the role the military plays.” Although some believe “that’s a positive – it means that they don’t have to worry about the military, because we live in a fairly safe place,” this will have consequences for the public understanding of veterans and their ongoing role in society.

Part of the reason for this disconnect is that the capability of the Armed Forces is having to adapt to changing needs, as Britain’s influence on the world stage declines. Although it still defends the nation, it is, for example, increasingly active in supporting civilian authorities. There are pros and cons to this. “Some civilian tasks are very laudable – but there may be others that are a bit more contentious. They will put the Armed Forces on the front line and have an impact on the way they are perceived.” Another issue is in the way that the Armed Forces view themselves. “They purport to have a set of values and standards that set them apart from society, and then behave reprehensibly at times towards their own people – poor behaviour court martials, bullying – look at the Wigston Review. This doesn’t sit well with public perception.” Or as another put it, “are today’s Armed Forces internally living up to the standards they are espousing? I do question it, because sometimes when I see them in public, I do not see it being lived. We need to tell the truth.”

There was widespread agreement that the decline in understanding is generational. “Older people see veterans as the WW2 ‘Great Generation’; people who made a sacrifice – people to look up to and respect.” But as time goes by, and the personal connections diminish, it has become harder for subsequent generations to translate that view today. “We are assuming that the regard which the public hold for the Armed Forces will be sustained, and I am not sure it will be.” For some, the very notion of warfare might be an increasing challenge: “Among the young, more generally there is a view that [the UK] shouldn’t meddle in others’ affairs, perhaps there are more pacifists.” One view was that “historically, there was an automatic regard and respect. We may be moving into a period with a lower level of regard.” The explanation for this is complex, but many agreed that the fact that the current role of the Armed Forces is “less easy to explain and make relevant to people,” does not help. Others were less concerned. “I’m less convinced the reputation is slipping – it builds slowly and declines slowly.” Many agreed that “a major war would change everything.”

Over-generalisations have not helped either. “It’s easy to get too narrowly focused on the traditional veteran, rather than the whole community.” Like many large corporates, the Armed Forces are made up of a wide range of individuals from multiple levels of society, offering myriad skills. Some spend most of their professional life in uniform, others leave to establish a second, or even third career in a different capacity in civilian life. However, “continued classification of veterans as one size fits all does not highlight the individual skills on offer.” The reality is that most who serve leave to go on to lead successful civilian lives, but “that is different to the perception. Only 2-3% do have difficulty – the rest get tainted by that.”

Part of the problem may be that there was a lack of clarity within the Armed Forces Community around what the public perception of the Armed Forces should be. “If the Chief of the Defence Staff were here, he would say he wants empathy not sympathy.” Some suggest the most effective approach would be to “shift from a hero to a warrior brand, constantly engaged in ‘doing good things’. From a civilian perspective there are other competing groups who will gain the mantle of the public’s affection and respect – take the NHS, for example.”

Most we spoke to agreed that something should be done to facilitate the transition process. “We need to demonstrate in a more sophisticated manner the true value our personnel have,” and “promote the skills, attributes, morals and values – and how we can actively make use of those in the workplace and wider society.” However, agreeing the detail and which specific department should be responsible was not so easy. “The MOD have been challenged to change the perception of veterans for the last 3 years. It is now the OVA’s responsibility. But they are not doing it.”

One of the difficulties is that those in transition are used to a career where their role is innately understood. This does not translate into civilian life. Therefore, some face a difficult balance about how they articulate their experience. On the one hand, “we need to stop regarding ourselves as special, as many people don’t share our values and don’t regard us as special.” On the other hand, “if correctly packaged, the idea of a group of individuals who are more disciplined, have soft skills – and are different to those in society, can be perceived as a good thing… We need to be careful in encouraging a more vanilla approach for our military as some way of fitting in.”

Given all this, it is unsurprising that some civilian organisations are biased against returning Service personnel, perceiving them to be difficult to employ. This is manifestly not the case for the vast majority. Helping those leaving the Armed Forces to translate and articulate their military skills and capabilities, in a way which can be understood by civilians, has long been part of transition support services. But it is a hard nut to crack.

We heard several practical suggestions which might help open doors. For example, by enabling military sabbaticals, so Service personnel can experience civilian life while still in uniform, corporates can become more aware of the potential skills that the Armed Forces provides. This, it was suggested, could be developed as part of a super-charged MOD Enterprise Initiative. Another recommendation was that more time should be given to educate young people, in order that they can better understand geopolitics and the purpose of soft and hard power. “We should be engaging with the education system to prepare our children in a more meaningful way about our country, and why it is important to have a coherent foreign policy. This is going to be more important given we have left the EU.” Others are, however, cautious: “As a mother of a 6-year-old son, I’m not sure. The blue light forces are part of British society, and they help run it and we see them on the streets. The purpose of the military is different.”

Some pointed to the way that charities have, unintentionally, skewed public opinion by focusing on those who are in need of help; “they sometimes use highly emotive case studies.” Research has supported this; “The majority of the public believe that veterans will be damaged in body or mind by their Service.” This is a little unfair. A longitudinal study conducted by the King’s Centre for Military Health Research (KCMHR) reckon the overall rate of probable PTSD among a sample of current and ex-serving regular military personnel is 6% in the 2014/16 cohort, compared to a rate of 4.4% within the civilian population. Perceptions, however, can be particularly damaging for the younger personnel in the community – not least because they don’t see themselves in that way. This has had a knock-on effect in the corporate world. “You find today that businesses are almost invited to employ Service personnel as some sort of national duty. It is not, or at least shouldn’t be, national duty. The reason that they ought to employ Service men and women is because they are very good.”

Example Implication: An ongoing campaign celebrating the transferrable skills acquired while in the Armed Forces would assist in countering misconceptions of transitioning personnel and the contribution they bring to business and society.

Discussion

6 Comments

Anonymous

The loss of public understanding is not unique to the future, it is something the Armed Forces have faced for some time. Prior to Afghanistan and Iraq, the public had lost sight of the fact the military deployment has very real human consequences.

Anonymous

Until now our role in the world has been a post-colonial one. As this has been in decline, maybe through NATO and other alliances we have found a role that is bigger than perhaps you’d expect the UK to have. But with Brexit, a shift in our relationship with the US, something is shifting. And this will play across into how the Armed Forces are seen.

Anonymous

We need to educate our communities re military as people versus military as force. The lack of understanding of what a military person can bring is significant. Is this about education – at school, later.

Anonymous

I’m less convinced the reputation is slipping - it builds slowly and declines slowly.

Anonymous

In countries where there is a conscripted service, they don’t seem to have these problems. There is a trajectory, a career arc and the military are a part of it. The people in the UK have a different perception.

Anonymous

What employers will see coming out of the Armed Forces may be different - e.g. a lot of people now joining the military don’t see it as a long-term career, so they have different expectations than long-term service people.