UK defence secretary, Michael Fallon, announced on 19 December that he wanted to end the army’s ban on women serving in frontline infantry roles in the British Army by 2016. He pointed out that women were already deployed on the frontline of the air force and police. “There are women flying fighter bombers at the moment over Iraq and I don’t think it is right now to exclude women from considering any role that they want to apply for.”
Many women currently serve in the British Army in front line combat roles as medics, engineers, intelligence, communication and logistics experts. Initial training for male and female recruits is carried out to a common military syllabus in mixed units where they learn basic infantry/fieldcraft skills, weapon handling, communications skills, values and standards, self-discipline and professionalism, then go on to specialist training for their chosen trade in the same framework.
This is, in my eyes, a normalisation. No person willing to die for their country should be barred from any role purely on gender grounds. I served in a mixed unit with mixed education, abilities and temperaments. The esprit de corps and bonding were based on shared purpose, experience and achievements. The only criterion was ability to do the job.
But there are several points to consider…
– Not all women military are gagging to become ground close infantry where abrasive close quarter combat is the prime requirement. But those who want to should be able to.
– As with any role, the person must be up to the job specification and strongly motivated. Physiologically, women’s physical strengths are distributed differently. From my time in uniform I observed that although sometimes not as fast as men, women often had more stamina and endurance. Equality cuts both ways. Women will have to fulfil the high level of overall physical fitness demanded of the infantry specialist. There should be no concession.
– The standard ‘girlies will weep on the battlefield and go to pieces if their hair gets messy’ excuse shows how little faith people have in the extensive and intensive training of modern soldiers, whatever their mental and emotional make-up. In my own time in uniform in a specialist communications unit, I’ve seen solders of both sexes come unglued during exercises, as well as observed extraordinary fighting spirit and determination demonstrated by women as well as men.
– Operational effectiveness of any unit must be the overriding principle. Although consisting of trained soldiers, any unit from brigade down to detail level consists of people with differing abilities, strengths and experience. Skills, application, mental toughness and ability to think clearly under stress are as important in a technologically advanced military force as pure physical strength.
Opening up these roles to women will also lead the armed forces to re-examine their training methodologies, something that could benefit for all soldiers. Change is often a trigger for all-round improvement in any organisation.
But at the back of my mind, a little nag repeats itself – that old prejudice against ‘girls with guns’. Currently, armed women can serve on the front line, but not where the primary aim is to ‘close with and kill the enemy’. Is there still something lurking in the back of the male psyche that finds it difficult to deal with a woman who is prepared to fire a weapon with the intent of wounding or killing? And suppose she actually pulls the trigger?
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