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Retired senior officers accuse British military of being ‘woke’. But how valid are their concerns?

Last week, twelve retired senior officers of the British military wrote an open letter to the Secretary of State for Defence, in which they accused the British military of ‘monumental self-harming’, of ‘obsessive racialising’ and a cry for ‘diversity’ that was – in their eyes – a “real and present threat to national security”.

The Secretary of State agreed. Replying to the letter that was published in The Telegraph, he said that a “woke” and “extremist culture” had, indeed, infiltrated the British Army and the military needed to focus on being a lethal fighting force. “This newspaper,” Grant Shapps wrote, “reports that the Army wants to relax security checks for recruits from overseas in order to boost diversity and inclusion in its ranks.”

But how valid are their concerns?

It is first notable that those that penned the letter are all white, elderly men. Their average age is 79 and they retired from the military – on average – in 1998. To what degree their understanding of the current challenges the British military face with recruitment, retention and mission is out of date is never mentioned in the numerous articles or commentaries penned around their concerns. Despite them having left service an average of 26 years ago, their opinions appear to be great enough to spur the Secretary of State for Defence into action.

Are they in touch, though? They claim ideas such as “the use of “gender neutral” pronouns, or allowing male soldiers to wear make-up or flowing locks on parades to accentuate their feminine side” are being mooted. This claims is published despite the fact that in 2019, the then Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, said that only female soldier were allowed to wear make-up. That the debate around gender and language is aimed, not at an obsession with pronouns, but more about gendered language, which is a reflection of society’s general shift away from masculine terminologies. And that no evidence has been reported of ‘flowing locks’ being allowed on parade.

But why does a military more aware of gendered language matter? If you need any convincing, read Yvonne Roberts’ recent article in The Observer. In it she exposes the complex and troubling experiences of women in the UK’s armed forces. Focusing on personal accounts of harassment, discrimination, and systemic challenges, her piece reveals a stark culture of misogyny and a lack of accountability within the British military. Despite ongoing reforms such as improved childcare and the establishment of a Victim Witness Care Unit, the report underscores a significant gap between policy and practice, highlighting the urgent need for a cultural and systemic overhaul to ensure a safe and respectful environment for all service members, irrespective of gender. Reading it you wonder why these issues, not ‘wokeism’, are not the primary concern of Mr Shapps.

Today, almost three years after General Sir Nicholas Carter acknowledged the British military’s significant shortcomings in addressing gender-based violence in the military, little progress appears to have been made towards reform. A troubling catalogue of recent and historical incidents involving British military personnel, with allegations ranging from domestic violence and rape to child sexual abuse, signal a pervasive issue likely underreported. As AOAV has reported, one soldier was only fined – not arrested – for sexually assaulting two children in Afghanistan.

A culture of male supremacy within the armed forces, exemplified by incidents involving orgies and the denigration of women, and widespread instances of sexual violence, dominates. Despite the Ministry of Defence’s commitment to reforms and a zero-tolerance policy for sexual offences, the high incidence of sexual violence and the low conviction rate in military courts suggest a deep-rooted culture of impunity and inadequate support for victims. This situation raises serious questions about the effectiveness of current measures to combat sexual violence within the British military. But such concerns are not acknowledged by the Secretary of State nor by the twelve white men who rail against attempts to address concerns related to diversity or inclusivity.

Instead, they fixate on “a policy to dilute security vetting in order to boost representation of ethnic minorities.”

“With Islamism and other extremism rampant,” they write, “this is nothing short of dangerous madness.”

Of note, not one person in the last five years has failed to enter the British Army after failing a background Counter-Terrorist Check. Interestingly, 819 people were refused entry into the British Army owing to tattoos.

The retired officers’ concerns also ignores the fact that there are worryingly few senior officers who are black in the British military. In 2021, AOAV revealed only 0.4% of positions at Lieutenant Colonel rank and above were occupied by black personnel. Despite black soldiers constituting 6.7% of the army personnel—double their representation in the UK population—this disparity highlights significant racial inequalities.

High-profile cases of racial discrimination, such as those experienced by former soldiers David Nkomo, Nkululeko Zulu, and Hani Gue, further underscore the challenges of racism within the ranks, something the white senior officer vetarns do not acknowledge.

While the army has made commitments to increase diversity and inclusivity, the slow pace of change and the low promotion rate of black and ethnic minority personnel to senior positions raise questions about the effectiveness of these efforts and the genuine commitment to addressing racial inequalities within the British armed forces. The letter by these retired generals does little to rectify this.

Overall, the open letter from the retired senior officers and the subsequent response from the Secretary of State reflect a complex and deeply polarised debate surrounding diversity, inclusivity, and operational effectiveness within the British Armed Forces. While concerns about national security and the maintenance of a lethal fighting force are undoubtedly valid, the framing of diversity and inclusivity efforts as threats to these objectives reveals a concerning lack of regard for the broader challenges the military faces.

