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Women on the frontline isn’t simply a matter of equality

25 January 2013

It won’t take long for the US decision to allow women in combat roles to travel here according to The Times today, on the basis of, it must be said, unnamed sources. And the paper’s leader is duly supportive of the idea: ‘The number of women who want the risk and pass the tests will not be large, but those who earn a place at the spear tip of Western defence should be assigned there.’ On this reckoning, the right to join combat units – to kill – is just one more of those equality hurdles to surmount, like women becoming bishops or CEOs.

I’m against, myself. Partly this is wholly selfish – where does the principle of women and children go if women are going to be targeted as combatants? And partly it’s from an entirely different perspective –  a dim historic recollection of the aspirations of feminists in the days of Women’s Lib to change the world order, not to join male-made war structures. I seem to remember from reading the Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer declaring, like other feminists, that women should refuse to sleep with soldiers (she was, however, all for them sleeping with lorry drivers, on class grounds) on the basis that feminism was more than about equal opportunities. It was about changing the world.

But some of my opposition is down to experience. During the conflict in Bosnia in the early Nineties I trawled through the conflict, looking for female soldiers to write about. There weren’t many in the Croatian army, few among the Serbs and none, so far as I could find, in the Bosnian Army. They were brave, feisty women. I met one very identifiable type in the Bosnian Serb barracks in Banja Luka who was a soldier, like so many, because her father had been; she had vowed at his grave to carry on the fight for him. (There are any number of women from British military families with precisely the same qualities as their father and brothers and would be right at home in the Army.) She told me bluntly that she knew she’d been wilfully targeted by the other side when her hair became loose and it was obvious she was a woman.

Then I met men who’d served with women on the frontline among the Croats; they admired the women, but confessed that when it came to an offensive, they forgot about their sex. Some women soldiers themselves talked about the necessity to be hyper feminine when they returned from the front – to go all girly and lipsticky, just by way of a corrective to the maleness of their life there. (The same phenomenon, I gather, is true of many women Israeli soldiers.)

But the one I remember best was a frail, pale, Little Dorrit character, who was her unit’s best sniper. She had to be badgered by her commander to talk to me and when she did she was anything but boastful. ‘I worry’, she says, ‘what killing will do to me later on’.

And that’s just it. I don’t know what it does to women, to our idea of women, if we make them – us – licensed killers, because that is what a soldier in a combat unit is. The natural impulse nowadays is to reduce the question to one of individual choice – you may not want to kill, Ms McDonagh, but why should you bar other women from doing so? It’s because – and this is something we find it hard, nowadays, to get our heads around – the impact of these things is never merely individual. It has an effect of how men view women, how women view themselves, about our common perspective on sex and gender. And I want to think of women as being conditioned by their maternal side, their nurturing aspects, even if they decide never to become mothers. I don’t want us simply to sign up to the qualities of maleness as defined in a military scheme of things.

That counts for more than the practical problems – the ethos of all male-units, the practical difficulties of providing women with adequate privacy on the frontline, their susceptibility to rape if captured. But can I say, bravery isn’t the issue. The question isn’t whether women are equally courageous or aggressive; they are and can be, simple as that. It’s whether we want, collectively, women’s social functions to include killing on our behalf. I don’t.

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Show comments
  • dalek1099dw

    I can’t believe the amount of sexism on here as far as I’m concerned if women pass the army training which requires strength and stamina then these women will be as strong as the men out there.Men are physically stronger than Women on average and the average part is the key point there are still many strong women capable of fighting for their country on their frontlines so why shouldn’t they be allowed be allowed to go into their choice of career.

  • chris leyshon

    LETS FLIP THIS, would american men kill afghan women if they were fighting against them?!! do women want men to kill other women!!? because if its going to happen on one side, it should in all equality happen on the other side.

    • Guest

      eliminating population, and eliminating population renewal, to some degree at the same time. no??

  • Guest

    LETS FLIP THIS, would american men kill afghan women if they were fighting against themdo women want men to kill other women?

  • Benjamin Diggin

    This is absolutely ridiculous. Amongst a million other reasons I can think of. One MAIN should be; when Men are captured by todays enemies, they are beaten, tortured and beheaded on television. How will it feel to see daughters raped and abused and then beheaded on television because it will happen. I hope if they’re even allowed near training for front line roles they are bullied out by the men before anything worse can happen to them. Femenism is going mad. It’s not ‘women’s rights’ it’s foolish and dangerous.

