Women in the army? What's the problem?

Women in the army? What's the problem?

by Stuart Crawford
article from Thursday 1, November, 2018

THE RECENT ANNOUNCEMENT by the Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, that all parts of the British Army, in particular the so-called “combat arms” (tanks, infantry, engineers etc), are now open to women is to be welcomed. The army has been lagging behind the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force in this particular area and many of us have been saying for ages that it was high time it caught up. And now it has come to pass. 

Inevitably, the announcement has once again sparked off the debate on whether there actually is a role for women in the British Army, and more specifically whether its is really appropriate for them to be allowed to serve in the direct combat arms such as the armoured corps or infantry – in other words, in units likely to come face-to-face with the enemy.  Up until now women were not permitted to serve in these units except in administrative posts.

Why should this have been so?  Well, “combat effectiveness” is the backdrop to most objections, and there are three main arguments deployed by those who have wished to keep such units as all male preserves.  

The first is based around the suggestion that women cannot meet the demanding physical conditions associated with combat operations and are unlikely to be able to have the strength to carry ammunition, load guns and carry out heavy repair work.  

This sweeping generalisation can be dismissed out of hand.  In my experience, some women are as strong as, and in many cases stronger than, their male counterparts.  Discriminating against them on such grounds is both unfounded and grossly unfair.

Just take a look at the Soviet Union during the Second World War.  Nearly a million women served in uniform, half of them at the front line. To quote one historian, “women in the Red Army were simply expected to carry ammunition, load bombs and big guns, change propellers and so on.  The Soviets seem to have taken for granted what many Westerners still see as an insurmountable obstacle”.

The second argument is the psychological one; women are natural carers and nurturers and to ask them to kill goes against nature.  This is wonderfully emotive stuff but based on third hand anecdotal small talk and again flies in the face of historical evidence.  

Another look at the Soviet WW2 experience shows that women were just as adept at killing as men. One female sniper had over 300 kills to her credit, and women were active in the partisan bands that fought the German invader behind the lines in a particularly vicious conflict where little quarter was given by either side.  More recently, women terrorists have not proved to be noticeably more squeamish when it comes to taking innocent lives.

The final argument was that the integration of women in combat units would bring all sorts of difficulties, requiring separate facilities in barracks and the field and lead to inappropriate relationships which would ruin unit coherence.  None of this nonsense survives serious challenge.

Anyone who has commanded a mixed gender unit (as I have, albeit a non-operational one) quickly realises that males and females make allowances for each other in an unassuming and dignified way which satisfies even the most prudish.

And, having been a soldier, I can assure you that, no matter how attractive your comrade might be under other circumstances, the thought of snuggling up to him or her during a rigorous training exercise or on operations comes way down the list of desires, well below sleep, food, a shower, and mail from home!  So it’s just not an issue.

In short, I believe the wish to exclude women from parts of the army, which still exists in many quarters, has more to do with male fear of competition than it has to do with anything else.  In my experience, in most areas of military activity women are just as good as men, and in some they are considerably better.

There is one other major point to be made.  The British Army’s recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have being carried out on what some military commentators refer to as the “non-linear battlefield”.  In other words, there is no front line in the classic sense, and the enemy is all around and, most of the time at least, invisible.  Discriminating the armed jihadist from the general civilian population is well nigh impossible, right up to the point where a deadly attack might be made. 

In such circumstances all military units become “direct combat” units.  Every soldier, where he or she is driving a lorry, cooking the rations, directing the traffic, building a bridge or whatever, is at risk of attack. Indeed, arguably those not in the infantry or armoured corps are more at risk as they might be seen as a softer target. So to exclude women from the so-called direct combat arms no longer makes any sense, if it ever did.  

Excluding women from the military on the back of such scaremongering from traditionalist diehards is therefore unacceptable and intellectually unsustainable.  Women are not excluded from equivalent services like the police or fire services, organisations in which the regular exposure to danger is probably more frequent than it is in the army.

If women want to serve in any of the specialist arms on the army, I would argue, then the choice should be theirs, not the decision of some superannuated bufties in the MoD.  And, at long last, it seems the military hierarchy agrees, or perhaps has been told to wind its collective neck in by the politicians. 

The army should now welcome women who want to serve in its ranks with open arms.  With its current establishment now thousands short and recruiting an increasing problem, it would be foolish for it to do anything else.

© Stuart Crawford 2018

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