As the UK decides whether to allow female soldiers to fight on the front line, Emma Barnett explains what’s really driving the fear at the heart of the armed forces about women bearing arms
“It felt totally natural – like I was supposed to be doing this. You know because at that moment it’s you against them, right?” says Sergeant Brenda Hawke, a 17-year combat veteran in the Canadian infantry, when I ask how it felt to fire her gun at the enemy for the first time.
Having fought on the front line in Kosovo, Bosnia and most recently in Afghanistan, Sgt Hawke knows all too well about the grim reality at the coalface of war.
A year ago I travelled to Canada to meet women who have served on the front line to try and understand why the UK remains in a rapidly shrinking club of countries who don’t allow women into these close combat units.
My eye-opening trip, for a Radio 4 documentary, Women at War, was prompted by the news that our closest military ally, America, had finally changed its policy – leaving the UK as one of three NATO countries (the other two being Turkey and Slovakia – a rather odd group to be in) to prohibit women from serving in the infantry. At the other end of the spectrum is Canada, where these units have been open to female soldiers for the best part of two decades and (whisper it) its Army has been just fine. In fact it’s even awarded medals to some of these women for their outstanding work and not special girly honours neither.
It seems the UK’s top brass finally got the memo and in the next couple of weeks the Ministry of Defence will publish its review into the matter.Government officials are widely expected to approve the change – after lots of positive murmurings from Philip Hammond, the then Defence Secretary (who described the armed forces as the last bastion of male chauvinism), when he commissioned it earlier this year.
Cue the many predictable howls of disgust – none more pronounced than those of retired Colonel Richard Kemp, the former Commander of British forces in Afghanistan, who wrote in The Timeslast week, that women lacked the “ferocity, aggression and killer instinct” to be effective infantry soldiers.
Oh how quickly we forget, eh? What about the 800,000 women who served in the Soviet Armed Forces in World War Two? Or the six thousand Russian women who joined the ‘Battalions of Death’ to fight in the trenches during the First World War? I hear the Kurdish Peshmerga’s female soldiers are pretty handy with their weapons too.
Female Italian partisans associated with the Partito d’Azione during the liberation of Milan
Col. Kemp also trotted out the two other most overused and unproved reasons naysayers in these circles often resort to: allowing women on the front line will incur disproportionate cost and these lady soldiers will ruin the cohesion of these fighting platoons.
Understandably Brigadier Nicky Moffat, formally the Army’s most senior female officer, is fatigued by these arguments, which she brilliantly describes to me as “sexism dressed up as concern”.
“I spent 27 years in the Army and have heard all of these excuses before used to deny women roles. And yet, nearly all of the units which used to exclude women, such as the Royal Artillery Regiment, have one by one opened their doors. And women have proved themselves to be exceptional.” Quite.
Brig Moffat was the most senior woman in the Army
I would go further than Brig Moffat and say views like Col. Kemp’s are not only wrong-headed but insulting to the military he is so proud of.
If Britain does lift the ban, our Army won’t lower the standard of what’s expected from these troops. Of course it won’t. The same tests will apply and only those women and men who pass will make it in.
Women, as they have proved in all other specialisms in our Armed Forces, do not degrade operational capability – they maintain it, alongside their male colleagues. No one, including Col. Kemp, would accept anything less.
Our Armed Forces’ raison d’etre is train individuals to the highest standards. No one is deployed into any situation they are not rigorously prepared for. That’s exactly why Sgt Brenda Hawke could say it felt “natural” to pull the trigger to kill her enemy for the first time. Or why infantry Captain Ashley Collette had no issue with commanding a 40-strong all male platoon to attack with all their might, as they came under fire three times a day for two months during a particularly gruelling tour in Kandahar. (It’s also worth noting that her outstanding leadership earned her the Medal of Military Valour – Canada’s third-highest military honour).
Sgt Brenda Hawke
Nor will ridiculous costs be incurred by allowing women into these units. Yes there will be some – for training and additional accommodation. But this is why our military leaders would do well to learn some valuable lessons from our allies across the pond in Canada – where separate sleeping quarters for different sexes on bases and missions were eventually axed – ironically because you know, they needed to bond better.
Of course there will be teething issues. There were in Canada and those other countries which have already taken the plunge. Sexism, harassment and in some cases rape, are all risks – but these ills sadly already exist in our armed forces.
The last bastion of male chauvinism
No, the real elephant in the room is the culture change that will be required to transform the armed forces’ very last all boys’ club. That’s what I believe is really bothering people like Col. Kemp. ‘If it ain’t broke why fix it? We don’t need to let women in, so why should we?’ is how the typical logic goes.
But these sort of lame ‘justifications’ were previously reserved for gay and black people and we all know how that turned out. Rejecting somebody because of their sexuality, race and now gender, as opposed to raw skill, thankfully doesn’t wash in most other walks of life anymore.
You can train a man or a woman how to shoot – but changing their ‘banter’ and mindset is a whole other battle entirely – and one I’m told by an officer, very few senior men can be bothered to fight – because let’s face it – they’re going to be the ones needing to learn to set an example and accommodate difference.
If the ban were lifted, there wouldn’t suddenly be women queuing around the block to join – not at first anyway. It will take time and only the best will qualify. But if our armed forces, despite being cut to the bone, want to continue to attract the brightest talent in Britain – they need to be proper meritocracies, in every area.
Moreover if women are to ascend to the highest military rank, they cannot have any area off limits to them just on account of their sex.
Just be grateful
Having spent a few days with the new infantry hopefuls training in Canada, I haven’t a clue why anyone would want to sign up. I winced watching their horrendous training schedule from the comfort of a bench, tea in hand.
Instead of peddling tired myths about female soldiers’ killer instincts, how about we try being very grateful to anyone, man or woman, willing to risk their lives on behalf of their country? Now there’s a thought.
This article first appeared in The Telegraph on November 24 2014