The Armed Forces, the Civil-Military Gap and Civilian Support: the Impact of 21st Century Cultural Flux and Criminal Behaviour by Armed Forces Personnel

The Armed Forces, the Civil-Military Gap and Civilian Support: the Impact of 21st Century Cultural Flux and Criminal Behaviour by Armed Forces Personnel

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December 13, 2022

The author is a serving Officer and member of the Naval Review

By the Editor – The author sets out to investigate how a developing lack of trust in civic institutions, including the military, could impact the support that the military receives from the civilian population that it ultimately serves and protects. The Armed Forces need to do more to connect and stay relevant for the younger generations. A 10 minute read.

General (rtd) Martin Dempsey provided a foreword to the Summer 2021 issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly in which he suggested that now is an “opportune time” for an investigation into the state of civil-military relations, after the United States has been involved in fighting war as well as undergoing significant cultural and political change during the past 20 years.[1] Noting similar cultural change taking place in the United Kingdom and an apparent surge in instances of ‘bad press’[2] surrounding the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces in British news publications, Dempsey’s timing seems applicable to Britain too. This article takes the opportunity to make such an assessment and finds that such ‘bad press’ could result in an erosion of trust between the UK’s Armed Forces and the civilian population, in danger of resulting in increased scrutiny from civilians and a lapse into apathy towards the Armed Forces.

This article seeks to situate this erosion of trust in a wider social and cultural context. This context broadly aligns with Millennials and Gen Z and the ready availability of information and personal experience on the internet. It is one which evaluates the use of armed force to a higher degree than even during the first five years of the 21st Century. It also considers the use of armed force to be a measure that is almost not worth considering and questions the necessity for war during our various energy and resource and climate crises, as well as being more aware of the ways in which difference is discriminated against in society. The ‘bad press’ detailing criminal behaviour by individual Armed Forces personnel that appears in public discourse adds fuel to this cultural scepticism surrounding the organisation’s existence, driving questions as to its relevance and potentially resulting in a demoralising lack of support for the Armed Forces.

The erosion of trust, cultural scepticism and potential lack of support can be seen in the civil-military gap: the “social distance” between military and civilian populations as a result of their differences in lived experience.[3] A 2014 study entitled ‘Are the Armed Forces Understood and Supported by the Public? A View from the United Kingdom’ produced by Lindsey A. Hines et al at King’s College London (KCL) and its Centre for Military Health Research aims to empirically investigate this civil-military gap. This research was published in 2014 and brought together material published after January 2000, during which time the authors assessed that opinion could have been intensified by the then-active conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The study also stated that how supportive the public is or how much the public understands about the Armed Forces remains “unclear”.[4] A criticism that could be levelled is that opinion cannot be objectively measured and therefore an accurate reflection of public attitudes is difficult to achieve. However, Hines’ is the most recent systematic attempt to empirically do so and nonetheless does not demonstrate clear understanding let alone unwavering support.

The researchers detailed that the military’s anxieties surrounding a perceived lack of civilian support were not new: in 2007, General Lord Dannatt voiced his concern that the civil-military gap had widened into a “gulf”; General Sir Mike Jackson, the Former Chief of the General Staff, and Major General Richard Shirreff, a former British Commander in Iraq, both expressed their “dissatisfaction” with the relationship between the Armed Forces and its public in 2006.[5] General Sir Rupert Smith, a former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, published The Utility of Force in 2005 and assessed that “we live in an age of growing uninterest in all aspects of military force.”[6] Although the study concluded that there was a divergence in attitude towards the Armed Forces more recently, it did not suggest that the magnitude of the civil-military gap was any greater at the time of writing than in the past, yet speculated that the end of the campaign in Afghanistan in 2014 may allow public attitudes to “wane into indifference”.[7]

