Mark Urban

Mark Urban is Newsnight's Diplomatic Editor. He came to the programme after being Middle East Correspondent for BBC News, a general reporter for Newsnight and Defence Correspondent of The Independent newspaper. Before that he also worked behind the camera as an assistant producer on various programmes. He was born in London and is a graduate of the London School of Economics. Mark also served in the Army - for nine months as a regular officer and four years in the Territorials. He is married with two daughters and a son.

When I heard a minister at a press conference a few years ago say that the British Army "must reflect our wider society", I knew how little he understood the institution he was nominally in charge of. Aside from National Service, this proud institution has always been quite separate from society, and herein lies much of its fascination for the wider public.

From the time of its birth in the late 17th Century, when a bitter civil war had led to the distrust of standing armies, this country avoided taking the mass of its people into the military. World wars aside, a system has been maintained for generations, where a narrow tier of society has manned the regiments, often on a hereditary basis.

So it was, that embedding with British troops in Basra in 2005, I met a commanding officer of the Highlanders whose father had commanded the same regiment in World War Two and grandfather in World War One. In Afghanistan, I chatted with a sergeant in the Green Howards who, likewise, was the third generation to serve in this regiment.

Looking at the many documentaries made about the army by the BBC, you can see how these themes have enthralled film makers and public alike. The workings of regiments as groups apart from wider society form the substance of Tuesday Documentary - Death or Glory (1968), The Regiment (1977), and The Paras (1983). Regimental Stories, programmes newly made for BBC Four, set some famous units in the context of the wider history of warfare, shedding light on why this system of organising men for battle has performed so well for Britain over the centuries.

For much of the post-war period, the BBC's choice of subjects suggests one very distinctive organisation - egalitarian, educated and of liberal sensibilities - trying to understand the dynamics of a national institution that embodied quite different values, drawing its officers and soldiers from different ends of the class spectrum. Films like Panorama - Sandhurst (1975) and the Inside Out documentaries (1989) probed the qualities required of officers as well as what separated them from the men.

A mutual suspicion between army and public can work both ways. Many in uniform are wary of 'civvies', and doubt their ability to understand the demands that combat makes on men and women. Soldiers often refer to the regimental system as 'tribal' with all the implications - of strongly held but often irrational prejudice - that this word implies.

This proud institution has always been quite separate from society, and herein lies much of its fascination

Talking to one staff sergeant in a notorious area in Afghanistan two summers ago, he told me that he didn't expect the public to understand why he so enjoyed leading his men into the most dangerous part of Sangin, and didn't particularly care what they thought about it. Following the online reaction to the screening of BBC Three's Our War, with its gritty portrayal of Afghan fire fights, I noticed quite a few soldiers commenting that they wished that such graphic material had not been shown.

Some film makers have tried to penetrate that mystery of what happens between men in a tight-knit platoon or company once they go into combat, whereas Everyman - A Game of Soldiers (1990) looks more analytically at the psychology involved in fighting and killing. Other series like The Paras have looked in detail at the process of selecting and training elite fighting troops.

It is the very sense that a trained soldier has evolved into a different person, within a distinct community, that ensures even today a separation from wider society continues. The minister I referred to at the start was speaking in the context of trying to draw more people from ethnic minorities into the forces. Although there has been some change in ethnic representation in the army, he was missing the point that black Paras - or indeed Muslim Paras serving in Afghanistan - tend to regard themselves as Paras first and foremost.

The threats today to the survival of the army, as almost a separate caste within society, do not come from race discrimination legislation or the working time directive. There are, however, certain social changes that have eroded the hereditary aspect of soldiering.

Army research showed some years ago that the growth of single parenthood was hitting recruitment, since mothers were less likely to be favourable towards their children joining the forces. The growth of civilian employment opportunities, desire to own property, and for social mobility have also deterred volunteers in places like Scotland which once furnished one quarter of all British infantry battalions. When it comes to officer recruitment, even fathers who proudly served have become less enthusiastic about sons who have had an expensive private education following in their footsteps.

So the recruitment base of the army is shifting to less predictable places for officers and other ranks. As that happens the historical link between particular regiments and certain families or counties is also weakening, even if it does remain in places. For these reasons the BBC Four Army Collection remains a vital record of the army as it evolved during the post-war years.

September 2011

BBC Four Collections

Army: A Very British Institution

A collection of BBC programmes about the British Armed Forces, available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.