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Monday 2 September 2019



The armed forces need more reservists. What do part-time soldiers deliver?

By David Patrikarakos

“We were wondering if a military man like you, a soldier, er, could you give a man a lethal blow?”

So asks Tim Canterbury, one of the characters of in the original UK version of the comedy The Office, of one of his colleagues, the hapless Gareth Keenan.

Gareth’s response? “If I was forced to, I could.”

But Tim doesn’t stop there: “And do you always imagine doing it face to face with a bloke, or could you take a man from behind?”

“Either way’s easy.”

As the on-watching Dawn puts it: “Lovely.” The joke’s based on Gareth’s membership of the Army Reserve, then known as the Territorial Army – and his frequent comparisons between life at a paper company and life on the field of battle. These comparisons may be absurd, but Gareth sure faces a lot of innuendo and belittlement because of them. In The Office, the correct register for discussing reservists is the comedic.

Except it’s not just in The Office. Earlier this year, the Conservative MP Mark Francois was ridiculed as a real-life Gareth when he declared during an interview, “I was in the army, I wasn’t trained to lose”. Inevitably, it turned out that he had only served in the Territorial Army and had seemingly not been deployed to a conflict zone. On social media, the standard gag was widely deployed: surely he was only not trained to lose at the weekends.

This is all typical. Generally speaking, the military does not have a place at the centre of British culture, but there is one part of it whose role is well understood. The Army Reserves, along with the other reserve forces, is widely seen as a joke. Service in it is all too often something to sneer at – a curiosity performed by “weekend warriors,” low on accomplishments yet high on self-importance.

The problem for Britain is not just that this reflects a disregard for the very real sacrifices made by its reservists – over 30 have died in action since 2002. Nor just that it drags on recruitment – and the armed forces say they need 35,000 of them. The problem is that the future of war will make Britain more reliant on its reservists than ever before.

The Special Forces Club is a private members club for those who served in units closely linked to the special operations and intelligence community. It lies behind a simple black door of a simple red brick building on a quiet street in Knightsbridge; fitting for those who have spent careers striving for anonymity. I am here to meet Sir Julian Brazier, a former MP who spent 13 years as a reservist, eventually becoming the Minister for Reserves under David Cameron.

When Cameron took power in 2010, the British Army’s reserve forces were starved of resources at the same time as being used extensively in Afghanistan. The numbers of trained reservists had dwindled to around 19,000, while officer recruiting had almost dried up, with most units being led by men and women in their 40s and 50s who had risen slowly through the ranks. Cameron set up a commission – on which Brazier served as vice chairman, alongside General Sir Nick Houghton (then Vice Chief of the Defence Staff) and (retired) Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb – to recommend on its future.

The Commission reported in 2011, recommending a strength of 30,000 trained soldiers in the Army Reserve and measures to rebuild the officer corps. Its findings were adopted by the government but progress was slow and Julian Brazier was given his ministerial role in 2014 – remaining until Cameron resigned in 2016. Today there are around 27,500 trained reservists. Officer recruiting has transformed with the last three Sandhurst summer reserve courses having more than 90 graduating, more than three times the number from 2011.

Brazier sees three clear reasons why a competent reserve force is vital to any army seeking to operate with success in the field. The first is expansion. “In times of war need to be able to expand,” says Brazier. “And the worst way to expand is – as the Americans discovered in Vietnam – to try and expand by endlessly drafting people into your regular army, which is an absolute, bloody disaster.”

He continues: “In Vietnam you had unwilling conscripts banded together who did not know each other at all before enlistment, which would not have been the case had they all trained together over months and years as reservists.”

US soldiers in Vietnam, 1965

The second reason is less obvious but more interesting. “The danger with having an all-professional setup is that the public loses interest in it. If the vast majority of people don’t know anybody who’s serving in uniform, then interest in defence matters tends to come at the bottom of the pile – unless there’s a war on, of course.”

“The fact is, if you want to have a footprint in society, which in turn can influence policymaking, reserves and, to a lesser extent, cadets are the only way you reach most communities. The thing I find really encouraging today is that we have ministers, senior officers and a wider establishment who get this – and are committed to rebuilding the link to wider society.”

