A wake up to the future of war
Those despairing of the 'snowflake' army recruitment ads must realise that the future of warfare is going to be vastly different from the past, writes Tracey Follows
When I first saw the news editorial about the Army ‘snowflake’ ads, I already had emerging in my mind a "sigh" and a "pft".
But then I actually saw them for myself and immediately thought there was something brilliant about them. And the brilliance of them isn’t that they are saying anything new, it’s that they are saying something utterly familiar, and then saying something new.
The latest campaign has been compared mostly negatively with the very famous recruitment campaigns of the noughties in which 'Be The Best' was the call to action. Many of those recruitment ads went down an explanatory route, demonstrating what types of jobs you could find yourself pursuing in the army and which of the jobs would suit you best.
The promise was that whether it be on operations, peace-keeping missions or training others around the world, as a nurse, or a clerk or a technician it would be much ‘more than your average job’. You’d be trained with, and by, the best. Note, you didn’t have to be your best, the Army was going to do that for you - or to you.
But the one I remember was decades ago, in the seventies I think. One print ad in particular which said ‘If you’ve got it in you, the Army will bring it out’. It went on to describe the attributes that you may rely on the Army to bring out in you: stamina, nerve, know-how, teamwork and confidence. The visuals were an assortment of action shots (on the streets of Northern Ireland, or training in remote mountain areas or standing about looking tough surrounded by ammunition). It was all very professional.
All through Be the Best, the emphasis was on the Army as a career, and the skills and jobs and roles one might expect. But back in the seventies, and again in this new campaign, the focus is on potential. In the seventies it was on male potential, now it is human potential.
The ‘snowflakes’ campaign, as it has become known, seemed familiar to me because it reminded me of that seventies print ad, and what many people in the twentieth century used to say, which was that if a lad was going off the rails or had already got into trouble that he should be sent to join the Army to straighten him out. There was always the idea that the Army could bring out something in a chap that a life with freedom of choice, and autonomy to make his own decisions, could not. The Army would be the making of him.
And so it often was. It was potential fulfilled. Skills honed. Energies directed.
And as far as I can see, that’s exactly what ‘snowflakes’ promises.
Col. Ben Wilde, head of recruiting, was quoted as saying: “we are trying to show that we are unlocking potential - potential that many elements of society may not see in young people, but we do."
It’s a familiar territory for Army recruitment messaging and it is as true now as it was back then. Perhaps the harnessing of potential is needed even more now than then. That’s why I like it.
What’s challenging about it is not the explicit communication around the words ‘snowflake’ or ‘phone zombies’ or ‘binge gamers’. And it’s not that ‘youth’ has changed or culturally we are now oversensitive and over-emotional in every aspect of life that it has even contaminated the Forces. What is being said now that is different is where once the Army promised to make something more of the recruit, it is now promising that the recruit will make something more of the Army.
It is quite clear from these ads that Command and Control is dead and buried.
You only need to recruit someone for their compassion, as one of these ads does, if you are going to be in a situation in which definitive orders are not necessarily the norm (for example, the order to kill) but where you might be asked to weigh up the right and wrongs of a situation (like killing this person at this time in this way). And this is what is new.
The Army has laid bare the fact that warfare in the future relies not on strength, and stamina and nerve but on compassion and focus and self-belief. As with many great ad campaigns, the magic is not in the message but in the response of the audience, and the audience that are so despairing of these ads are merely coming to the realisation that the future of war is not the same as the past, it is not as physical as it is mental and emotional.
Future warfare will be conducted at a distance and via information not engagement. It will rely on algorithms that sit behind drone strikes for bombing, and complex mapping that sits behind drone deliveries of medicines and equipment. Anticipating and analysing information, at scale and making it unhackable to those who want to jam our satellites. On the ground, wars will be fought by robots. Intelligent machines on the ground are already being programmed to make decisions for themselves about firing lethal weapons (whilst lots of good work from @bankillerrobots continues to prevent this).
The speed of warfare will also increase. Hypersonic missiles and lasers that travel at the speed of light to shoot down drones and planes are in development. Quantum navigation could relieve militaries of reliance on GPS satellites and space. And speaking of space, war in space is very much on the cards, why else would one need a Space Force? It is the first time the US has created a new military division for about 80 years.
We can’t go back to promising a career in which you can be a nurse or a technician or a clerk. In the automated army of tomorrow, the emphasis for potential is now on mental and emotional capacities - critical thinking, focus and drive, ethics and even creativity.
As Dr Samuel Johnson said about great storytellers, the art of it is in ‘making the familiar feel new and the new feel familiar’. And this recruitment campaign has delivered on both.
Tracey Follows is the founder of Futuremade and writes on the subject of strategic foresight each month for Mediatel