It is right for the Armed Forces’ senior leaders to be concerned about this potential public lapse into apathy, given that it could have consequences for the Forces’ ability to recruit and mobilise personnel, as well as to use lethal force. As Dempsey says of the Department of Defense, the United Kingdom’s Armed Forces also rely on the “goodwill” of society to fill its ranks.[8] Dempsey’s choice of the word “goodwill” is excellent for highlighting the necessity of civilian support to the Armed Forces: civilians need to support it in order for them to feel that its ranks are worth filling, and ultimately that it is worth potentially dying as a member of the organisation. The importance of this is further underlined when Dempsey reminds the reader that “[the Department of Defense] is the only department in Government that, if it chose, could physically threaten our democracy”:[9] the “goodwill” of the civilian population is again required in order to accept bearers of lethal force to exist within civilised society.[10]

Interestingly, the study also suggested that civilians are clearly able to separate their support for the missions being conducted from their support for the personnel that are conducting them,[11] meaning that individual personnel are extremely important in engendering support for the Armed Forces more widely. The authors attribute this to the professionalisation of a volunteer (as opposed to conscripted) force, where being a member of the Armed Forces is based on learning a skill that is then carried out to the best of the worker’s ability.[12] This is promising for the future of the Armed Forces and suggests that perhaps the fear of apathy discussed above may not materialise, and that the civil-military gap really is not the feared ‘gulf.’ However, such an optimistic position is undermined when service personnel behave in a criminal manner, and are investigated by and reported on in British news publications. This contributes to the aforementioned erosion of trust and cultural scepticism surrounding the Armed Forces.

Agnes Wanjiru was a sex worker in Kenya, and her dead body was discovered in a septic tank at a hotel near to where British soldiers are billeted for UK exercises in the country and an establishment known to be frequented by British soldiers. This crime was committed in 2012, and the case remains unsolved. The Sunday Times conducted an investigation and reported its findings in its 26 September 2021 issue,[13] with two soldiers that were in the hotel on the night confirming that they have not been questioned by either British or Kenyan authorities, and they report a criminal investigation that has stalled since June 2012. The Times article discusses the benefits resulting from the arrangement between the UK and Kenya, in that it allows the UK to use Kenya for exercises, but this is clearly overshadowed by soldiers’ engagement with prostitutes and the lack of resolution for this individual’s crime.

The release of the House of Commons Defence Committee’s Report ‘Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life’[14] was seismic in its impact when it was released in July 2021, and it was reported in The Guardian;[15] this is despite the ‘Wigston Report on Inappropriate Behaviours’ being published only two years prior. Politicians and senior military personnel alike expressed shock that such behaviour and attitudes were being perpetrated within the Armed Forces. Quoting from the Armed Forces Continuous Attitudes Survey (AFCAS), the report from the Committee highlighted that in 2021, 11% of female personnel in Regular service across all three Services said that they had experienced sexual harassment in a Service environment in the last 12 months.[16] It also includes a non-exhaustive list of specific behaviours, including criminal, committed by both servicemen and servicewomen, given anecdotally to the Committee, ranging from rape to bullying, groping, inappropriate sexual comments, and also makes reference to senior personnel standing by while such behaviours were perpetrated.[17] This evidence indicates a permissive environment that is generally shielded from public view and allows unacceptable behaviours to flourish behind institutional closed doors.

In November 2021, it was reported that General Sir Nick Carter, then Chief of Defence Staff, said that it was necessary to encourage “laddish culture” within the British Army because “ultimately our soldiers have to go close and personal with the enemy”, and that it is a challenge to square this mentality with an inclusive working environment.[18] Although General Carter’s actions are not criminal, and his misgivings could be seen as understandable, the language he used was ill thought-out and inflammatory. It seems that what he intended to convey is that physical aggression and mental toughness are necessary when it is remembered that the Army is not a decorative Government cultural organisation, but a lethal force comprised of people who wield weapons – admittedly qualities and acts that in the past have been the preserve of primarily men, but only as a result of patriarchal restrictions on women’s freedoms and employment opportunities and an emphasis on their domestic roles.

The House of Commons Committee report took evidence from Capita, the firm that runs recruitment for the Army. Capita explained that “many women have a perception that the Army is a male-dominated organisation where they may find it more difficult to thrive,” and that media reports do not allay these concerns; it is not specific but could perhaps include media reports such as those concerning General Carter’s comments.[19] In contrast, the report includes discussion of why women are better represented as a demographic in the Royal Air Force (RAF), and that this is likely to be because there are more technology-based roles that appeal to women, in contrast to the perceived emphasis on physical roles found in the British Army.[20] This stereotype perpetuates the perception that the British Army is not a career provider suited to women and is an organisation that remains culturally conservative even when society is in flux around it, thereby widening the civil-military gap as women feel increasingly more comfortable in civilian workplaces as opposed to their counterparts in the military.