But if ministers have finally got it, large swathes of the general public have not. Brazier’s words are important because they cut to a central part of this debate: culture. The British middle classes, if not entirely uncomfortable with our military, at least see its glorification as being in poor taste. It’s just not very British to drool over men and women marching up and down in the street in uniforms. And if they only do it on weekends, unease curdles into unequivocal laughter.

The same is not true elsewhere. The United States, for example, fetishises two institutions above all else: The Office of the Presidency and the armed forces. It was telling that, when The Office was remade for an American audience, the Gareth character became a volunteer sheriff’s deputy.

This is an attitude reflected in recruitment. The US Reserve Component retains nearly a million members and comprises about a third of the total US military force and is thoroughly integrated across the spectrum of military missions. This compares to the UK reservist force, which comprises around just 14 per cent of the total army forces.

As our conversation neared its end, Brazier alighted on his third reason: part-time soldiers bring with them trades and skills that regular soldiers do not have – and this is where their future truly lies.

War is changing. It is becoming less kinetic and more integrated with civilian life. The boundaries between war and peace are blurring and, for that, we need a new type of soldier.

I first entered Ukraine in March 2014, just months after the beginning of the Euromaidan revolution which would overthrow former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. War broke out just weeks later. Four years earlier, I had been embedded with the UN peacekeepers as they faced off against the barbarous militia group The Lord’s Resistance Army. It was like covering two wars in two different centuries. As I travelled throughout the occupied cities in eastern Ukraine, it became clear that this was a conflict being fought on two battlefields – the physical, on the streets of Ukraine, and the informational, on TV and in cyberspace. And the latter was the more important theatre of engagement.

Ukrainian soldiers withdrawing from the strategic and hard-fought town of Debaltseve after being effectively surrounded by pro-Russian rebels

This was a war where trolls were more important than snipers, where tweets were more powerful than bullets. Officially, it was not even a “war” – Russian President Vladimir Putin denied his soldiers were in Ukraine.

While both Afghanistan and Iraq were wars fought in the 21st Century, Ukraine was the first 21st-century war. Putin sent tanks and weaponry across the Ukrainian border not to achieve a military victory (which in the beginning he could easily have achieved) but to destabilise Ukraine. And the way he did this was to get Eastern Ukrainians to subscribe to a particular narrative, that the post-Maidan government was a “fascist Junta”; that it wanted to persecute Russian speakers; and that it wanted to destroy the speaking of Russian in the country. The goal was to ensure that Kyiv – fractured at the societal level – could never organise itself sufficiently to the degree where it might conceivably join the EU or, even worse in Russian eyes, NATO.

It was the perfect convergence. The appetite in the West for large physical wars – so costly in money, lives and political capital – is lower than at any other point in the post-Cold War world. Meanwhile, Russia lacks the resources to take the West on in a straight military fight. And so: social media. Our soldiers will have to adapt accordingly.

Reconnaissance officers take part in exercises held by the Russian Southern Military District’s Special Forces units

There is a saying in military circles: “you can teach anyone to dig a trench or fire a gun.” But you can’t teach everyone to code – and, in the wars to come, countries are going to need coders more than trench-diggers. Even those who can be taught to code may chose other routes than the military one. Just imagine a young woman or man about to graduate from a good university and looking at their career options. One option is Sandhurst, with a year’s training and then a starting salary of less than £30,000. Another is Google. Which are they most likely to choose?

This, of course, is where reservists come in. A desire to be paid properly and receive professional perks does not preclude patriotism or a sense of duty to one’s country. The possibility to marry the two can come only through reserve service. And, as war becomes less kinetic and more narrative-based, so does the definition of what constitutes a “real” soldier.

I speak to Robert Johnson, a former army officer and now Director of Oxford University’s Changing Character of War Centre. “Information troops are the special forces troops of the information age,” he tells me. “And to get those troops we need those types of graduates that Google [and other tech companies] all hoover up. I’d say we want them to have the opportunity to do both. So that means, yes, you can go off to Silicon Valley or Cambridge or the Israeli Tel Aviv strip, and do a bit of exciting, very high-paid work, but you could also do that and have all the fun and excitement of a life more extraordinary, which would involve… the very special camaraderie you get from military service.”