  • Louise McCudden

    The issue of what it does to us training people to kill applies to the whole military. It’s not unique to women. You don’t think it damages male soldiers!?

    It isn’t up to you to dictate what “womanhood” should mean for other women. You have absolutely no right whatsoever to do this. You are not God.

  • Michele Keighley

    I’m an ex-WO2 20 year veteran of wearing the rose, and female. I have lost count of the lightweight male infantry recruits I’ve trained who struggle to make the grade but turn out great soldiers, and I have seen strong female recruits that would have made great front line soldiers.

    Perhaps you overlooked the comment by serving soldiers that in a contact they forget niceties like gender. One commenter did make the important point that we carry far too much weight, that is not a matter for boasting, it makes us less effective. So if the inclusion of female soldiers in front line units means that we are now forced to develop effective lightweight equipment then that is a positive and productive outcome.

    Some women will be fit for purpose and will probably willingly accept the challenge; others will have no interest in doing so; and opposition to allowing those female soldier who choose to apply is – in my experience – based on untested prejudice.

    And before all you gung-ho ‘soldiers’ come up with ‘yes, but what would you know about front line duties – where’s your medals?’ All five of them are in a box in the drawer, and one with three bars – where’s yours.?

    • Tom Tom

      That’s a good lot of medals – more than mine got in two World Wars as combat troops – little more than MCs but never five medals. You must have seen a lot of combat in the past 20 years – secret wars ? black ops ?

    • Swiss Bob

      Campaign medals?

      Well done you, my Grandfather only got four serving 14-19 in Gallipoli, N Africa and the Somme:

      Is this you from LInkedIn:

      “Worked in various position within the military in organisational and administration roles.
      – Worked in various position within the military in organisational and administration roles.
      – Conducted a number of training courses designed to upgrade personal and technical skills.
      – A Volunteer Trainer with the Training Information Programe in conjunction with the Department of Veteran Affairs.
      – Developed Basic and Advanced training courses for Military Compensation.
      – Developed Communication Training programmes for a number of Companies and Corporate identities in Queensland.
      – Developed Self-Development seminars
      – Key Note Speaker at a number of conferences and events”

  • jan666767

    In all major studies done on motivation within the military, the most common motivation among infantrymen was not fighting for King, Country, God or Freedom, it was the desire to not let down your fellow unit members. I wonder what the presence of a woman in an infranty platoon would have on unit cohesion and motivation when it really matters, in the heat of battle.

    • Sarah

      Let’s find out.

      I expect the main outcome of women reaching the critical mass of 30% of the armed forces will be fewer wars.

      • Noa

        Soldiers tend not to start wars, though they are the ones who have to fight them.
        But then, you see war as the continuation of misandry by other means.

        • Louise McCudden

          “You see war as the continuation of misandry by other means” – what on earth…

    • chris leyshon

      imagine the afghan army doing the same thing, then you’d have a horrendous scene, men and women, killing men and women. in affect exterminating themselfs.

  • Mikesmount

    I like women, and I do not want them out there killing people. It is not ladylike. A more practical reason for keeping them out of the infantry is that the men – who, like me, like women – do not need the distraction of worrying about the welfare of the girls when in action. And they would worry. It is natural to do so.

    • AndrewMelville

      Women do an ok job. However, there are invariably relationships. It’s sickening to hear an officer refer to a female soldier by her first name. The problem is easily solved by having all female units – if they really are capable – no probs, and one has eliminated all the inter-sex objections.

      I suspect this has never been tried, because folks don’t really believe that dog would hunt.

    • Louise McCudden

      It’s very big of you to say that you “like” women (have a cookie) but it isn’t really up to you to decide what you want women to do and not do. You have no authority over women. Sorry.

      And we are not talking about “girls,” we’re talking about adult women, one would assume.

      It’s only natural to worry if you’re a paternalistic sexist. I know women who have served and believe me they are not “girls” who need your condescending “worrying” about them.

      • Mikesmount

        Of course it is “up to me”! I am a citizen of this United Kingdom, and I have as much right as anyone else to take a view on the duties of women in Her Majesty’s forces. But … glancing at your other posts … it is pretty clear that you think your views are the only ones that can a) matter, or b) be correct.

        And, FYI, I have held Her Majesty’s regular commission – thank God in more peaceful times – so if that gives me the right to have an opinion, then I have stated it already.

