Woman fighting alongside men is a perennial debate. In an era where military forces are still key, selecting the best of the best – regardless of gender – seems like a logical place to start from.
Let us be clear; we’re not discussing conscription here, where people are forced to join up, but instead a modern armed force that is entirely voluntary. If people choose to sign up, then why shouldn’t they be allowed? The fundamental question is; will a changed gender balance cause any sort of difficulty within the organisation, keep it the same, or enhance it? Even if the change causes difficulty, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.
Women are excluded from the infantry and cavalry forces in the British army due to their physical difference, the perceived negative effect on operational capability, tradition, and the outdated view that they should be spared from the horror of war. These ideas are tosh, and former Coldstream Guards Captain Mark Evans puts up some clear and effective arguments against them;
“While widely accepted, the generalisation that women are physically weaker shouldn’t prevent those who want to – and can – serve in the infantry. We have tests, like Ranger School, to ascertain whether soldiers are capable of serving in front line units. Gender simply should not come into it.
“Operational capability – or the fear that a male soldier will act irrationally in the presence of a woman – is harder to measure. The argument goes that, should relationships develop, logic and training will go out the window, and all cohesion and discipline with it. For an organisation so rightly proud of its training – “when the bullets start to fly, the training kicks in” – this seems a little confused. It also takes little account of the “band of brothers” bond deliberately forged between soldiers, as well as any consideration for homosexuality.
“As for tradition, this is such an abstract concept it’s hard to rationalise in terms of right or wrong. But when faced with the argument that, simply because women have never been in the infantry or cavalry they never should be, it feels very outdated to say the least.
And finally, the idea that we should not allow women on the front line to save them from its horrors. If I’m honest, I’ve considered this viewpoint in the past; but I know it to be a misguided chivalry which borders on the patronising. Who am I to assume that women are not capable of appreciating what war is if they want to be apart of it? A woman I served with in Afghanistan was Cpl Sarah Bryant, and she was the first woman to die in the conflict; to suggest she didn’t appreciate the risks and accept them is frankly insulting.”
In 2017, the RAF became the first service to open all roles to women, when it extended the right to apply for its ground fighting force (the RAF Regiment), and in 2018, the Navy have stated that they will open applications for the Royal Marine Commandos to women.
By comparison, in 2016, three out of ten army posts were closed to women. The Army is meant to finish opening up all its roles to female recruits, a move which follows the lifting of the ban on women taking part in ground close combat, and will bring the UK in line with many of its closest allies.
At the moment, however, women make up only 10% of the UK’s regular armed forces, a figure which is reflected across many Nato members, and account for 14% of the UK’s reserve forces.
We are dismissing women from the armed forces because “that’s the way it’s always been done”, and that’s nonsense; we should be open to trying new things, and the fact our militaries already have women serving in some roles without any operational catastrophes befalling the units puts paid to the lie that having mixed or female units is somehow going to destroy the effectiveness of the military.
Progress, however, is very slow and very inconsistent. There is a particular view of the armed forces that seems to permeate throughout society – that it should be a male-only or male-dominated force, and that any changes will leave this country hopelessly undefended.
The Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill that’s currently going through Parliament will allow recruits to work part-time, making a career in the armed forces more attractive to those with a family. Have some part-time soldiers will not end the ability of the service to defend us – it will allow people the opportunity to choose the life-style that suits them.
Other measures that might seem relatively straightforward are still not addressed; for example, female recruits could be provided with combat uniforms and equipment designed for women rather than men. This may seem a peripheral issue, but it risks representing the idea that women are an afterthought, rather than an integral part of military operations – which they are.
Until more women are present throughout the military – up to the highest levels – the full extent of their impact cannot be known. But we must have women throughout the service, because they make up half of the population and so should be allowed to participate in its defence, should they choose – like they can contribute through their vote, their voice, and their managerial skills. Let’s not stay in the dark ages for much longer.