Monday, 29 November 2010

Women on the front line?

The role of women in the Army made the headlines today. The British Army has decided to maintain its ban on women taking on front line roles. Similar bans exist in the US Army and in Australia, while Denmark, Holland and Israel have fully integrated women to serve in any role open to the men. The UK has female tank commanders and fighter pilots. Women have been awarded top awards for gallantry, and also been killed and wounded in Afghanistan. But in the frontline infantry regiments - the ones that still expect to use the bayonet sometimes, hold ground and spend the most time in close proximity to the enemy - women are still disallowed.

The reason given in the latest UK review seems to put the blame for this ban on their male counterparts, suggesting that should a woman become wounded by enemy fire in the middle of a warzone, a male colleague is more prone to recklessness to rescue her than to rescue a male comrade in an identical situation. I can see the logic: men are prone to showmanship, acts of bravado, machismo and poor decision-making when women are involved. You need to make a sound risk appraisal before chancing a second casualty.

Whether women should serve in "close combat" is still a divisive question, and one to which I haven't yet formed a cohesive opinion. You can certainly look at the countries that do permit women soldiers to occupy billets at the tip of the military spear. For Denmark and the Netherlands, the question is not so important. They are traditionally liberal places, especially the Dutch. They don't tend to fight much either (okay, sometimes they've deployed peacekeepers in small numbers).

One gets the feeling the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has fully integrated women out of necessity. There have been many moments during Israel's history during which it's existance on the map has looked doubtful, encircled as it has been by hostile Arab states. Armies tend to forget the finer points of moral debate in such circumstances: a woman can carry out basic tasks like firing a rifle and killing people just as well as a man. The same goes for the Russians. With the enemy at the gates and Moscow under threat, the Soviets had no qualms with using women as snipers to hunt the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front - perhaps the most savage conflict between two twentieth century nations.

There are problems with transposing the rationales behind both sets of examples: the high-minded liberalism of the Danes and the Dutch on the one hand, and the desperation for national survival of the Russians and Israelis on the other. Neither provides a balanced example for the UK's professional military force, unfettered either by a desperation for manpower, or serious political interference over sexual equality to kill.

The debate over whether women should serve on UK submarines is a different kettle of fish, on-going, and centres on unanswered questions around pregnancy. There could be consequences for the operational effectiveness of the submarine (and nuclear deterrance) should she fall pregnant during  long deployment in a time when the country is at war or is under the threat of a war, as well as her own medical wellbeing in such circumstances. I think the latter is given as the reason for obvious PR  reasons, while the former causes more genuine concern.

Anyway, musing over for now. Here are a few articles I read today: here, here and here.

No comments:

Post a Comment