Tom Newton Dunn interviewed General Carter for The Times after the furore resulting from his comments, during which he said that he did not intend to promote a “laddish culture”, and Dunn highlighted General Carter’s exasperation over the debacle.[21] However, using those specific words clearly demonstrated a lack of awareness of their cultural specificity. The General’s linguistic misstep is a recent indictment of the Armed Forces’ culture, demonstrating that it is an organisation controlled and commanded by people who are culturally insensitive, thereby weakening its integrity. At worst, it could be seen as an example of how culture is embedded from the leadership down, and that General Carter is reflective of a culture which allows such behaviour to occur. Regardless, this demonstrates that the Armed Forces is divergent from wider society in its attitudes.

These pieces of reporting regarding the Armed Forces were issued in 2021. Recognising that a wider social and cultural flux has been occurring for at least the past decade, driven by globalisation, interconnectivity, and the wide availability of technology, is important for situating this reporting in its cultural context and in turn understanding how support for the Armed Forces and the civil-military gap is impacted. Where an empirical study has not assessed a solid foundation of positivity towards the Armed Forces in the attitudes of the civilian population, and public attitudes are liable to change dependent on a number of factors, it is vital that the Government and the Armed Forces recognises where they can garner support and how they can combat a lapse into apathy.

Information spread is prolific and near real-time, and often is in real-time in the case of a Twitch, Facebook, YouTube or Instagram live-streams. Where previously the stories discussed above may never have made it to the press, information availability means that they rapidly appear in print and on the Internet. Huge communities can be created via the internet, and these virtual communities may span continents, which creates a sense of a shared humanity that reaches beyond national identity. The ideas of nationalism, imperialism and country borders are three constructs critical to what informs the need for a national Armed Force in the UK and they are being questioned, a stance which would historically have been the preserve of anarchists. In the UK in particular, the recent surge in economic migrants and refugees crossing the English Channel physically make the challenges surrounding national borders and questions over the acceptable use of force abroad urgent.

Critical issues need to be tackled, and future crises that are knowingly being created need to be managed now. These include the climate crisis, the exploitation of finite material and water resources, and space debris. These existential issues have an impact beyond those of national borders and cannot be tackled except with international cooperation and an appreciation that they are of greater importance than seemingly petty territorial disputes and conflicts over power. This is of vital concern to younger generations and against the obviously pressing need for cooperation, interests that are purely national in nature and spending on Defence seem to be short-sighted. Of course, the issue is complicated – the territorial disputes are directly influenced by the location and availability of natural resources, as precious metals and fresh water become increasingly scarce. However, these worsening, world-altering problems have yet to be solved and they form an important part of the changing social and cultural background that could encourage questioning of and apathy towards the Armed Forces.[22]

Richard Kohn is an academic specialising in United States military history and civil-military relations. His work specifically focuses on the relationship between civic and military bodies within Government in the United States, but he also includes discussion of society and cultural change, a subject he discussed in a 2002 article, and even twenty years later parallels can be seen in the UK: Kohn stated that there are four tenets to civil-military relations; one of these is American civic culture, which he argued are being diluted. He also argued that the rise of individualism and the corresponding diminution of community spirit have had an impact, and that the effect of this is compounded by the continued critique of government, which erodes patriotism.[23] Echoes of this change in civic culture can be found in Rupert Smith’s assessment that “we live in a time of growing uninterest of all aspects of military force”[24] and in the results of the KCL empirical study which “imply, at the very least, lack of attention… and at the most an absence of interest in the military’s work.”[25] As a result of wider cultural change, the Armed Forces is not as understood, not as popular, and does not enjoy as much support as it has in the past. This is amplified when Armed Forces personnel appear in the press conducting criminal behaviour. Further, the KCL study found that fewer formerly serving personnel are serving in Parliament and fewer people in general are choosing the Armed Forces as their career, which is widening the civil-military gap.[26] The interplay of these factors could hasten a lapse into apathy towards the Armed Forces, making it a challenge to generate support in the future.

