Imagine sending a snowflake to fight Isis. Imagine packing off the kind of people who shake and weep when they encounter an idea they don’t like to wage war on Islamist militants who kill people for fun. Imagine calling upon a generation that has been brought up to think that mere words can be crimes against humanity — words like ‘I don’t believe in climate change’ or ‘If you have a penis you are not a woman’ — to take up arms against people who commit actual crimes against humanity.
This is what the British Army wants to do. It wants to recruit snowflakes. It thinks it can utilise their ‘compassion’. Let’s leave to one side the fact that the most active snowflakes are the opposite of compassionate — there’s nothing nice or caring about silencing women who criticise Islam or shutting down feminists worried about transgenderism, both of which have been done by snowflake students. More importantly, the army shouldn’t be putting out a call to snowflakes. It should be recruiting the robust, the brave, the adventurous — you know, the kind of people who don’t phone the police when they see a meme they don’t like.
Launched this week, the army’s recruitment drive is all about challenging stereotypes of the young. One mocked-up, old-style recruitment poster says: ‘Snowflakes — your army needs you and your compassion.’ Another says: ‘Me me me millennials — the army needs you and your self-belief.’ Other posters are aimed at ‘phone zombies’ — apparently the army needs their ability to ‘focus’ — and ‘selfie-addicts’, who might furnish the military with their ‘confidence’. The message is that the young ain’t as bad as we think. Even the narcissistic selfie-taker has something to offer. Even so-called snowflakes are well-meaning. Even youngsters who gawp at their phones all day clearly have an aptitude for attention. The army is saying it can make fine use of all these youths and their supposed bad habits.
Now, I actually agree that millennials and Generation Z (those born after the mid-1990s) are not as tragic as media headlines would have us believe. Yes, some of them are, and these tend to be the ones who hog the headlines. You’re far more likely to get a column in the Guardian if you’re a twentysomething ethnic-minority person agitating for a ban on white philosophers at your uni than if you’re a twentysomething bloke from South Shields who’s had a job for seven years and thinks Brexit is great. Many young people are cracking on with life — working, getting hitched, not referring to every difficulty in their lives as a ‘mental illness’ — but no one is much interested in them.
However, the army’s new campaign isn’t speaking to those young people. It is expressly reaching out to the more snowflakey millennials, to the self-obsessed millennials, to the selfie-addicted members of Gen Z. And in the process it is flattering their vices. It is treating what are unquestionably bad habits — constant self-gazing, moral and intellectual cowardice, the warped belief that protecting one’s self-esteem from ‘harm’ should take precedence over other people’s right to freedom of speech — as good qualities. So good, in fact, that the army can deploy them in the battlefield. ‘Binge-gamers, your army needs you and your drive’, one poster says, even though army bigwigs surely know that youngsters who play games all day often lack drive — that’s why they play games all day. In treating this vice as a virtue, the army is deluding itself, fantasising that the 19-year-old Wotsits addict who plays Fortnite for 10 hours a day is a readymade warrior for Britain, when he is the precise opposite.
The army used to be about transforming the young. It used to be about turning ill-disciplined, scruffy, self-obsessed youths into focused soldiers. It used to be about encouraging recruits to look beyond themselves and to value comradeship and devotion to the nation above me, me, me. Now it does the opposite. Now it says that ‘me, me, me millennials’ are fine, full of ‘self-belief’ in fact, and just the kind of people the army needs. Such delusion. Me, me, me millennials are not in fact driven by self-belief but rather by an often crushing sense of fragility and uncertainty. Indeed, they focus on ‘me’ because the world beyond ‘me’ appears scary to them. A properly responsible army would say to them: ‘The world is scary. But you can handle it. Just as soon as you get over your ridiculous obsession with yourself.’
This army campaign speaks to more than naff PR. It reveals a society that is no longer able to instil the values of discipline, courage, duty and sacrifice in the young. It exposes a society that cannot say to its young: ‘Switch off your PlayStations, get off Instagram, stop being scared of things you disagree with, and think about other people, and the nation itself, for a change.’ Instead we fantasise that an army of insecure, selfie-taking, fragile kids is just what Britain needs to defend itself and its global interests. Isis must be laughing their heads off.