The Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has announced that women could be in fighting roles by 2016. That is, women could serve in the infantry forthwith. In saying, “there should be no bar to women serving in any unit,” Fallon has started a ball rolling which, helped along by the chattering lie-down-and-cry metropolitan set, will only have one conclusion; the wrong one. Now a cynic might say that Fallon has simply kicked the can down the road hoping that the coming “research phase,” into the effect of infantry training might kybosh the whole stupid idea or that he won’t be around to deal with the consequences by then anyway. Let me save them the time, bin it now.
No one would be arrogant enough to say that women are not extremely capable and when called upon, courageous operators. Anyone who has witnessed or has read of their work with the Det in Northern Ireland or recent operations in Helmand knows that. Nor would one question their commitment, loyalty or enthusiasm. The infantry though, is a different playpen.
The aim of the infantry is to close with and kill the enemy. Pretty simple really. That demands quite a lot though from the young men we ask to do that task. They need to be predominantly young, fit, have a touch of arrogance and self-believe in their own ability and a galloping disregard for their own mortality. The basis of the infantry is the section, a tight eight man group around which their lives revolve. Everything they do, every risk they take, every task they stick their hands up for is done for the seven blokes around them, not for anyone or anything more than that. There isn’t much glamour in the day job of the infantry. They are the Army's dogsbody's. They suffer the highest wastage and injury rate in training and in operations and unreasonable demands are placed on their physical well-being as part of their job. That’s before anyone has the temerity to start shooting at them. That is, it’s rare to find middle aged ex infanteers who don’t suffer from knee problems especially, but also hips, back and hearing complaints are very common.
Now, none of that particularly dispels the concept of women in the infantry but the fact that one of the infanteers primary jobs is to wander up to and around the battlefield carrying heavy loads simply cancels out any possibility of women joining being practical. For anyone at the MOD who hasn’t noticed their bodies are different and there is plenty of research out there to substantiate the glaringly obvious fact that they will suffer an unreasonably higher injury rate if the same demands are placed upon them as there are on men. In fact, US research suggests that “army women are more likely to be disabled than men and are approximately 67% more likely than Army men to receive a physical disability discharge for a musculoskeletal disorder.”
The day to day practicalities are somewhat glossed over too but then I don’t think anyone has asked section commanders what they think and I’m pretty sure that no one making the decisions has been a section commander. I have so let me help the titans of planning in the MOD with a few home truths, (expect to see some on all of these turning up in employment tribunals in the coming years).
When in close recce, hides, OP’s or perhaps in an escape and evasion scenario is very common to urinate and defecate in plastic bags in situ. It’s not nice, pleasant or very sophisticated but it may save your life. In other situations a call of nature may necessitate taking a pal along as sentry. In the jungle, it’s common to drop your trousers daily, bend over and have your oppo inspect your backside for leeches and other unpleasant visitors. Nothing to stop women doing any of this obviously. The point is though that you live in such close proximity you lose any embarrassment or consciousness about your body and things going wrong with it. The difference here, is that young testosterone fired men, the vast majority of whom have not had the benefit of a fluffy education which taught them the niceties of dealing with ladies, are going to be expected to live cheek by jowl with a young women and not have any blood pulsing through their veins. It’s just not going to happen.
As it happens, I very much doubt that many women would want to do the job but the cash strapped Army will anyway be directed down this time and money wasting path for precious little output. The absence of internal dissent is frankly astonishing. Senior Army officers must know this whole thing is political correctness gone mad and should have the courage to say so. Moreover, the ex military MP’s in the House of Commons are quite simply pathetic and are obviously running so scared of their own voters in next years election that they are afraid of alienating anyone.
Call me an old fashioned dinosaur, and many do, but I anyway don’t care for the concept of our girls coming back in body bags from wherever. They won’t either but this whole misguided fools errand is unchivalrous, indecent and ill considered. Women have many strengths to play to in an operational environment; we should celebrate that and allow them to exploit those strengths thereby making a serious and positive contribution to the military effort. The only thing that would change my mind on the subject is if a poll of the "guardians of the soul and spirit of the infantry," the RSM's, said otherwise.
Finally, that this is capturing the MOD’s energy and headlines after 13 years in Afghanistan is quite frankly alarming when one considers all the other things on their plate. The infantry need to be engaged in a full and detailed wash-up of recent operations and being honest about all the things that didn’t go well. They need to be considering the changing threat out there and the accelerating change in technology. For example, what do drones, for and against, mean for the infantry?; what do advances in robotics mean?; are war dogs underused?; is the infantry becoming too dependent on technology and vulnerable to cyber attack?; is the current weapons system fit for purpose?; and so on.
The first priority though, is to get on top of recruiting. They can start by kicking out the incompetents at Capita who have done so much to discourage potential new recruits from joining in a weapons-grade cluster fxck replacement for the traditional High Street recruitment office. Then, they can figure out why we rely so heavily on the Commonwealth to fill the ranks. Finally, they can address retention which will likely be a very big post operations issue. They may care to start here with my idea, its as good as it was five years ago and I’ll get there eventually.