I’m not a ‘snowflake’, or a ‘me, me, me, millennial’, or a ‘selfie addict’. I’m just a citizen, like you.
Being a Soldier is something that can either be commendable or deplorable dependent on your stance on warfare. Personally, I think it’s something commendable. Especially if you join your local Army Reserve, as you’re not only managing a full civilian life but you’re also helping to defend your country from threats as well. The late Winston Churchill first coined the accolade `twice a citizen’ as a measure of the value of military reservists who served the national interest in both civilian and military capacities (R Pengelley, `Twice a Citizen’, International Defence Review, Vol 28 no 8, 1995, p 1.). And he was completely right. As a reservist, you are a citizen first and a reservist second, mandated to fulfil dual responsibilities as voice of the vox populus and as a protector of the realm. I joined because I want to protect the land my children walk upon, I want to protect the ideologies I hold dear, like freedom of thought, expression and speech.
I’ve been a member of the Army Reserves twice and each time has very different. Originally I was a Gunner with 106 Royal Artillary, a reserves unit based in Grove Park, London. I was there back in 2002. I enlisted that time because I wanted to see what I could do. I also wanted to continue the tradition within both sides of my family of participation in our nation’s conflicts. Young, keen and fresh out of university I literally had no idea of what to expect other than what I had seen on television. Nothing could prepare me for the new reality. The unit itself was all right, the people seemed friendly, mostly and the administration seemed fairly on top of things. There was an unmistakable atmosphere of overt masculinity, weakness was sniffed out and extinguished whereever it raised it’s head. Education was frowned upon. Within three months of signing up I was off to ‘Zero to Hero’, the nickname for completing the required three weeks of basic training back to back as opposed to across multiple weekends.
The Old Order
I arrived at ATC Pirbright for what I knew was going to be a life changing experience. It was, just not in the way I thought it would be. From the minute I got there you could see the ‘Old Guard’ were in full effect. Everyone was getting ‘beasted’ constantly and consistently. In fact if you were someone with intelligence and an education it appeared to make you a target for particular attention by the NCO’s (Non-Commissioned Officers). Not good attention, of course.
On my first day in I remember watching on in silent horror as our Corporal literally tossed people’s beds and wardrobes over the barracks floor, in their entirety. I was quite lucky. Having been brought up in a strict household where my mother ruled with an iron fist, literally at times, I was used to discipline and getting things done to a certain standard. I was one of the lucky few who managed to never have their personal belongings scattered to the four winds because of a poorly made bed or ill-kempt uniform. For three weeks I had the same Corporal screaming in my face, spittle and flecks of saliva splashing across my face from his mouth in his near constant dyspeptic rage, repeatedly telling me that he would ‘skull fuck me’. He really disliked me because I have a degree. I know this because he reminded me quite often, that ‘having an education’ still didn’t mean I was worth anything, I was still shit and always would be. Apparently the Army, ‘his Army’, were ‘better off before your (my) kind were allowed in’. I could never be certain if he meant that racially or because I have a degree, perhaps it was a combination of the both. He was very representative of the atmosphere of the place. The people in charge from the highest to the lowest rank, believed in a culture of systemic bullying and bigotry. Our training staff bullied us, we bullied each other.
Any sense of ‘teamwork’, ‘comaraderie’ of ‘banter’ were nothing more than contructs by which we rationlised being horrible to each other. They were hard on us, we were hard on each other. They worked tirelessly to remove any sense of individuality and self and replace it with nothing but ‘green’. I remember that my fellow recruits were a mix of people who desperately wanted to be ‘alpha’ and those that just didn’t want to be ‘seen’. I spent my days going from class to class, under the wrathful gaze of our Corporal, periodically having to stand up for myself as other people tried to pick on me because of the colour of my skin and the way I speak. That’s right, racism and bigotry were still really, really big amongst the recruits in the Army of 2002.
