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Tom Bruxner is a former member of the British Army and is currently a commercial project manager at Newton Investment Management. He is a global fellow with the Project for the Study of the 21st Century. You can follow him on twitter at @tombruxner.
As the United Kingdom conducts its now quinquennial Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), the ongoing debate about the exclusion of women from infantry and armoured units appears close to its conclusion. The US Department of Defense has been forced by a US Supreme Court judgement to include women in its combat arms and the UK Secretary of State for Defence has initiated a ‘study’ into whether the UK should follow suit. Whitehall chatter suggests that the latter has been set up to justify an intended change in policy, rather than providing an objective view. Will this be a disaster for the operational effectiveness of the British combat arms, or will it–by finally dragging the military kicking and screaming into the 21st Century– deliver a force that is more effective because it recruits from the entire population?
It’s an emotional debate, and many commentators have failed to escape their own prejudices before engaging in it. For the sake of full disclosure, and to persuade the reader that I am trying to escape my own, I should say that I have recently been an infantry officer in the British Army and, having also attended all-male English boarding schools between the ages of 7 and 18, might justifiably be regarded as steeped in ‘the culture of man’. I offer the following thoughts as opinion based on judgement and experience as an operator, rather than any academic methodology or fieldwork.
That said, I don’t think my opinion is any less valid. People will have to live and die with the consequences of a debate which to many is a theoretical discussion of principle, quite removed from the brutal reality of conflict.
I should also clarify some assumptions I’m about to make. Firstly, most sensible people agree the physical standards required of the combat arms should not be reduced. I also accept analysis that this would mean only a very few women would actually end up as infanteers. Secondly, this piece will focus on women in the infantry rather than armoured units, where close combat can be rather different in character, if no less dangerous. Third, where it’s relevant, I’ll be focusing on the British Army. This is mainly because it’s where I served, but also because, as described above, it’s one of the last remaining Western forces still to make a decision on the issue.
Finally, the role of the infantry is dismounted close combat. By this, I mean a situation in which you might storm a building, clear a trench or perhaps attack defensive position in a jungle, any of which would be occupied by an enemy who is trying to kill you whilst you do it. This type of environment is extremely dangerous, violent and has traditionally called for very high levels of aggression and intense motivation. It has plenty of other roles, but this is what the infantry is organised for and the thing that no other arm can do.
The recent experience of Western armies in Afghanistan and Iraq is often cited as an example of how women can operate effectively ‘on the front line’ which justifies their inclusion in the infantry. However, this conflates ‘the front line’ with dismounted close combat. Very few people actually object to women being on the front line, the value of which has been proven time and again. The question is the utility of mixed sex units in the discreet task of dismounted close combat, particularly in view of the intense physical and moral demands described above.
We need to put the recent combat experience of western forces in context. Despite the hyperbole in the public arena, the UK has been fighting a counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan, not a high-intensity conflict. It has been a messy business, but on the whole, dismounted close-combat has been a rare event.
A recent survey suggested that 26% of women serving in Afghanistan have been engaged in ‘close combat’. This is likely inaccurate. Leaving aside the potential for bias (everyone wants to say they’ve been in a scrap), I suspect those who answered ‘yes’ meant they had been in a ‘contact’ which is rather a different thing. A contact, or TIC (Troops in Contact), generally refers to an incident involving enemy action. This can be anything from a single random shot, a mortar attack or a full scale battle. I’m quite prepared to believe that 26% of women surveyed had been involved in such an event, but far fewer will have been in what passes for dismounted close combat. Very few troops in Afghanistan have been subjected to ‘effective enemy fire’. Many more have experienced long-range, ineffective enemy small arms fire or in some way been involved in an IED ‘incident’. Unpleasant as these things are, they are not the type of close-combat described earlier.
Whilst death rates have been reduced by a highly sophisticated medical response, overall casualties are comparable to counter insurgencies the UK has fought in the past, but not with ‘high-intensity’ conflicts, such as WW1/2 or Korea, where numbers have always been much higher. Again, this is where the language of ‘the front line’ has been unhelpful. COIN doesn’t have a front line; high intensity warfare does. Professor Anthony King of Exeter University has recently argued that an impersonal professionalised cohesion has emerged in the British Army which will facilitate the incorporation of women in the infantry in a way that it could not before. His work is based on observations of soldiers operating in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not in high intensity conflict. But we can afford a more professional, and less visceral, kind of cohesion in this counter-insurgency environment that might prove harder to sustain in more traditional dismounted close conflict.
