Changing the soldier or changing the military? The case of the Dutch armed forces

IssueJune - August 2001
Feature by Karen Joachim, Dubravka Zarkov

During the last ten years, the Dutch Armed Forces have seen dramatic change, of two kinds. First, instead of an army of conscripts, it has become a professional army. Second, like its counterparts in other European countries, it is no longer supposed to be defending the “free world” from a communist/Russian threat, but to be a peace-keeping army. Taken together, these two changes are seen as requiring a mobile and highly trained professional army, ready to go and perform peace-keeping operations wherever the government sends it.

In spite of this, in other ways the military has hardly changed at all. Take the education and training of soldiers for instance. Young people coming into army today are taught the same things soldiers learned ten years ago, with the mere addition of short briefings on the local cultures of those war-afflicted countries to which they are being drafted. Besides, not all serving officers are happy with the changes. Those who began their military career more than a decade ago under very different conditions of work do not necessarily like what has happened.

Service abroad as peace-keepers in a war or post-war situation however is not the only change to which these officers and their soldiers have had to adapt. In recent years there has been a decline in enthusiasm for military service among the military's traditional recruits, white males. As a result the Dutch Armed Forces have encountered severe difficulty in filling the ranks. Recruitment strategy has therefore shifted to attracting white Dutch women, and both women and men of ethnic minorities. Consequently, a much higher proportion than in the past of those joining the military have been female, and also of ethnic minority identity, both male and female.

Recruiting women soldiers

The Dutch Air Force and Navy have an “emancipation policy”, with two staff members and a high-ranking officer busily working on it. Dutch Ground Forces have a “complaints bureau”, with one administrative worker and a staff member, whose task is to ensure that the daily work of women is not unbearable. Despite this policy, women in the armed forces report difficulties (Verweij and Bosch, forthcoming). They say the prevailing attitude to women soldiers is “They'd be fine—if only they'd behave like everybody else”. But with this it is impossible for women to comply. Behaving like “everybody else” of course means behaving like men. Women in a predominantly masculine environment are invariably trapped, obliged to conform to one of four stereotypes—that of virgin, Amazon, Madonna or whore. All a woman can do is hope, at best, to survive the army experience without losing a grip on her sense of self, and hang onto the belief that she will be herself again in some other place, some other time.

Meanwhile women have carved out their own small space: the Defence Women's Network. This is an organisation that publishes a “who's who” guide book, has a website, and organises a women's discussion- day twice a year. It has a workgroup that handles public relations and provides contact persons for army women wishing for support. The Network's services, however, are all offered on a voluntary basis and it exists in spite of, rather than thanks to, the military hierarchy.

Part of the establishment of the Armed Forces would still, undoubtedly, like to get rid of women altogether. And a good many women oblige them by quitting after a few years of their own accord. As a result the actual number of women in the armed forces is steadily declining, although the number of female recruits is relatively higher than in past. Women leave in particular when they have children, despite regulations providing for the establishment of kindergartens in the proximity of military workplaces. Nonetheless, many women are in the military to stay. And, no doubt the military will eventually have to accommodate them better than it does today.

More ethnic diversity

Women of ethnic minority background of course have a dual disadvantage in joining, surviving and succeeding in a military career. But the Dutch Ministry of Defence has formulated new criteria for recruitment of ethnic minorities. Consequently, in 1998 ethnic minorities already comprised around 8% of the armed forces personne —not unsatisfactory considering their proportion of the Netherlands population is about 10% (Richardson and Bosch 1999). What is more, that same year they were 10.5% of high-ranking officers. However, at the same time, 100% of the cadets of the Royal Netherlands Military Academy —one of the main educational institutions for future officers of the Dutch Armed Forces—were white (and 94% of them were male) (Richardson and Bosch 1999:127).

Again, the turnover—not only of women but also of men—of ethnic minority background in the military is extremely high: increasing numbers are quitting. In 1998, 9% (562 people) of all those who joined the armed forces were of ethnic minorities. But, in the same year, an even higher number (567) left. Racism is clearly an issue. Asked their reasons for leaving, 40% of black Dutch of Surinam origin enlisted in the 1990-1994 period, mentioned the “integration climate” as the most important factor (Richardson and Bosch 1999:131).

Lesbians and gays in the military

There is a clause in Dutch Armed Forces' conditions of employment that prohibits discrimination on various grounds, including homosexuality. This said, this is still far from being a satisfactory environment for gay or lesbian soldiers. It has been habitual for young “heterosexual” recruits to the training centres to use offensive language when talking about homosexual men and women. The word “homo” has been synonymous among them with stupid, sloppy, docile, weak.

Yet, there are signs of change here too. In 1994 and 1999 research was carried out into the attitudes of military men and women towards gays and lesbians, and the results were not un-encouraging (Schabel 1999.). Approximately half of the employees surveyed said they had no difficulty in working with gay men and lesbian women.