We were ‘told’ that we were a team, that we were all the same, however the actual consequence of their influences and example was in fact the exact opposite. A number of people who started on the training at the same time as I, for the most part mild mannered and quite even tempered turned from being ‘nice’ people to bullies in a matter of days. An example of that was what I witnessed during our TABs (Tactical Advance to Battle). People were being encouraged to ‘push’ each other aggressively, to drag each other across that finish line ‘kicking and screaming’, as it were. This meant literally ‘pushing’ each other, people aggressively pushed each other along with their rifles, leading to a number of people dropping out off course due to injuries sustained during those TABs. This aggression was often demonstrated in the barracks during downtime as certain individuals tried to aggressively physically bully ‘non-alpha’ individuals, to establish dominance of the squad, normally the intellectuals and passivistic ones, amongst us. During my time there, a couple of overly ‘alpha’ types attempted to bully me, with one of them even attacking me during our three night manueuveure. The only reason they weren’t successful in bullying me is because I made it abundantly clear I could and would stand up for myself, which, unfortunately other teammates didn’t do which resulted in them having an experience filled with disrespect, insults and sometimes physical abuse.
I definitely got the impression that if you were educated it was considered a problem. The training staff considered you a potential issue and would constantly remind you that being educated meant nothing and your fellow recruits treated you with disdain and disrespect. I was constantly being told I should,
“Fuck off and be a useless cunt like the rest of those fucking officers’
I had chosen to do all my basic training at unit level before going on to Officer training as I wanted to experience the whole Army, not just one piece of it. With my grades and qualifications I could have skipped all that and gone on to Sandhurst, however I decided against that. I want to be the kind of leader that people follow because they feel like he understands them and will keep them safe and lead them onwards to victory, not just because they’re told to. I finished my basic training and not long after in 2004 I dropped out of the Army Reserves because of a growing family and no support at home.
The New Order
Almost fifteen years later I decided to re-enlist. I am stronger. I am more experienced. My thinking is different. This time I was determined that no matter what occured I was going to instead of giving up on the Army, I was going to change it. I firm believer in, if you see something wrong then you are duty bound to change it. So I picked a unit in keeping with my civilian training and aspirations. I picked the 37 Signals Regiment in Coventry. I signed up in November 2017 however due to a cumbersome and inefficient recruitment process run for the Army by Capita, I wasn’t attested until September 2018.
During my Army Selection Weekend I ran a mile and a half in 10:30, beating my time of 11:10 scored when I was 22. I was pumped. I again decided to do ‘Zero to Hero’ and completed Alpha and Bravo Training back to back over three weeks. I was immediately shocked by the difference. Gone were the screaming and shouting Corporals. Gone were the bed flippings and wardrobe scatterings. This was a whole new order. The Army had changed. Gone were the old ways, apparently. The British Army is trying to move to a more inclusionist and embracing format for it’s soldier training in order to increase recruit retention and decrease accidents and injury incurred due to ‘beastings’ and bullying. It’s a good idea and about time too. A little late in comparison to it’s corporate forebears however still a positive step towards progress. If you want an armed force that is not only combat effective but also operating ethically and within the boundaries of morals and LOAC (Law of Armed Conflict), then you need an armed force comprised of individuals with strong ethical and moral convictions and the highest of ideals.
The atmosphere in Pirbright is completely different to the days of old. The Corporals and other training staff are respectful, knowledgeable and above all, proportionate in their punishment of lack of discipline etc. We had a Troop Commander who is representative of the ‘New Guard’, educated, intelligent, diligent, respectful and humble. During our training we did experience disconnects at times due to time pressures and the amount we had to learn in a compressed amount of time however this didn’t distract from how at every turn this ‘new’ Army was really trying to get you, the individual, to be actively embraced by them. This was reflected in the recruits. The recruits all helped each other. There was a sense of team work and coooperation without a sense of loss of individuality or individual accountability. The training staff pushed us positively to be better people and better soldiers. On one occaision there was a feeling that certain members of the training staff had overstepped the line in punishment of some of us and for the first time our concerns were heard. They were not only heard but they were also acted on positively. The results of having a command and training staff that listen to the concerns of their recruits are recruits that actively engage and push themselves harder to be better. Discipline was enforced but done so with explanation and restraint. This example shown to recruits will educate them in demonstrating restraint and understanding in the field when dealing with civilians and non-combatants.
I can honestly say that after basic training I have returned feeling useful, capable and wanting more. I cannot wait to pursue a career in the Army Reserve and help to keep this country safe and secure. Moreover, for perhaps the first time, I feel like I will be fighting against our enemies domestic and external with likeminded individuals, all ready and waiting to cover each others backs in defence of this once great nation; a band of brothers.