So, as with many other areas of doctrine, we should be careful of learning too many lessons from a failed counter-insurgency campaign in south-central Asia. In an increasingly multi-polar world, the hubris which drove the West to think it could fight such a war may be more tempered by realpolitik. We all know that western armies need to have the ability to conduct COIN in their golf-bag, but they must design themselves around high-intensity conflict. The risk of losing a high intensity war is likely to be more disastrous than defeat in an expeditionary ‘war of choice’ and the ability to conduct high intensity operations has an important deterrent effect. After Ukraine, the value of being able to conduct high intensity operations is suddenly looking rather more important that it did in 2012.
Why would high intensity close-combat need a different type of cohesion? It seems to me that men are inherently susceptible to a culture of death and violence in a way that women often aren’t. Whilst this is generally a bad thing in society, fostering it in units designed for dismounted close combat, albeit with appropriate restraints, might be an exception.
As a young Officer Cadet, I remember being surprised to see Dulce Et Decorum Est stamped defiantly in gilded letters on the central arch of the chapel at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. To my generation, and indeed to several before, this phrase had lost all Horace’s sincerity and become Owen’s ‘Old Lie’. I was forced to confront the fact that I was now required to buy into this philosophy wholeheartedly. After some experience of operations I’ve come to the conclusion that, whether it’s a lie or not, the soldier who doesn’t believe it will be the less effective for it. As Nick Hedges points out in his thoughtful if rather repetitive book ‘War: A Force That Gives Us Meaning’, we must believe ‘the lie’ to fight. Traditional military discipline is specifically designed to enforce this.
I remember a junior platoon commander who was showing worrying signs of limpness on operations. After being ‘gripped’, he confessed that he hadn’t anticipated the degree of wilful self-deception that was required in military leadership. He was a highly cultivated young man with a First-Class degree from a top ranked university. He fully understood the ill-conceived nature of the campaign on which he had been asked to risk his life, but hadn’t been able to subordinate these thoughts to ‘the lie’. He was a weaker leader as a result. Likewise, the most effective Ukrainian units fighting Russian proxies over the last two years have often had some pretty nasty political views.
The truth is that people required to do irrational things, which close combat almost always is, probably need irrational motivations lurking in the background. Celebrating heroism and state-sanctioned murder in a macho culture of derring-do, one-upmanship and denigration of ‘the other’ probably helps. Men, famously, are more susceptible to developing these cultures, and society rightly condemns them. But they have their uses, and it is legitimate to ask whether the culture of mixed-gender infantry units will be more civilised but less visceral and therefore less able to muster the requisite aggression for the most ruthless environment of all.
These arguments, and many others, are often employed by those defending the male-only status of the British Infantry. But is the motivation of those defending single sex combat arms pure? The more inclusive, tolerant and progressive a society we become, the further we stray from the elemental nature of man’s traditional role in most human societies from time immemorial.
You only have to look at Chelsea fans on the Paris Metro to see how unacceptable many aspects of ‘male cohesion’ are in an advanced liberal democracy. That incident does actually illustrate our debate. Why is racism so hard to ‘kick out’ of football? Probably because football crowds are full of otherwise responsible members of society who go to football games to revel in that uncomplicated sense of tribalism, that aggressive and uncompromising contempt for ‘the other’, that the rest of society now rightly disdains.
Whether we like it or not, the camaraderie of the terrace is deeply liberating to many and these people are usually men. I found the same liberation in Iraq with the butt of a GPMG in my shoulder, as have many others in conflict of all sorts. I wonder whether those of us who have defended the exclusion of women in the combat arms are in fact rather like those football fans. Do we defend this macho culture in regular armies because it is a ‘last bastion’ where that same liberating sense of exemption from society’s ‘feminised’ rules can be justified?
The impact women have on the moral cohesion of an infantry/armoured unit is dependent on the social mores or the society from which they come. Let’s take the example of openly gay soldiers. It’s as unlikely that an openly gay man would have been accepted in a platoon of infantry soldiers in the 1930s as he would in a working man’s club or city boardroom. Most of us have been surprised at how rapidly soldiers have accepted openly gay people in their ranks. I’m not so sure we should have been; most of those arguing against it were people with little current experience of regimental duty who were remembering how things used to be. They didn’t take into account that many private soldiers now have either a former school friend or perhaps a relative who is openly gay.
