Saturday 10 May 2014

Weekend Essay: Women in the Front Line

There are several legitimate issues to ponder in the odd business of wanting to allow women into front-line combat psoitions, and a couple of lamentable ones we can quickly dismiss.

The pressure to conform to Euro equality strictures need not detain us.  What does the EU know about soldiering?  Likewise, citing shortage of recruits is a silly gambit at a time when seasoned infantrymen are being axed in large numbers.  As we will conclude below, the numbers of women who will ultimately qualify for infantry will be fingers-of-one-hand per intake cohort, and irrelevant for serious numerical purposes. 

The two questions that matter are: can women do the job?  and what is the effect on the men and units in which they would serve?

Can women be individually effective in front-line jobs?

We are talking about combat here: I don't know of many who would dispute the perfectly adequate success women have had in non-combat roles for many years.  At one end of the spectrum, we can start with the simple empirical expedient of setting high standards in selection and testing and see what falls out - or rather, who drops out.  Nowadays we learn that women are allowed to be fighter-pilots, and good luck to them: the pass-rate for male fast-jet pilot applicants is very low indeed, and since no-one (I trust) is about to let these exacting standards drop for doctrinaire reasons in this part of the military empire, I would give a fully-qualified female fighter pilot the benefit of the doubt without a second's thought.  They same reasoning applies to (e.g.) the SAS: if a women qualified in that exalted company, I'd assume she was chosen for specialist duties (as many in the special forces are) and think no more of it.

To address the question: yes, but even when fully trained, are they aggressive enough, could they fight and kill? - I have seen men go to pieces under 'ordinary' operational pressure, including cases which surprised everybody.  (One day I will recount the story of the CSM who cracked.)  No one really knows ahead of time.  There are plenty of aggressive and competitive women on the planet, and historically no shortage of killers amongst their ranks.

The real issue is line infantry.  The simple fact is, good infantry soldiers are hard to raise in large numbers, and always have been.  A major strand of miltary history has been how technology and organisation have been used to overcome this difficulty.  The crossbow was deployed against the vastly superior longbow because it was easier to train men in its use: and likewise the firearm in its turn.  When, from the 19th century onwards, nations needed to recruit by the million, they inevitably had to lower their standards from the already-rough raw material of old, and devise ways of turning puny clerks into fighting men.  Often, they failed, certainly at the level of individuals (see Spike Milligan passim) and sometimes en masse.  Still, more-or-less serviceable armies have been put in the field on this basis.

It could be argued that pressing women into service is the logical conclusion of this 'progress': ever-weaker people can be bolstered by technology, training and organisation to fill the front-line ranks in a broadly satisfactory manner.

There is an obvious counter.  No longer do we seek to field an army measured even in divisions, let alone millions.  For decades we have wanted a high-calibre, volunteer-only service: and as many a perfectly healthy 17-year-old schoolboy will attest, the standards of strength and fitness achieved on the sportsfield, in the gym, and scrapping in the street are by no means sufficient for a volunteer infantryman in a professional line regiment:  we have no need or desire to accommodate the weakling clerk.

Or the woman?  In my army days I knew two women (out of many, all trying hard) who were 'gym-fit' for soldiering: they were never caught out for fitness on exercise - which, in my day, was as far as they were allowed.  (One was crap at map-reading, but there is no shortage of men in that category.)   And - they were a rarity:  so far out in front of their sisters in uniform as to be numerically not significant.  The rest were passengers, directed to other duties when the going got heavy.

I conclude that provided standards are maintained, the 'can-they-do-the-job' issue is the same as for fire-fighters, bin-men and rugby-players.  The answer will be: a tiny number can.  But should they?

Even if they can, what effect does it have?

There are so many non combat units with extensive experience of mixed-sex deployment, we should assume the basic issues are known and have been catered for.  The old WRAC culture was *very strange*, if I may put it that way, and full integration works better (which begs the question, of course, but we're beyond that point now).  As such, even if someone could make a case that having women around has degraded effectiveness in some subtle way, the pass has already been well and truly sold.  Of course, absolutely anyone in uniform has to ride a torrent of merciless banter at all times, but if you can't take a joke you shouldn't have joined, as they say: and the right type of woman can.  (Even the Grauniad's Decca Aitkenhead got this one - see the 12th paragraph in this interview.)

The day-to-day atmosphere in a line infantry regiment in peacetime, during the training cycle, is not uniquely different to that in many other teeth-arm units where women have been fully integrated for years.  (I can't speak for ships or submarines.)   The specifics of actual infantry combat (which, incidentally, I have never experienced) are such that my guess would be, if you had 2% fully-capable women in the ranks - which is probably about the most you'd ever get if you set the same physical standards for all - you have no materially different a situation as when you have 2% gays, or 2% who start gibbering when the bullets start to fly, or 2% who are love-sick, or 2% who are worried about their families, or 2% who were rat-arsed the night before ... in other words, it will be just one among many complex real-life dynamics and potential sources of 'friction' (in the military-theoretical sense), and by no means as problematic as the gibbering.

So why not?

I see four cogent arguments against:  (a) it's a cost and potential risk we can do without;  (b) unless we drop our standards - which would be literally a fatal blunder (like, errr, the Snatch Land-Rover and inadequate body armour ... ) - it will make no meaningful difference to numbers; (c) who is pushing for it anyway?  and (d) the probable follow-on developments.

