British Army: the world's finest fighting women

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The Independent Online
The Defence Secretary, George Robertson, faces being caught in the cross-fire between the enemies and supporters of women in the military after his revelation this weekend that he is prepared to consider females going into front line combat.

Mr Robertson has begun a wide-ranging review of the role of women in the armed forces and yesterday let slip that the rule which stops women from serving in the front line - in the so-called "killing areas" - could well be scrapped.

Arguably feminism and equal rights do not really come into it: with a shortfall of 5,000 in the Army, Mr Robertson's hand has been forced.

But the prospect of such a move will distress the conservative establishment which objects to women serving in the forces on the grounds of women's physical inappropriateness and the threat posed to Army morale by an explosive combination of favouritism, double standards of fitness and heightened sexual tension.

At the same time it will please the egalitarian camp which has long argued that female fighters do just as well as men and have done so, when pressed, from as far back as Boudicca.

Women are already serving with British forces in United Nations peace- keeping roles in Cyprus, the former Yugoslavia and on ships in the Adriatic.

Given that women were barred from serving at sea at all until 1990, the Navy has come a long way fast. The changes at sea have not been painless and combat for female sailors is still limited. But by last year there were about 700 Wrens serving on 41 warships and 8.1 per cent of Navy personnel were women.

In 1995 the then Defence Secretary Michael Portillo indicated that he was in favour of allowing women in the Army into combat. "It would be daft if we excluded half the population from consideration," he said. At that time women were already flying combat aircraft for the Navy and for the most progressive of the forces, the RAF.

The Army has always lagged behind. Last year only 6.3 per cent of personnel were women. And a good thing too, according to Leo McKinstry, the author of Turning The Tide - A Manifesto For Modern Britain.

In support of his case that women would damage a fighting team he has cited the sordid litany of recent sex scandals. For example, in 1995 a married officer was demoted when he was found guilty of using a mirror to look up a Wren's skirt.

Worst of all, Mr McKinstry believes, in the United States women are unfairly nodded through physical tests that men have to struggle to pass.

Until now the MoD has resisted following the example set by Canada, Belgium, Holland and Norway, all of which have opened up combat to all suitably qualified soldiers. But the shortage of recruits for the Army has put fighting women back on the agenda.

For the crusading journalist and Women's Hour presenter Jenni Murray the case for women in combat is made most memorably in the final scenes of the mildly propagandist Hollywood movie Courage Under Fire, starring Meg Ryan as a pilot in the Gulf War.

"It was her crew's refusal to accept her authority that caused her death. The gasp of horror in the cinema as one of her airmen turned round in the heat of battle and called her a c--- was palpable," she says.