Women in Battle: Progress or Retrograde Step

Last week the US Secretary of State for Defence announced that the US armed forces would allow women to serve in small group combat units, which President Obama and many other commentators have welcomed as a “historic step”. There is no doubt that this is a historic step, but does it move humanity forwards or backwards?

The subsequent discussion in the British media focused on the familiar topics of equal rights across the genders, of which this is just another facet, physical issues and effects of group cohesiveness of women serving alongside men in combat.

A senior journalist dismissed anyone who disagreed with the step as a stegosaurus, but there is more to the discussion than simple gender equality. There is the whole aspect of the development of civilisation.

The facts are these. British women already serve on the front line, many have engaged the enemy with their weapons, some have been wounded and a few have died.

British soldiers in Afghanistan

British soldiers in Afghanistan

Women live alongside men and share the hardship in Afghanistan. Women have mental endurance and act with comparable courage; some have received medals in recognition of their gallantry in the face of the enemy.

Women deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that they can hack it with the men.

However, women are hampered by a weaker physique and were identified, in an Army

British infantrymen on patrol in Afghanistan

British infantrymen on patrol in Afghanistan

study in 2002, as being more prone to muscular-skeletal injuries than their male counter parts. This would be exacerbated by service in the infantry where typical fighting loads are in excess of 60 lbs per man; a weight that has remained fairly consistent since the days of Marius’s Mules in the first century BC.

That said, I have no doubt that there would be a cohort of women who would have the physique and durability to serve alongside men in combat units. The question is, should they?

In addressing this, it is important to understand that women serving in the front line would be stepping into very different territory when they take up close combat roles.  Currently women, along with 60% of the men, serve in roles that support combat – signallers, artillery, intelligence, engineers and  logistics.

British engineers building a bridge in Afghanistan

British engineers building a bridge in Afghanistan

Although their primary role may be in front line, they are usually one step removed from the killing; engineers building a bridge will only fight to enable them to complete their task. This is fundamentally different from the combat – infantry and armoured – units whose raison d’être is to seek out the enemy and kill them as efficiently as possible.

This is brutal and dehumanising work, as described by Captain Doug Beattie * “I heard the detonation and sprinted forward following the path of the grenade. Engulfed by dust and smoke I opened fire spraying all round the room…..I could just make out the prone body of a Taliban fighter….I leant forward and thrust my bayonet towards the body as hard as I could…..There was barely any resistance, the sharpened blade sliding deeper, quickly disappearing.” Savage work indeed, but this is the stark reality of infantry work and few who are involved in it are left unaffected.

British infantrymen fighting at close quarters

British infantrymen fighting at close quarters

Since the First World War Britain has done much, in the interests of humanity and efficiency, to reduce the pool of manpower exposed to close combat.  We no longer deploy youngsters below the age of 18 on operational tours nor do we deliberately expose older individuals to close combat. It is highly improbable that Boy Cornwell ** and Lieutenant Colonel Douglas-Hamilton *** would get an opportunity to win a Victoria Cross in today’s forces.

This brings me back to women, who have been exempted from close combat by culture and tradition. Is it right to draw them into this trade where the emphasis is on killing, when we have taken such steps to narrow the parameters of service in response to social advances?  Is this a step forward for civilisation or is it a retrograde step for society in the name of gender equality?

Many intelligent and ambitious young women will argue hard that in the interests of equality, women should have the right to take their place alongside men if they are able to do so. They will point out that we have already crossed the Rubicon with women fighter pilots and Apache crews but these activities lack the intimacy of close combat and may be easier to rationalise.

Apache helicopter on patrol

Apache helicopter on patrol

The issue may turn out to be a side show with service in combat units a niche calling for women. However, it is an issue that needs more thought than just rolling out the mantra of equality.  Women need to consider whether they want to be XX equal or XY light. The debate needs to be about where we move humanity – forwards or backwards.

I will leave you with a litmus test. Consider how you would react when your daughter, sister or niece announces that she wishes to follow a career in a close combat unit. I know what I would say.

* Captain Doug Beattie served with the Royal Irish Regiment and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in Afghanistan.  He recorded his exploits in his book An Ordinary Soldier.

 ** Boy Cornwell was a 16 year old sailor who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

 *** Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas-Hamilton was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for leading his battalion at the Battle of Loos in 1915. He was 52 years old.