Nonetheless, the environment is still sufficiently alienating that homosexuals in the military choose to organise on their own account. For several years now they have had their own Stichting Homoseksualiteit en Krijgsmacht (Association Homosexuality and Armed Forces). A periodical called The Bond (De Band) is published four or five times a year, with news and information concerning homosexuals and homosexuality in the Dutch Armed Forces.

Lesbians and gays in the Armed Forces used to have a regular Saturday get-together, six times a year, to discuss their situation, their problems and their experiences. Currently, they are focusing on organising people willing to help and support young gay soldiers in the barracks. There are something like 15 contact persons, in the Netherlands as a whole, to whom a gay or a lesbian soldier can turn for information, or to talk. These are self-organising activities, but the Association receives modest financial support from the military for its work.

There has also been official support activity for homosexuals. For instance, the Personnel Office of the Ministry of Defence has made a documentary film about a young officer “coming out”, demonstrating the many difficulties this entails. And twice a year a three-day long seminar is organised for gay and lesbian soldiers to discuss issues of concern to them. These have ranged from “coming out” and “being gay in the workplace” to “living in another country” (for instance in case of peace-keeping missions). Such official activities are an encouraging sign of a new acceptance of homosexuality in Dutch army. For all that, among the 71.000 employees of the Dutch Armed Forces, fewer than 500 homosexual men and women have been ready to associate their names with the gay network publicly, and to actively engage in it. Compare this with a figure of 1400 subscribers to The Bond, of which 800 say they are homosexual, and it is clear that there is still a long way to go.

Change: skin deep, or deeper?

So far, we conclude, change in the social and gender regime of the military has been limited, reflecting only the Armed Forces' desperate need to boost recruitment in an environment of failing enthusiasm for military service. But even the recruitment strategy will not succeed in the long run if relations within the military are not genuinely transformed. Those with least opportunity in Dutch society may for a while be attracted by the encouraging recruitment adverts to look for a future in the military. But if there is no responsive change in military cultures, for how long will they persist?

How far will the military go? Conflicting tendencies are visible. On the one hand there is evidence of a will for change. At one level, the Dutch Armed Forces are, compared with many other militaries, not unimpressive for the degree to which they have taken on board the need for change. Concepts such as “diversity” and “multiculturalism” have been entering military rhetoric in the Netherlands. Money and effort have been allocated to introducing the concept of 'gender' into the daily practice of the soldiers. The Service for Humanist Spiritual Care (the non-religious counterpart of religious pastoral care) of the Ministry of Defence and the University for Humanist Studies organised during 2000 a series of trainings and seminars on the theme gender and war1.

On the other hand, there are two words in common use in the military that suggest the intention is to change the personnel without changing the environment. The first word is “emancipation”. In the Netherlands, unlike other parts of Western Europe, “emancipation”, with all its ideological limitations, is still firmly attached to the word “woman”. When it talks of its “emancipation policy”, the Dutch military means to address issues raised by the presence of women. This of course is not at all the same thing as transforming gender relations. It does not promise a rethinking of masculinity, gender cultures or power structures. The second word that suggests limits to change is the word “integration”. In Dutch political discourse generally, as well as in military discourse, the terms “discrimination” or “racism” tended to be avoided. Alternative terms commonly used are “integrational friction” or “failed integration”. To speak of “integration” assumes, first, the existence of distinct, different and even un-reconcilable cultures: Dutch culture (white), and immigrant cultures (non-white, non-western). Second, it implies a need for the people of minority cultures to abandon their way of living and thinking and adopt Dutch ways (Ghorashi, forthcoming). The use of the concept of “integration” creates a climate in which discrimination, racism, sexism and homophobia cannot be discussed, let alone dealt with.

Guaranteeing successful operations

The Dutch military is now conceived as a peace-keeping military. The pace of its internal social change has to be evaluated against that. Research has shown that, in Africa, black peace-keepers had much better contact than white with the local population (Verweij and Bosch, forthcoming). Another study has shown that mixed-sex military units have better record in peace-keeping operations of dealing with potentially dangerous and explosive situations among local population and local militaries (Winslow 1997). There is a strong push now in international institutions to emphasise the significance of women and of gender in peace-keeping operations (United Nations 2000). The European Parliament's report on Women and Conflict Resolution warns that “at the very least, 40% of peacekeepers should be female, in order to guarantee success of the operations such as reconciliation, peace-enforcement, peace-building and conflict prevention” (European Parliament 2001:9). If change in the composition and the culture of the Dutch Armed Forces does not go faster and deeper, it is clear there will be a cost not only to Dutch soldiers but also to the local populations of conflict zones.

Topics: Armed Forces, Gender