Women on the front line

Women have been fighting to be accepted into the British infantry and armoured corps for the last decade. Currently the barriers to the application process are being lifted however this is going to have a highly damaging impact on the capabilities and effectiveness of these regiments.

The government said plans to incorporate women into infantry and armoured corps regiments would be put into place “as soon as possible” – the classic political avoidance tactic to escape committing to a specific period of time. It was planned that by November 2016 changes would be made to the application process, and by March 2017 every regiment would be open to anyone’s application, regardless of gender.

Tests have proven that women have greater endurance, are better multi-taskers, better shots an in some cases are as strong as men. However the masculinity and sheer grittiness of infantry regiments make them institutions that should not have to comply with the equality rulebook.

For the last several years women have been operating on the front-line in various different supporting roles. Subsequently they are often exposed to the same danger as those in the forward operating regiments. Wars no longer involve the World War Two style of face-to-face trench warfare. Modern warfare is said to be “asymmetric” as enemies no longer simply target the most exposed. Therefore in a sense women are already operating on the front line. However it is the chance to serve in the same ranks as men that they want and this could be devastating.

A former Captain who spent ten years in the infantry and wished to remain anonymous, explained to me some issues involved in integrating women into these regiments. When he was training in the jungles of Belize one of the most important parts of everyone’s day was checking one another for ticks. This included spreading the buttocks of another member of the section and inspecting what most would consider a fairly intimate area. When asked why women could not do this he shrugged and said they could. However many would not feel comfortable and the moment that discomfort creeps into the head of an infantryman, their own, and the safety of their team is compromised. He said: “The risk is not worth the reward as within a band of brothers this awkwardness and exposure does not exist.”

The armed forces have evolved significantly, however one aspect has remained fairly consistent and that is the recruits themselves. In the case of infantry regiments, officers come from a variety of backgrounds and are generally well educated. Regulars are predominantly made up of 18 to 25-year-olds from the north of England. They have a lack of education, no qualifications and according to a former Major of an elite Special Forces regiment: “the only time they meet women is in nightclubs or brothels where the women are treated as targets rather than equals.” He too wanted to remain off the record.

One of the more mainstream arguments on the issue is that most boys naturally want to sleep with girls; or talk about sleeping with girls; or compare numbers, or whatever it might be. This camaraderie, machismo and often-aggressive mentality is what gels these groups of people together and this is utilised by their commanders to mould them into to the elite group they become. I am not saying they use women as a means to control their troops, but simply that it puts everyone on a level playing field. This would be entirely undermined is women entered the mix.

Additionally the potential for one of the section to be romantically involved with a woman in the same ranks is high. Add to this that it could cause jealousy from others; you can quickly see how training and efficiency would unravel. Look at any other industry that exists and how sex scandals cause fractures within them. The infantry and armoured corps are no place to risk this happening.

One shocking aspect of this change in policy is that the government has already agreed a quota. In July, Justine Greening said in the Commons “there is a target for 15% of all recruitments [into the front line regimens] to be female by 2020.” Positive discrimination over the ability to do a job in close quarter combat scenarios are not to things that should be put together.

What would the public or government think if a number of women serving in these regiments were killed whilst at war? It would be a PR disaster. It would be very hard to contain and could cause public opinion to turn against an operation and therefore undermine its effectiveness. Don’t get me wrong, any loses are bad and would change public opinion, but from a PR perspective – which the army is already fighting on all fronts – women dying would be more damaging than men and subsequently it is not worth the risk. It was widely reported that the infantry had the most casualties during the Afghanistan war, imagine if large numbers of these casualties were women. It would be more of a scandal than it already was.

Equality and equal opportunities are fundamental to Western society across all aspects of life. Whether it is work, sport, education or anything else, the best person should get the job regardless of gender, sexuality, race or religion. However, when it comes to infantry regiments the expectations that are put upon a group of people to perform in a variety of scenarios under varying, often extreme conditions, transcends the gender and equality dispute.

Interestingly, besides the top echelons of the military and politicians, most others – including females serving in the armed forces – generally agree that these close quarter combat regiments are no place for women. It is women’s rights activists who are the driving force behind this “inequality in our forces”. That being said there is now at least one member of the infantry who is a woman. Guardsman Ben Allen joined 1st Battalion of the Scots Guards in 2012 however in 2016 he changed his name to Chloe. This opens up a new argument which we will address another day.

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