This cultural change and political reality are symbiotic: the utility of the Armed Forces has not been well demonstrated by the UK Government, and the size of the Armed Forces was reduced by the SDSR of 2015. There have not been any physical threats to the territorial integrity of the UK mainland since the Second World War, the war over the Falkland Islands took place 40 years ago, and the most recent conflicts that the UK has been involved in have taken place far away and are still questioned over their legitimacy and legality. In these complex conflicts the UK is often operating as part of an international coalition and, as the authors of the KCL study eloquently wrote, the aims of these modern conflicts are generally “more diffuse, complex, or protean”[27] than a ‘straightforward’ battle between, for example, ‘good’ democracy and ‘evil’ authoritarianism. These facts make it more challenging to understand the international security environment and do not encourage civilian engagement with the Armed Forces.

Much of society is insulated from what ‘hard power’ or ‘lethal force’ actually means and from the Government’s ability to wield it for political ends. The websites for all three Services have ‘What We Do’ pages, where the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have six stated aims and the British Army has four. The Army is, unsurprisingly, the most explicit regarding its lethal role in its promise to “Fight the Nation’s Enemies”[28] while the Royal Navy states that it is “Ready to Fight”.[29] By contrast, the Royal Air Force is vague, with “Respond to Threats” seemingly its nod to its ultimate use.[30] Smith states baldly in his book that “military force when employed has only two immediate effects: it kills people and destroys things”[31] but, as he argues, this has not been the overriding way that military forces have been utilised in recent memory. Rather, they are being utilised to conduct non-lethal tasks for which they are not the right tool in the Government’s inventory, and therefore are not demonstrating their utility to their public. As culture around the acceptable use of lethal force also changes and as the ‘hard’ edge of military power is not being utilised well abroad or to directly defend UK territory, the corresponding ‘hard’ realities can be shelved in people’s consciousness. The question over what the Armed Forces is good for can then arise.

For example, during 2021 the UK followed the US in withdrawing from Afghanistan and capitulating to the Taliban. Where the case for ‘victory’ could have been argued, it has now been made abundantly clear that there is no victory narrative to be had, that the UK’s use of its Armed Forces did not achieve its aims, and that the country has abandoned and endangered Afghan people. Although, as discussed prior, the public seem generally able to separate their views of conflicts from their views regarding the personnel fighting in them, this could have been an opportunity to demonstrate utility of force in the face of changing cultural and social attitudes that do not favour the use of armed force. However, that opportunity was lost. Real actions, such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan, occur against the cultural milieu set out earlier in this article, as with the instances of individual criminal activity perpetrated by members of the Armed Forces and reported in the British press, which could lead to a sense of indifference rather than active support for the Armed Forces and its personnel.

General Carter was right when he said that our Armed Forces “go close and personal with the enemy”[32] and, to invoke Clausewitz, the readership of this article likely agrees that “war is a mere continuation of policy by other means.”[33] The use of lethal force is a valid use of resources and a valid foreign policy option for the Government, even if culture sees it as being barbaric for a Western power and feels uncomfortable considering that reality. However, the KCL survey found that public perception of the Armed Forces is likely to vary according to “gender, age, social class, education and political affiliation” and draws out that those who seem to be most supportive are “older people, conservatives and men”.[34] This support for the Armed Forces must diversify if it is to keep society on-side, which it can achieve by demonstrating its utility and becoming culturally literate. The cultural change within the Armed Forces is out of step with a more open and liberal society and this weakens the integrity of the Armed Forces as force meant for defending the UK, defending democracy, and the representative of its population; all of these are factors which make it attractive and relevant to its civilian supporters, and must be addressed to keep the civil-military gap as small as it can possibly be.

