Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections

Gender and the Armed Forces

Today the (UK) Ministry of Defence announced:

Women could be allowed to serve in British infantry units for the first time by 2016.

An Army review of the ban on women serving in close combat has concluded the change would not have an “adverse effect” on troop cohesion.

But further research is needed to assess the “physiological demands”, the Ministry of Defence review said.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said roles “should be determined by ability and not gender.”
BBC News Website 19 December 2014 (a): Women could join British infantry by 2016

This actually looks quite sensible, but some (e.g. John Humphries on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme 19 December 2014) seem to have trouble getting their minds around the issue.

Roles “should be determined by ability and not gender” should sum this up.

The infantry role requirements include:

  • the aggression necessary for one-to-one fighting and killing,
  • the physical and emotional resilience necessary to physically and mentally survive “in the field” in a hostile environment where death and injury is your intimate neighbour,
  • individual independence – the ability to carry all one’s equipment necessary to fight and survive over a prolonged period of time,
  • team independence – the ability to carry a share of the team’s equipment necessary to fight and survive over a prolonged period of time,

Now, are these qualities always defined purely by the sex organs between your legs and the resultant hormones?

John Humphries in the Radio 4 clip says, “Overall women are less strong than men”. True, but the key word is “overall”. We would not in an extended “world war” type conflict seek to conscript all women and all men in a certain age group. In the World Wars we did not even seek to conscript all men – we recognised that some were not physically capable. So the “overall” view is irrelevant.

Richard Kemp, a former colonel in the Army, has argued that a woman “simply does not fit into this testosterone charged band of brothers”.

He argues that infantry close combat demands ferocity, aggression and killer instinct, characteristics which he believes are “far more common in men than women”.
BBC News Website 19 December 2014 (b): UK female soldiers: Hurdles remain for combat action

It may be that aggression etc is “far more common in men than women”, but aggression is not an exclusively male trait. Some women are more aggressive and resilient than many men. Some are physically stronger than many men. So if they can individually meet the requirements of the infantry role, why shouldn’t they serve?

We have of course to be careful not just how we measure the ability to meet the requirements, but also how we set the requirements. How arbitrary are some of the tests?

Of 240 women who’ve volunteered to do the US Marine Corps basic infantry course, 45% have passed. In contrast, 95% of men graduated.

Many women struggled to meet one of the basic strength tests of doing three consecutive pull ups.
ibid (b)

Doing pull-ups is an established way to test a particular aspect of upper body strength – particularly useful if you are involved in fighting that necessitates doing pull-ups – but why three? Would it actually be more appropriate to test the ability to lift and carry heavy weights, or to climb a ladder in full (wet) kit?

John Humphies was also somewhat sneary about “reducing the requirements”. If done appropriately this could be beneficial. If say one of the strength tests was the ability to manhandle a particular bit of kit, there might be benefits in reducing the weight of that bit of kit. You might then reduce the “strength requirement” which would make more people (men and women) available for the role. You would also increase the endurance of those able to meet the current requirements.

Reviewing the requirements is probably also of long-term benefit to existing servicemen. There seems to be a concern that women are more likely to suffer longer term physiological damage from the physical demands of the infantry role. I wonder how much this is being amplified by the litigious side of equality laws, whilst men may also be suffering longer term damage. The men may not complaining about it because they do not perceive the same opportunities for legal redress and because they accept that that is part of what they signed up for. If we are worried that a woman may suffer long-term damage from say repetitively shifting crates of ammunition or carrying a very heavy pack over difficult terrain, it is quite possible that some of the men will be suffering similar long term physical damage. After all, it is not unknown for sportsmen who are thought of as fit to have to retire due to long-term physical injury.

I also wonder (admittedly from a civilian perspective), how much the “band of brothers” has to be “testosterone charged”. Testosterone can raise ferocity, but often at the expense of judgement. Not only can this lead to battlefield misjudgments, but also to behaviour that might be regretted later. Other countries seem to manage quite well with “adrenaline charged bands of siblings”.


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2 thoughts on “Gender and the Armed Forces

  1. This sounds like another opportunity for ‘selective equality’. I’m fine with women fighting at the front, as long as all the conditions of services are completely equal for men and women, i.e. if something is compulsory for men, then the same must apply to women. I’m not in favour of cherry picking which parts of a job somebody can do, but allowing some of them can opt out if it doesn’t take their fancy.

    It already happens with members of one high profile family who are able to enjoy automatic commissions to the section of the armed forces that they choose, and can simply pop off for a few days to enjoy a complimentary visit to some party or world cup, courtesy of the company helicopter, so no more please.

  2. “automatic commissions to the section of the armed forces that they choose”

    I think that “gender” does not come into this family’s commissions.

    The “Honorary Commissions” are something that “we the people” kind of like and are pretty harmless as they actually have no real authority.

    The real “working commissions”, I think are earned and are by no means automatic – I don’t think they would allow you to fly expensive helicopters unless you made the grade. One of the family could not make the grade in the Marines and was out – which probably meant an interesting discussion (“without coffee”) with his father who holds an Honorary Commission in the Marines! Another of the family I think got into hot water for using a “company helicopter” to visit his girl-friend (kind of ultimate show-off) – he certainly did not repeat the exercise!

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