The experiences of women and minority soldiers, as highlighted by recent investigations and reports, demonstrate a pressing need for the armed forces to address issues of harassment, discrimination, and systemic inequality. The promotion of diversity and inclusivity is not a departure from the core values of patriotism and unity but rather an essential step towards modernising the military and ensuring it reflects the society it serves. Such efforts can enhance operational effectiveness by fostering a more cohesive, resilient, and morally grounded fighting force.

Times have changed. It is no longer 1998.

The focus on alleged security risks associated with diversity initiatives overlooks the more significant and urgent necessity of reforming institutional cultures to prevent abuse, promote fairness, and ensure the well-being of all personnel. The military’s strength lies not only in its physical capabilities but also in its moral and ethical standing.

As such, AOAV believes, the British Armed Forces must continue to evolve, embracing diversity and inclusivity as integral components of its operational ethos and as vital to its continued relevance and effectiveness in the 21st century.

Without a diversity that reflects – within reason – society at large, this charity believes, then the protection of civilians at home and abroad during military operations is fundamentally endangered.

To do this, the challenges of racism, misogyny, and discrimination within the military demands a balanced approach that respects the institution’s traditions while recognising the imperative for change. Attacking the military for being ‘woke’ to address the societal shifts in which it finds itself is a head-in-the-sand argument.

It is only through a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of diversity and inclusivity that the British Armed Forces can truly fulfil their modern duty to protect and serve, ensuring a safe, respectful, and equitable environment for all service members.

A fighting force fundamentally rooted in the society it is tasked to protect is a force that knows what it is fighting for.

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The open letter to the Secretary of State can be read below:

Dear Secretary of State,

As retired senior officers of the Crown with experience of senior command, we feel compelled to write to you with a sense of sadness, incredulity and anger having viewed astonishing evidence of the depth and pervasiveness of the racist and intolerant “Diversity, Equality and Inclusivity” ideology being pushed within HM Armed Forces.

We see these facts, as so they are, as the perpetration of monumental self-harming and, as such, a real and present threat to national security that will give aid and comfort to the King’s enemies. The sheer scale of what is reported is scarcely believable, and it cannot be ameliorated by small adjustments. It requires root and branch removal and we call upon you to order this, in pursuit of your primary duties to provide for the sure defence of our islands and citizens.

Nothing could be better calculated to destroy the esprit de corps of our armed forces than this poisonous farrago of nonsense or to deter from serving the Crown precisely the type of people most motivated and apt to our high calling. Ours is a tolerant country and this obsessive racialising of everything is both disgusting and reprehensible.

As you spelled out in your Lancaster House speech, correctly in our view, we live in ‘pre-war’ times; and Britain faces an ominous and darkening international scene, with Armed Forces that are underequipped, undermanned and underfunded, as we were back in the 1930’s.

Among the lunacy of pushing woke ideas around the use of “gender neutral” pronouns, or allowing male soldiers to wear make-up or flowing locks on parades to accentuate their feminine side, we pick out the wickedness of a policy to dilute security vetting in order to boost representation of ethnic minorities. With Islamism and other extremism rampant, this is nothing short of dangerous madness.

The cry for “diversity” has been utterly misunderstood. Within a military culture, what is to be sought above everything else is the delivery of “fighting power” in order to defeat the King’s enemies, together with the greatest uniformity of excellence and diversity of opinion. Nothing else matters. The Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill are an object lesson of the unforced unity in all their diversity of Imperial and Commonwealth Armies in defence of freedom.

To remove Christianity from Acts of Remembrance is also a particular insult to our ancestors who fought and died to lead the world in ending slavery and twice in the last century to save our islands from conquest by extreme regimes. No one should need to be reminded that this is a welcoming, inclusive and basically Christian country. Our civic culture on 11th November is sacred, Christian, tolerant and inclusive on our terms.

The Russians, Iranians and Chinese will be observing our descent into self-hatred and obsessing over diversity and inclusion with glee. These intolerable policies are forcing the British Armed Forces into moral disarmament and it cannot stand.

We call on you as Secretary of State for Defence immediately to cleanse our military culture of these poisonous ideas and to order a complete reset back to our core values of patriotism and unity that for generations made our armed forces the envy of the world. To preserve and deepen military culture, discipline and efficiency, the Ministry of Defence should be exempted from the Public Sector Equality Duty as specified in the Equality Act 2010. 

We are not civil servants but fighting forces.

Yours,

Major General Julian Thompson CB OBE

Lieutenant General Sir Henry Beverly KCB OBE

Brigadier David Chaundler OBE

Major General Tim Cross CBE

Lieutenant General Sir James Dutton KCB CBE

Major General Malcolm Hunt OBE

Colonel Richard Kemp CBE

Rear Admiral Roger Lane-Nott CB

Lieutenant General Sir Hew Pike KCB DSO MBE

Lieutenant General Jonathon Riley DSO MC

Colonel Ewen Southby-Tailyour OBE

Major General Nick Vaux CB DSO