I am still struggling with the technology of the site. Comments can be left at the bottom of the page but the Follow button pops up on the About page. I look forward to hearing from you.

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The Falkland Islands Scab

As a young lad, I rode my bicycle at high speed. A consequence of this was that I inadvertently parted company with it and badly cut my right elbow. As the scar healed my mother beseeched me not to pick at it, which I ignored to my detriment. This episode taught me that a picked scab takes a lot longer to heal.

These thoughts came back to me as I read of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s advertisement to assert Argentina’s claim over the Falkland Islands. This is just one of a long running series of stunts that have characterised Argentina’s approach to sovereignty claims since the 1960s.

Falklands Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral, Port Stanly, with its iconic whalebone arch

The modern stunts, which include the Argentine Olympic hopeful Fernando Zylberberg filming himself for YouTube outside the Globe Tavern in Port Stanley, are tame compared to the more sinister hijacking, hostage taking, gun boat attacks and covert military landings that preceded them. However, they do continue to be a source of irritation, which does nothing to make the Falkland Islanders want a closer association with Argentina.

President Kirchner’s claim is that 180 years ago, Argentina was stripped of the Falkland Islands by the British. As many commentators have already pointed out, that this is not strictly correct. The ebb and flow of 18th and 19th century expansion meant that the islands were settled by various European power, whalers, sealers, German settlers from the United Provinces of the River Plate, American pirates and a penal settlement.

Falklands mountains

Desolate, razor backed mountains outside Port Stanly

None of these settlements were sustained, although most of them placed flags and plaques claiming the territory for one nation or another. It was reported that the German settlers “appeared greatly rejoiced at the opportunity thus presented of removing with their families from a desolate region where the climate is always cold and cheerless” when the USS Lexington destroyed Luis Vernet’s settlement in 1831on grounds of piracy.

The British reappeared in strength in 1833 to re-establish a military outpost, followed by a sustainable colony in 1840 and stayed.

What is clear from all this is that the Falkland Islands were inhospitable and sufficiently distant from any nation to warrant significant interest or investment. However, the British settlers endured and learnt how to survive on this very edge of the habitable world.

They developed their own culture and way of life, which I have witnessed during numerous visits to the islands over a 10 year period. They became Falkland Islanders, just as the other British settlers in the New World colonies became American or Canadian or Newfoundlanders.

International lawyers will no doubt make a good living arguing over the principles of self- determination and territorial integrity in years to come but the fact is that 180 years of unbroken settlement is a pretty definitive claim. I remember the US Bicentennial in 1976 and I don’t recall the UN debating the American legitimacy of occupation.

President Kirchner knows that her country missed its opportunity to acquire the Falkland Islands during the late 1960s and 1970s when the British government behaved like a seasoned matron as it did its utmost to push its wallflower daughter into an arranged marriage.

Argentina, unable to comprehend the long game, failed to seduce, despite it being the country of the tango, and instead sought to impose its will on the islanders. The macho Latin culture collided with the ‘kith and kin” Anglo-Saxon culture and the marriage of convenience was never consummated.

Falklands mine field

Daily reminders of the Argentine invasion of 1982

The Argentine “smash and grab” attempt in 1982 changed everything. There is no turning back to what might have been possible beforehand. The British public became aware of the Falkland Islands, through its champion The Sun newspaper.

The opportunity to pass the islands quietly to Argentina was lost. The islanders were granted full British citizenship and increased protection, which involved the building and maintenance of a significant military base on the Islands.

Since then the Falkland Islanders, despite Argentina’s best efforts to hinder them, have developed a thriving and sustainable economy. They are a self-governing British Overseas Territory and are comfortable with their relationship with Britain, as Barry Elsby, a member of the Falklands Islands Assembly, states.

“We are not a colony,” he says. “Our relationship with the United Kingdom is by choice.”

They have no reason to join with Argentina, so why would they want to?

The reality is that President Kirchner knows that she will not see the Falkland Islands peacefully integrated into Argentina during her life time. It is, however, a convenient rallying call for her own political ends and follows the well-worn tactics of previous Argentine rulers when things are difficult at home.

It is a short term strategy that sours neighbourly relations and increases the odds against any future partnership between the Islanders and their Latin neighbours.

My advice to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is to stop picking the Falklands scab and in two, maybe three generations a meaning relationship might be developed with the islanders that could enable Argentina to benefit from the Falklands Islands oil bonanza.Falklands-seal