        • Louise McCudden

          You are not the only citizen of the country. The women who want to serve on the frontlines are also citizens of this country. It is up to you what YOU do. It is not up to you what I do, or what any other woman does.

          If I don’t want you to serve in the army, do I have a right to ban you because I am a citizen of the UK?

          Where are my ad hominem comments please? And how on earth do I think this? I am not the one banning people from doing things just because I personally don’t like it. What gives you the right to do this?

          No one is saying you don’t have “the right to an opinion” but you don’t have the right to ban people from doing things because you “do not want them” to do them.

      • Wil Clemens

        I am so sick of feminist, they even attack gay men stating we objectify them and keep them oppressed

  • Gelert

    There are two issues here – women in close combat i.e. on “the front line” and women in close combat roles i.e. in the infantry. Nobody in the British Army should have any problem at all with women in the front line. They are on the “front line” on a daily basis at the moment and in my experience they do their jobs to the equal of their male colleagues. Indeed a fair few of them have been decorated in recognition of their actions in combat and deservedly so. But “front line” and combat infantry are not synonymous.

    The British army has ALWAYS assumed that any soldier regardless of their trade
    or gender, could end up in close combat. That is the nature of our industry and
    it is why everyone who joins the army does phase 1 training in order to give
    them the basic knowledge and skills to do precisely that – fight.

    In order for the British army to adopt dual gender combat infantry there will have to be a seismic change in our doctrine and in our equipment. This change will inevitably have a negative impact on our capability. Lighter loads = less equipment & ammunition = less capability & sustainability. The only people that will benefit will be our enemies as we’ll be easier to beat.

    The MINIMUM combat load (i.e. what he has to fight with) of a BRITISH* infantry
    soldier is over 35kgs. Lets put that in armchair warrior terms: a can of beer
    weighs 460g, thus 35kg = 76 cans of beer, a little over three cases. Next time
    you’re in Tesco pick up three cases of beer and see how it feels. Now try to
    imagine having that weight on all the time. Now imagine adding another couple
    of cases of beer to that load when you pick up your bergan rucksack.

    *Please do not bring up examples of other nations having women in the Infantry.
    No other nation carries anything like the amount of kit that we do. That’s why
    we’re more effective. We’re fitter, stronger, carry more firepower, and have
    better protection.

    • AndrewMelville

      Good points.

      As an ex soldier, may I say that soldiers carry far too much crap. They were and are much more effective when carrying a lighter load – which is what they actually did in real combat. In heavily supervised police actions such as the ones we see today, red faced Majors still carry enough clout to enforce ridiculous health and safely regs, the mentality of which leads to 35 kg combat loads.

  • Daniel Maris

    That pic…just because he’s got a big floppy hat on, doesn’t mean that soldier’s a woman.

    Actually I’ve noticed a big fall-off in IDF performance since they started wearing those silly hats.

  • Daniel Maris

    That pic…just because he’s got a big floppy hat on, doesn’t mean that soldier’s a woman.

    Actually I’ve noticed a big fall-off in IDF performance since they started wearing those silly hats.

    • Noa

      What fall off? Please show the hat link?

  • SmithersJones2013

    And that’s just it. I don’t know what it does to women, to our idea of
    women, if we make them – us – licensed killers, because that is what a
    soldier in a combat unit is.

    And once again we hit the equality paradox. A certain type of women want equality but they don’t want its consequences. Of course they are quite happy for men to suffer the consequences as long as they as women aren’t involved in the messy details.

    Sadly for these women they opened the pandoras box of equality and they cannot just cherry pick the benefits of their equality, they have to swallow the crap as well. So I trust Ms McDonagh will be first to volunteer down the vets clinics for those brave lasses who put their life on the line and who sadly come back with PTSD or worse because not to do so would be a betrayal of equality and womanhood.

    • Christina Barnett

      That is ridiculous – in the army women would be able to choose if they want to go on the front line – we just want that choice but it doesn’t mean women have to take it – or that we will complain when we take it! And if we get conscripted in the future then that is what happens – we are equal.

  • Andrew Taylor

    At least the battlefield will be a lot tidier!

  • Dogsnob

    No mention is made in this article, of the simple fact that women lack the physical strength to lift, carry and transport extremely heavy loads over long distances.

    It’s a ridiculous idea.