Finding out the answer to (c) could be very revealing.  I really can't imagine there are any serious rumblings within the ranks of currently serving female soldiers to be allowed to serve in a line-infantry platoon: there are so many worthwhile openings for them already, I just can't see the current restrictions as a career-blighting, soul-destroying barrier.   Purely a guess, but I suspect we are in gay-marriage territory here: an "issue" that's in no party's manifesto; has no great lobby behind it; but seems to Someone like a great piece of gesture politics ...

And should be roundly booed off the stage accordingly?  If we could be certain standards won't be lowered, it would be hard to work up much of a head of steam on it. 

But we know how these things go.  After a few years, someone will demand to know why only 2% of front-line infantry are women.  Then there will be targets; then quotas ... and eventually, the standards will be dropped.  (It is interesting that the whole matter only gets raised at the point where politicians have lost their enthusiasm for combat anyway, we are retreating to barracks at a rate of knots, and no one is expecting to see their pointless experiment put to the test.)

So I'm agin.  I served alongside excellent female colleagues in uniform, who did a fine job of work.  Very few of them could jog eight miles with a rifle and a 25-lb pack. It didn't matter.  Leave it at that.



Demetrius said...

Agree on standards. The trouble is that few realise the nature of the capability etc. at the (literally) sharp end. If you do not have that you lose. On the physical side what about the monthly variations?

Elby the Beserk said...

The profound stupidity of all "Equality" legislation is that we are not all equal. End of. Legislation that diverges from reality is bad legislation, just as legislation which cannot be enforced(hunting, and making people equal) is bad legislation.

lilith said...

I'm fearless when I have PMT....

Elby the Beserk said...

And regarding the above, Pig the Pig Dog and I run for cover. And when Calfy's there as well...

Nick Drew said...

PTIFBITB - yes, I know exeactly what you mean: but if you watch the reality-TV of recent actions in Afghanistan, as soon as a man is seriously wounded the mission is completely abandoned and everyone's effort is soley directed towards getting him casevac'd

that's 211st soldiering, apparently

Kilgore Trout said...

Interesting essay.

Didn't the Israelis already try this and later abandon it? Do we really need to repeat the same mistake to appease some mindless fantasy about "equality"?

Nick Drew said...

Lil, Elby, Demtrius - I said the real-life dynamics were ... complex! (Rat-arsed soldiers are often quite fearless, too)

KTI thought I remembered that too, but I checked on the www befoe writing, and it seems the situation is equivocal

Electro-Kevin said...

Let's have male vs women boxing and male vs women football too. At top levels.

Sometimes the combat has to be hand to hand.

Never once in 10 years martial training did I come up to a woman who could match a proper man in full contact. Not even close.

Anonymous said...

"Let's have male vs women boxing"

"and male vs women football too."

I carried out a very simple calculation involving the Olympic finalists, by and large the female gold medallist would be fifth or sixth if competing directly with her male counterpart. Hence segregated sport.

CityUnslicker said...

For the sake of being awkward, there will be little point in worrying about this in a few years. Drone and robotics technology is going to make the infantry into peacekeepers for the main - which of course women will be terrible at...just joking!

BrianSJ said...

There may be an assumption here: the people in charge actually care about defence of the realm. This is obvious nonsense.
BTW we have many more armed police now than people in the Army. These people know where the threat (to them) lies.

Nick Drew said...

Anon @ 9:00 - if it really would be 5th or 6th, well who wouldn't want Jessica Ennis on the team (+:

but on the relevant 'hand-to-hand' capability I'm more with EK

CU: awkward, toi ? - the technology point is totally pertinent (if not the provocation)

Brian, you may want to check those numbers again ...

BrianSJ said...

from a post

The size of the army, I am sure you know ,100k heading to 80k

BrianSJ said...

Better number for Authorised Firearms Officer (AFO) here which is 6,653 at July 2012

obv. this applies to normal times rather than insurrection etc.

Electro-Kevin said...

Thank you Nick.

Hand-to-hand fighting.

Anon hasn't a clue what I'm talking about, it seems.

Hand-to-hand combat is what infantry, commandos have to do sometimes.

The other issue is that out of any pool of applicants for such things as elite forces and fighter pilots only the very best should be chosen.

I understand the role that women already play on special ops and anti terrorism. I was drinking with one - an old colleague - on Friday as it happens.

Electro-Kevin said...

Anon - That video. Did you watch it ? Did you post it as a joke ?

Anonymous said...

"Did you watch it ? Did you post it as a joke ?"

Yes, No.

Curious. But I don't much care that two supposedly intelligent contributors seem to have got the wrong end of the stick. I posted it in response to this ..

EK@5.31: "Let's have male vs women boxing and male vs women football too."

It was on topic and relevant to EK stated wish to see more Male vs Women boxing, the url shows exactly what happens when such an event occurs.

Jeez guys, does everything have to be spelt out?

Mark Wadsworth said...

The Soviets had women tank drivers in WW2, I'm sure that women snipers can kill people as well as men. There are plenty of female Islamist terrorists.

Plus, you wrote this lovely Weekend Essay and passed up the oppo to include a nice picture of Israeli Girl Soldiers, Private Benjamin or GI Jane just to give your readership a general flavour.