Article published in The Times, 18 November 2014. © Richard Kemp
Ministers want equal opportunities on the battlefield but women will harm the warrior ethos
Within weeks a government review into whether women should be able to serve in combat will be published. It has nothing to do with a lack of male recruits, cost efficiencies or improving battle effectiveness. It was clear from the moment last May when Philip Hammond, then the defence secretary, ordered it that the purpose is to extend gender equality for political purposes and to “send a signal” correcting the historic “macho” image of the British Army.
This transparent political agenda means that it is almost certain the review will recommend lifting the ban on women serving in units whose role is to engage with and destroy the enemy — the infantry, Royal Marines, armoured corps, SAS and SBS.
This will damage the fighting capabilities of the armed forces.
Women already serve in the front line, especially as combat pilots, medics, engineers and artillery fire controllers. I have had many women under my command on operations and can vouch for their courage and effectiveness, which has been every bit as great as any man’s. Their prowess has been demonstrated time and again in recent years in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the combat arms — and especially the infantry — are very different and unlike any other job in the world. Even in the
high-tech 21st century, 100 years after the outbreak of the First World War, the infantry soldier’s ultimate purpose is still to get out of a trench and charge into the teeth of enemy fire: to close with the enemy and kill him face to face with bullets, bayonets, grenades and if necessary in hand-to-hand combat. To kill or be killed.
Unfashionable though it may sound in our modern era, motivating soldiers to fight effectively in this way demands a warrior ethos, a cult-like bond of comradeship. In fact, precisely the kind of “machismo” that Mr Hammond seems to despise so much. No matter how courageous or physically tough a woman might be, she simply does not fit into this testosterone-charged band of brothers and is therefore likely to reduce the cohesion and fighting effectiveness of a small combat unit. I do not say this with the intention of disparaging any female soldier but, politically correct or not, the reality is that men and women are and always will be different, both physically and emotionally.
Infantry close combat demands ferocity, aggression and killer instinct. These characteristics are far more common in men than women. It also requires great physical fitness, strength and endurance. Of course there are some women who are physically strong enough. But years of infantry training takes its toll even on the more robust bodies of many men. How many more women will have their careers ended by the constant physical grind, requiring costly early retirement, adding unnecessary strain to an already overburdened defence budget?
Physically and emotionally, few women will have the aptitude to join the combat arms and perhaps even fewer will want to do so. In the Australian army, which lifted the ban on women in frontline units in 2013, only two out of 3,100 female soldiers opted to take up the chance to transfer to the infantry.
Even Mr Hammond admitted that it is likely that only a tiny minority of female soldiers would join our infantry. It is hard to see how that, and the disproportionate expenses it would incur, could benefit their unit or them as individuals.
Inclusion of women in the infantry is certain to result in a lowering of physical standards, despite the inevitable denials that this will happen. The Army has a well-known can-do attitude, and officers, especially ambitious ones, are always keen to ensure that any orders from the MoD are somehow made to work. They know how disappointing it would be for their ministerial superiors if the fanfare that is likely to accompany such a change in policy turned out to be a damp squib, with few female volunteers making the grade. Attacking an enemy in close combat is neither a right nor an “opportunity” as the MoD seems to believe. It is a dangerous, gut-churning, traumatic and unbelievably tough job that must unfortunately sometimes be done to defend our country.
When politicians take on the responsibility of sending soldiers to fight and die in battle they have a duty to ensure that, physically, morally and mentally, they are as well equipped as possible to overcome the enemy. Prioritising political correctness and a misguided idea of equal opportunities can only serve to undermine fighting effectiveness and put lives in danger.