    • Patrick

      Dogsnob is right. A friend serving with a Royal Engineer Regiment said that the problem he had was when it came to carrying various sections of a Bailey bridge, women simply were not strong enough so labour was not shared equally as it would have been in an all male unit. As an ex-infantry officer, I cannot see women fitting into the squalid, close knit all male environment of an infantry platoon in combat; if you haven’t served in the Army, you can have no understanding of this. The problem is that a small number of women see being a part of such a unit as the Holy Grail of their military service whilst most others would run a mile. There are many ways women contribute and add value to the army but not in an infantry platoon in close combat.

    • Louise McCudden

      Anyone not able to meet the requirements – and they should absolutely have to meet the same standards of physical fitness etc – shouldn’t be allowed to join. Many men wouldn’t be able to meet these requirements either. Why ban all women preemptively on these grounds, if you know none of them will meet the requirements this won’t be an issue as they just won’t ever be allowed to join!

  • sceptic3

    It’s pure Marxism. Designed to cripple America. Obama said before his first election victory: “Change is coming to America”. Trouble is he didn’t say for the worst.

  • Herbert Thornton

    Why not add another brigade to the Guards? The Lesbian Commando Brigade? One would think that they might be quite eager to assert themselves, though as Swiss Bob asks – “What will happen when the first all female combat unit is overrun by a bunch of middle eastern gentlemen?” Maybe the answer depends on what variety of political correctness the commandos – what’s the word – “espouse”. Would they swoon or would they become all the more fierce?

    • Swiss Bob


      I speak as someone ordered to carry a ‘useless’ woman during basic
      training, because she couldn’t hack a little run with NO KIT whatsoever.

      A man would have been kicked up the bottom and in all probability failed his basic training and been thrown out.

      ‘P’ Company, parachute training has already been made easier for the
      lard bucket youth of today. Current training requirements are almost
      certainly the worst in the history of the British Army and now the
      Government, a theoretically Conservative Government wants to debase them
      even more. The Generals will of course keep their mouths shut because
      they want to keep their jobs.

      Men and women will die due to this policy, mostly men.

      PS You might not believe this but a surprising number of people in
      the Army expressed to me that the reason they joined up was ‘to find out
      what it would be like to kill someone’.

      What sort of woman joins a combat infantry unit?

      My grandfather served as a medic during WWI, everywhere that was
      awful from 14-19, I couldn’t be more proud of him. A simple arm band to
      protect you, that’s bravery.

      • Swiss Bob

        Hurray, finally got passed the moronic modding.

      • Louise McCudden

        Have you never seen a man have to carry or support another man in the army then?

        They shouldn’t be given special treatment or exemptions on entry. But this doesn’t seem to be an argument against letting any women, ever, join the military. Just an argument against any special treatment.

        “What sort of woman joins a combat infantry unit” – a patriotic one who wants to serve her country? The same as the “sort” of man who joins.

        • Christina Barnett

          Exactly! And the whole point is that if they are fit enough and strong enough then they should join – so the whole having to carry someone isn’t an issue.

          • Swiss Bob

            That’s the whole point, about 0.01% are fit enough and strong enough so a complete waste of time and money.

            PS LM above spent all her time in the army in an office, she got lots of medals though (see down thread – she ‘deleted’ her comment):

            – Worked in various position within the military in organisational and administration roles.- Conducted a number of training courses designed to upgrade personal and technical skills.
            – A Volunteer Trainer with the Training Information Programe in conjunction with the Department of Veteran Affairs.
            – Developed Basic and Advanced training courses for Military Compensation.
            – Developed Communication Training programmes for a number of Companies and Corporate identities in Queensland.
            – Developed Self-Development seminars
            – Key Note Speaker at a number of conferences and events”

  • Swiss Bob

    When you join up you train as a squad, over the training period many are thrown out because they are either mad or useless.

    The women generally aren’t mad, just useless, they are not strong enough either physically or mentally.

    What will happen when the first all female combat unit is overrun by a bunch of middle eastern gentlemen? Lessons will be learned?

    It’s a bloody stupid idea and the only reason I can see is to destroy the fighting spirit of British forces.

    Ask yourself this, how many women could have yomped over the Falklands with eighty pounds of kit and then fought a battle, one or two in the whole of GB?

    • Will Clarke

      I don’t know how many–but as many as could should be allowed to, no? To do otherwise is to weaken our armed forces for the sake of prejudice.

      • Swiss Bob

        Right, waste fortunes better spent on body armour on political correctness so one or two women can serve on the front line.

        What the F. do you know about military service and fighting spirit, none is my guess.

