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 consider that in the future, what the Armed Forces do will be less visible to the public than it is today. An expected rise in the number of highly technical, covert operations may mean that the public becomes less conscious of the military. “Future military action will increasingly take advantage of remote tactics, and where possible, fewer major international deployments.” Some view this lower profile as an advantage; “we don’t want to be in the public eye a lot. We still have a hangover from Northern Ireland – it left a bad taste.” Others disagree; “Everything in Afghanistan and Iraq said that to stabilise places, you must have boots on the ground, not just ‘Eyes in the Sky’. Yet we decided on the back of those conflicts that we need more technology.” Whatever your perspective, there may be consequences. For example as “it may become a challenge for the Armed Forces in particular, with respect to budgets, because we need to show that the forces are worth the spend.”

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 we talked to believe that maybe “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. Others point out, “with few publicly known transition success stories, many veterans are falsely perceived as mad, bad, and sad.” Looking ahead, most agree that there is a need to bust that particular myth, and instead, to build greater awareness of what service in the Armed Forces actually entails. The hope is that this will lead to a deeper understanding of the skills and abilities it is possible to acquire, and how they can then be applied in any number of capacities on re-entry into civilian life.

One of the reasons for this decline in understanding is generational. “Older people, or those who live in an area with many Service personnel, 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 onto the image of Service personnel. Rather than direct contact with anyone in the Forces, they are influenced by the media, and in particular “by the most recent significant campaigns: Iraq and Afghanistan – Blair’s Wars, which continue to cast a shadow.” Alongside this, time has also caused the loss of institutional memory. “The politicians of the 1960s and 70s all served – some from WW2, some with distinction. A sense of duty, service, and understanding was ingrained in them. This was lost in the managerialism of the nineties. So we now have Secretaries of State for Defence with tenuous links to the military.”

Generalisations haven’t helped. “It’s easy to get too narrowly focused on the traditional veteran, rather than the whole community.” Like many large corporates, the Armed Forces is made up of a wide range of individuals from multiple walks of life, offering myriad skills. Some spend the majority 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 specific skills of each individual, and is not welcome. It doesn’t offset public perceived myths of the ex-Services community.” 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.”

Many we spoke to felt that “this disconnection is a potential threat to the future of transition more broadly,” and suggested the need for greater, and more thoughtful, engagement with 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 as we leave the EU.” Others are, however, cautious: “As a mother of a 6-year-old son, I’m not sure. The blue light services are part of British society, and they help run it and we see them on the streets. The purpose of the military is different.”

For many, “how a veteran is perceived is a language issue.” 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 can be particularly damaging for the younger personnel in the community – not least because they don’t see themselves as veterans.

We also heard disappointment that the Armed Forces Community has not been recognised for its successful support of the police and the NHS during the pandemic. “There are great stories about great work and how the military has supported the NHS throughout the pandemic, but it is not always recognised by the public.”

All this has had a knock-on effect on the perception of veterans by the corporate world. “You find today that businesses are almost invited to employ Servicemen 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.”

An Implication: Co-ordinated messaging and use of language help to improve recruitment, both to and from the military in order to address the risk that veterans’ skills and experience are under-estimated by employers.





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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.