With recruitment and retention being serious problems for the Services at present, the civil-military gap needs to be kept as narrow as possible, allowing for the exchange of experiences between civilians and military personnel and thus maintaining civilian support for the UK’s Armed Forces. The ‘bad press’ discussed above has, for the most part, been attributed to the British Army; this is no surprise given that the Army is the biggest of all three Services. There have been instances of contravention of Service Law and smaller instances of criminal behaviour by members of the Royal Navy, but both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force must bear in mind that it can only be a matter of time before they are seriously investigated for unacceptable criminal behaviour perpetrated by members of their Service. Cultural context and social attitudes are vitally important but the Armed Forces are at their whim, and the organisation must remain dynamic in order to ensure the support that they really need.


[1]Dempsey, M. (2021) ‘Civil-Military Relations: What Does It Mean?’ Strategic Studies Quarterly, 15(2). Summer 2021. pg 6

[2]The instances of bad press that appear here concern misogyny as their overarching theme – this was not the author’s initial intent and they did not seek them out for this reason.

[3] Hines, L. et al (2014) ‘Are the Armed Forces Understood and Supported by the Public? A View from the United Kingdom,’ Armed Forces & Society, 41(4). Pg. 688-713. [last accessed 19 Sep 22], pg. 5

[4]Ibid, pg. 2

[5]Ibid pg. 6

[6]Smith, R. (2005) The Utility of Force: the art of war in the modern world. Accessed via Kindle, loc. 325.

[7]Hines, L. et al (2014) ‘Are the Armed Forces Understood and Supported by the Public? A View from the United Kingdom,’ pg. 17

[8] Dempsey, M. (2021) ‘Civil-Military Relations: What Does It Mean?’ Strategic Studies Quarterly, 15(2). Summer 2021. Pg 6


[10]E.g. Smith, R. (2005) The Utility of Force: the art of war in the modern world. Accessed via Kindle loc. 317. Civil society generally accepts that a regular, uniformed Armed Force is an essential Government organ, and it is its regular, uniformed nature that makes it palatable; it is accepted on the understanding that it is to be utilised only in a lawful manner.

[11]Hines, L. et al (2014) ‘Are the Armed Forces Understood and Supported by the Public? A View from the United Kingdom,’ pg. 8-12.

[12]Ibid, pg. 12.

[13]Collins, D. and Al-Othman, H. (2021) ’I believe British soldiers killed my sister. Now I want the truth.’, The Sunday Times, 26 September 2021.

[14]Accessed online via

[15]Townsend, M. (2021) ’Two-thirds of women in Uk military report bullying and sexual abuse’, The Guardian, 25 July 2021.

[16]Report: Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life, para 37.

[17] Report: Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life, Ch. 3, Box 1, pg 22.

[18]Reported by Forces Net, and The Times,

[19]House of Commons Defence Committee’s Report ‘Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life’, para 11

[20]Ibid, para 13

[21] Newton Dunn, T. (2021) ’ General Sir Nick Carter interview: ‘Laddishism? We need people to win in battle, not who are out of control’, The Times, 13 November 2021

[22]It must be stated that these paragraphs are a result of the author’s personal observations as a university educated 28-year-old Officer serving in the Royal Navy reading a number of news and cultural publications generally. They are too numerous to provide references for every single example given.

[23]Kohn, R. (2002) ’The erosion of civilian control of the military in the United States today.’ pg. 23-25

[24]Smith, R. (2005) The Utility of Force: the art of war in the modern world. Accessed via Kindle, loc. 325

[25]Hines, L. et al (2014) ‘Are the Armed Forces Understood and Supported by the Public? A View from the United Kingdom,’ pg. 14

[26]Ibid, pg. 4-5

[27]Ibid, pg. 4

[28]British Army website,

[29] Royal Navy website,

[30] Royal Air Force website,

[31] Smith, R. (2005) The Utility of Force: the art of war in the modern world. Accessed via Kindle, loc. 272

[32] Brown, L. (2021)’ Army needs a lad culture so soldiers fight, claims Carter’ The Times.

[33] Clauswitz, C. (1832) Vom Kriege, trans. Graham , J. J. (1909) On War. Ch. 1, para 24

[34]Hines, L. et al (2014) ‘Are the Armed Forces Understood and Supported by the Public? A View from the United Kingdom,’ pg. 8