        And ‘weaken’ our armed forces, are you dense?

    • eeore

      You would be on stronger ground if you had addressed the real issue that the reason the US has gone down this route is because they have worn themselves out, through a mixture of imbalance between frontline and rear echelon troops, strategic overstretch, and over prescription of drugs.

      As for the yomping nonsense – I’d say most women could, as indeed could most men – since the matter was played up due to the lack of helicopters, caused by naval action, in much the same way as carrots helping you see int he dark.

      • Swiss Bob

        As for the yomping nonsense – I’d say most women could

        Would you, on what basis do you make that statement, please enlighten us as to your experience, or is it something you just ‘feel’?

        Only one women has ever passed the Commando course, ONE!

        • Adrian Drummond

          These sprogs know nothing…

        • Tom Tom

          That woman passed the RM course on the THIRD ATTEMPT because she was helped over the wall. Lt Col David Grossman studied the female unit in the IDF and found Muslims would NOT surender to women which suggests conflict could get more raw and women could liquidate Muslims rather than take prisoners. As for yomping, I am convinced women could do it if followed by MPs wityh machine guns to deal with any laggards as in WW1

        • eeore


          This has nothing to do with commandos or yomping, it is simply a way to fill out the quotas in units that are technically classed as frontline units – in the US South Korea, Panama, Japan, etc in the UK Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, Falklands etc – whilst freeing up ‘man’power for the active fronts in Africa and the Middle East.

          Still, if you are happy living out your fantasies about 1982…

      • 2trueblue

        Some could and many could not. This is just pandering to some lobby.

    • Sarah

      “middle eastern gentlemen”

      Well given that 1 in 3 women in the US armed forces report sexual harassment and assault by their own side, it’s probably not the enemy they’re most worried about.

    • Christina Barnett

      Women didn’t do it because they weren’t ALLOWED to so you can’t say in your argument ‘how many women have done this’ when the whole point is that they were not allowed to do so.

  • Matthew Blott

    Whenever the ranks of the forces have been opened up to otherwise excluded groups – be it woman, ethnic minorities or homosexuals – people like Melanie McDonagh have come out politely saying why they are against and proclaiming it has nothing to do with bigotry but is due to wider concerns about effectiveness, morale and impact on society. But whatever fluffy language is employed it still amounts to bigotry, no matter how you dress it up. Most people don’t care since it’s obvious not much will change and soon after we’ll wonder what the fuss what all about. I suspect Melanie McDonagh will just look like the fools who have a couple of years ago warned of the grave consequences if gays were allowed to serve openly.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Words fail me.

    • Swiss Bob

      With all the male rape in the army I imagine recruits love sharing dorms with gays.

      I know I would have;-)

      • Matthew Blott

        Good point!

        • Swiss Bob

          My point was a flippant one, the psychcopaths were bad enough, gay psycopaths, like life’s not hard enough.

    • Tom Tom

      Simple. Either women do the job or you shoot them. It is always possible to get rid of non-performers in theatre whether they fall off aircraft carriers at sea or get ‘fragged’. Blue-on-blue is not uncommon. So I guess you are right Matthew drawing upon your experience – if these women don’t hack it, they’ll simply have a high casualty rate.

    • Dogsnob

      What about dwarves then Matthew? Are they to be pushed up to face the Taliban carrying three times their body weight? How about blind people in the sniper unit? There are minorities and minorities and just because gays might be able to function effectively as front-line troops, doesn’t mean that women can.

      • Louise McCudden

        Dogsnob, are you saying that being a woman is a disability?

        • Swiss Bob

          Another moronic lefty politico who’ll never have to back up all her big words with any action.

          What a shame people like you never get anywhere near the font line.

        • Dogsnob

          Let’s call it an unability. They are unable to perform as well as men in this field. Am I wrong?

  • Ron Todd

    I am not keen on women on the front line, particularly when the fighting is in countries where the dominant culture is not woman friendly. That said the type of wars we get involved in now do not have a WW1 style clearly defined front so any female soldiers should be trained to use leathal force. Israel is a different case, thay are a small country that could potentially at short notice have to fight a war of national survival against one or more larger neighbours in such circumstances every additional gun counts.

    • Adam James Hawkins

      Are there many soldiers NOT trained to use lethal force?

      • AndrewMelville

        All are trained – that’s true, but soldiers in the combat arms, who actually fight are a small minority of the soldiers deployed. One reason why our armies are so slow, expensive and pondering.

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