Graham Fairclough, another former army officer, agrees. “I think the challenge that the military has in the information domain is: how does it maintain the steady rate [of people] that it needs? Because people [with the necessary skills] will come in. We get lots of young officers. But keeping them is a different matter. My cap badge [the Intelligence Corps], for example, has a huge problem in that we are oversubscribed at Sandhurst but find it very, very difficult to keep the officers for more than three to five years – a lot of them go into the private security and intelligence sectors. I suspect the reserves are a way to balance that problem”

Cadets take at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

The Hamilton Hall is a Wetherspoons pub near Liverpool Street station, decked out like an IKEA version of the Palace of Versailles. Plaster cast colonnades adorn the walls – vast paintings complete with frolicking nymphs dominate the surroundings. I am with “Chris”, a former reservist who has agreed to speak to me on condition he reveals neither his full name nor full details of his work.

He illustrates another fact about the reservists: they have found roles for people that the regular army could not. Chris always wanted to join the Army, but he was born with a disability. He couldn’t be a “traditional” soldier, so he looked at how could gain experience. He even thought about joining the Foreign Legion. “I had friends who were members,” he tells me. “And they said to first see what the UK could offer in terms of reserve service. So, in the early 1990s, I went and did a selection course to see if I was mentally and physically able. And I was.”

“Even though the regular army would not let you in because of your disability?” I ask.

“Perceived disability,” he retorts.

Again, the question of skills comes up. “The Army standard is wrong,” he says “there is a defined standard but it’s inadequate; it should also factor in what else a person can bring. I started my training course with many people without perceived disabilities who failed to complete it because they didn’t have the mental strength.”

Chris worked in turbulent times. He deployed to the Balkans region in support of UN operations. “Our main role was to ‘facilitate peace’,” he says. “To meet with key people, discuss key issues and find solutions – this was a quasi-intelligence job. You needed to meet and greet people, to gather certain information from them. You cannot train everyone to acquire the necessary interpersonal skills for this sort of work.”

UN soldiers meeting with Serb soldiers on the outskirts of Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict

Chris also worked in Afghanistan, though not for the military, but it was his reservist experience that got him the job. This speaks to a larger truth. It was in Afghanistan and Iraq that the reservists – for the first time since the First World War – truly proved their worth. As Johnson had told me, “very few of our support services could have been staffed properly in Afghanistan, and to some extent also in Iraq, without the reserves. I think that’s been a game-changer.”

Afghanistan and Iraq offered the reserves the chance to show their mettle – and they seized it. A case in in point is the Somme Company (the London Regiment), one of the few cases in which reserves were allowed to go to Afghanistan as a formed body and participate in a range of combat operations. So effective was the company that Lieutenant General Sir John Gordon Lorimer described it as “an outstanding body of men: well trained, highly motivated and exceptionally well led”.

At the peak of the invasion of Iraq in 2002, Brazier told me, one fifth of the entire force was reservist, including many formed bodies – astonishing given that they were only a quarter of the Army and were called out at much shorter notice than the legislation enforces.

Reservists from The London Regiment evacuate a mock casualty as they take part in a live-firing exercise in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan in 2009

If the Middle East allowed the reserves to prove their worth, Ukraine allowed our militaries to understand the need for them in the evolving wars to come – and are militaries are trying to act accordingly. The 77th Brigade was created in 2015 and has been dubbed the British Army’s “Facebook warriors”. The unit recruits those skilled in social media and in “psyops”. Critically, it was founded with the idea that civilians with the right skills would work alongside regular troops. Indeed, the unit was set up with the goal of having a startling 42 per cent of its personnel as reservists.

These troops, Johnson believes, are now as important as the most elite special forces. “The old industrial model, the old kind of clock in, clock out, regular hours, you know you get paid, state pension, blah, blah… is becoming outdated,” he says. “We need a much more flexible in-out system for the information age. A new model army – quite literally.”

It’s all a far cry from The Office.

Further reading

David Patrikarakos’s own book, War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century, is an account of the rapidly changing nature of modern warfare.

The 2011 report produced by the Commission set up to look at Britain’s reservists forces can be read here.