We like to think we live with a warrior code, with values separate from society, but I think the reality of a modern regular army is that soldiers are much more integrated with social norms than they or their commanders might imagine. We do, after all, tend to marry civilians, drink with them at the weekend, follow the same football teams, read the same newspapers and watch the same TV programmes.
Information technology has only increased the connection between the military and the rest of society; soldiers on operations half way round the world now regularly Skype their families. If a society generally thinks women are too sensitive for close combat, or rather that they’ll reduce men’s effectiveness at conducting it, it’s likely that soldiers will think the same and the impact on moral cohesion will be equivalent. However, if a society generally thinks that’s a lot of old fashioned nonsense, I reckon that most soldiers will too and the impact on moral cohesion of the inclusion of women in the combat arms will be a lot less. I think the role of women in Soviet Russian and Israeli armed forces, often cited on both sides of this debate, reflected the trends in those societies rather more than their effectiveness as soldiers.
Of course, technology impacts this debate in a different kind of way. As the ‘age of the machines’ approaches, the infanteer in dismounted close combat will increasingly become an operator of systems rather than the system itself. Trenches and buildings may no longer get cleared by frail flesh and bone, but instead by automated systems – ‘robots’– or through the use of other emerging technologies.
One of the more reasonable arguments against the inclusion of women in the infantry is that you don’t have mixed rugby teams. This made sense when the physical mass of an infantry unit was a key part of its capability. The arrival of advanced weaponry has steadily reduced the prominence of these physical factors and if it continues to do so, then the rugby team argument goes. As Professor King has pointed out, if this becomes the case, then the infanteer of tomorrow will need to prioritise their ability to operate systems as much as or more than their physical ability. You then have to justify why you are excluding half of your recruiting population on the basis that it enhances a low priority skill-set. It would be a brave futurist who predicts the extreme physical conditions of dismounted close combat in high intensity warfare will fall away with arrival of drone warfare, but the focus and priorities may change.
From a policy perspective, we must also understand the realities of our position and balance it against the effectiveness of our resources. British society will increasingly demand that women are included in the combat arms. Indeed, the decision has effectively been made in both the US and UK. Defence chiefs are forced to pick their battles with politicians, and where it involves a shift in social norms, they are likely to lose. The shift in US policy is, after all, due to a legal decision, not government policy.
If the writing is on the wall, it would be better to take control of the change in a way that will make it work, rather than have arbitrary solutions pushed on us that won’t. For example, our ability to maintain current physical standards for the infantry might be taken out of our hands if a decision is forced upon us. In my view, that would have a really grievous impact on fighting power.
To what extent are we able to sustain an irrational ‘warrior’ culture as representatives of a modern liberal democracy? Is this compatible with mixed gender units? How far should we acquiesce to political demands we think might degrade our fighting power? Do we over-emphasise its importance to fuel our self-perception as a group without the constraints of normal society? All tricky questions to which, not having been a very academic soldier, I fear I have not provided a very clear answer.
So, to clarify my position by way of conclusion: we should recognise that we are talking about dismounted close combat in high intensity conflict, not just being in harm’s way. This disqualifies much of the experience of western armies in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as much of the vacuous public debate about ‘women on the front line’. We also need to be honest about the value of male-only warrior culture in close combat and how realistically we are able to sustain this in the modern world where technology decreases the isolation of the armed forces, both at home and abroad. We also need to be clear about how such a small number of women who are likely to serve in the infantry might dilute this culture, particularly when our soldiers are coming from a society where women attain increasing equality in every other work place. All this will be happening in an environment where the physicality of our infantry will matter less and less as our reliance on sophisticated automated systems increases. Finally, we must be realists and manage society’s changing demands of us in a way that will minimise any putative loss in fighting power.
I recognise the effectiveness of the uncompromising, impulsive and downright uncivilised aspects of male-macho culture in dismounted close combat, but also that some of us are irrationally attached to protecting this because it makes us feel special. Either way, I think that in the future, women will dilute this culture less than they might now, and certainly less than they would have in the past. Armies may also need this culture on fewer occasions than they have in the past. I think if we rigorously enforce standards for infantry personnel (something we Brits don’t do well enough), I don’t see that the very small number of women who would serve in its ranks would reduce the warrior spirit of our units sufficiently to justify their continued exclusion in the face of significant societal and political pressure to do otherwise. I don’t like it, but then I think of Field Marshall Sir William Slim’s advice that ‘nothing is either as good or bad as at first it seems’ and I think that maybe I could live with it.
PS21 is a non-ideological, non-governmental, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.