Because they’re worth it: Women in the Infantry


Before Christmas, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told BBC radio four that he hoped to “open up combat roles to women” in 2016. Most of the commentary on women joining the Infantry and engaging in close quarter combat is framed in a negative manner. For example although Fall When Hit argues that while women are valuable to the military, they can exhibit valour, and can sometimes kill in close combat, they should not officially or institutionally be allowed to. Why? Because along with Richard Kemp he see’s it as a move lacking military logic, and one which will weaken the army’s fighting capability. The fear is women’s bodies and minds will erode combat effectiveness – if in doubt read the comments to The Daily Mail’s article on the topic.

Even those defending women’s eventual inclusion into all combat roles and the removal of all gender based barriers to women’s participation in the military frame their arguments as “it won’t be as bad as you think”. For example Johne Sayle  successfully dismisses most of the arguments around capability and combat effectiveness. But he does so by demonstrating how women can meet and sometimes excel at male defined standards. He reminds us that those who perpetuate these arguments are unfamiliar with the story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a female WWII Soviet sniper, or Charlotte Madison, who was an AAC pilot and weapons operator on Apache Gunships. He also speaks of Captain Ashley Colette, who was awarded the Medal of Military Valour for leading a combat platoon in Afghanistan, hauled 15-stone men around in battle exercises. The point is that exceptional women in the Infantry can be awesome like ‘ordinary’ Infantrymen are: therefore don’t worry. Similarly Tony King brilliantly takes to task those who focus on ‘cohesion’ as synonymous with ‘combat effectiveness’, arguing that military cohesion is generated not by having the same bodies, but by having good training, common doctrine, clear task orientation, leadership and professionalism. He also goes a step further by saying that obsessions with bodily performance in combat is misplaced – read his longer piece here. Therefore he argues the inclusion of weaker bodies is not such a big deal.

My reply is therefore something different. My reply is positive, affirmative and enthusiastic. Why bother, why take the risk, why have women in the infantry? Because they’re worth it!

First, the UK military is legally bound to seek to eliminate discrimination harassment and victimisation, and advance equality of opportunity. If there is no good reason to keep discriminating against women in the Armed Services then it should end. Simples. But also, a military that upholds the core values of the society it serves, including gender equality, is more likely to maintain the respect, support and pride of that society thereby improving morale and upholding the moral component of war fighting.

Second, there are positive incentives that relate to military effectiveness and performance. The removal of barriers improves recruitment, in Germany there has been a tripling of women’s recruitment since 2001 when gender discrimination was removed, as opposed to a 1.5% increase in the UK over the same period. Women have skills to offer so why unnecessarily reduce the range of candidates as the traditional recruitment pool shrinks (57% of first degree graduates in the UK are women, and women are 47% of the overall workforce)? Once recruited, benefits continue by improving retention (currently retention is lower among women). While the barriers effect only a small number of jobs, they have considerable influence on advancement to higher positions, and their removal improves the possibility of career progression for all women serving because it encourages each and every member of the armed forces to ‘be the best’ they can.

Cohesion facilitated through exclusion affirms sexist, degrading and denigrating behaviours and attitudes against women (and other minorities) within the military. It is no surprise that after Australia removed discriminatory barriers tolerance of such behaviours was publicly denounced. This is a good thing. A diverse military bound by common doctrine, training, procedures and values, like other organisations, produces optimal outcomes, is successful, avoids group think, toxic leadership, and is more adaptable. Diverse groups, that train together and work together, also see a reduction in toxic behaviour such as racism and sexism – although as torture at Abu Ghraib demonstrates does not eliminate it. In Foreign Affairs Mackenzie successfully argues that diversity is indeed positive for the military and can increase cohesion when accompanied with meaningful integration. The inclusion of women in close combat groups can therefore be a positive not a negative that must be tolerated at best or resisted at worst.

Ultimately though, why bother? Because allowing women into the Infantry is simply policy catching up with reality of contemporary war fighting and military service. It represents institutional recognition and support for those women (26% of women surveyed in Afghanistan said they’d engaged in close combat) who fight, serve and die on the frontline. As Brigadier Nicky Moffat points out “women are serving in positions of very considerable risk and they are fighting and they are dying and they are being wounded alongside men”. In 2011 women were permitted to serve on submarines, with three serving onboard by 2014, in 2012 55 women carried out ‘male-only’ roles in the Territorial Army, in 2015 Wing Commander Nikki Thomas will become the first woman to command a RAF fast jet squadron, perhaps 2016 will be the year the Army steps up.

Image: Soldiers take part in physical training at ITC (Infantry Training School) Catterick.

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