All’s fair in love and war? Not until female soldiers can join the men on the front line

I suspect that the same arguments against women were used 100 years ago, when they couldn't vote

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In a week when the gender pay gap seems more intractable than ever, there's been some good news on the equality front, as we might see British female soldiers fighting on the front line within two years.

Currently, in the British Army, women are excluded from hand-to-hand combat. But after a study found that women and men fighting together does not necessarily preclude the effectiveness of a good ground combat team, the mood music is that equality in the Army should mean just that.

Women and men together on the front line. How will this play? There was a pretty silly comment on Radio 4 which seemed to be about leg length, suggesting that women won’t be able to keep up when marching alongside the chaps, and plenty of others across the board who feel it is just “wrong” to have women fighting in units where, as the Army has it, “the primary role is to close with and kill the enemy”.

Yet there is precedent. We all know about the female soldiers serving in the Israeli army, but apparently about 70,000 female Russian soldiers fought on the front line at the Battle of Stalingrad. And we all know the outcome of that. More recently, British female support staff have been thrown into conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they conducted themselves with skill and aplomb, some winning honours.


Ah, but women aren’t strong enough, people will say. There is no getting around the fact that women and men differ in upper body strength, in weight, in height – all the things which come into play if, or when, you are required to engage in hand-to-hand combat while carrying a pack weighing 50kg. Would male soldiers have to start carrying kit for their female colleagues? In an era when boots on the ground is not as key as air attacks, this might not be as critical as it seems.

How about the question of capture? What would a woman soldier be forced to endure, should she fall into enemy hands, that a male counterpart might not? Yet surely this is a redundant argument, for torture is a horror that knows no gender difference.

Online, the forums are full of anxiety. One person even fretted about the fact that a tank is closed down for long periods; everyone inside has to use the same bucket, as it were. “I welcome equality and equal opportunities,” writes Joolz, “but I fear our strong sense of social justice has toppled over and we straining [sic] our values. War is not a place of equality.”

Yet I suspect just the same words were used 50, 70, or 100 years ago when male bastions of exclusiveness were being breached by women; from voting to working in the City to running the Chicago marathon. And we should not forget the fact is that war is far less about front lines these days and more about “asymmetry”, which is why so many women support staff have been drawn into conflict already.

Plus, while considering boots on the ground, let’s not forget about the important notion of changing “hearts and minds”, with which our troops have been very much engaged, and which probably does far more to achieve long-lasting victory than mere muscle.

Frankly, if women can match their counterparts in fitness and want to be out there alongside the men, I’m sure they aren’t going to worry about the fact that there will be no gender-specific toilets in the tank.


The kids aren’t as hungry for change as Mr Clegg thinks

On Monday morning, chez Millard will be nothing short of blissful, since it is the beginning of the school holidays and hence the first morning for quite a long time in which no packed lunch will have to be prepared for anyone.

What about school dinners for your children, you may ask? Well, not at the junior end of the troop, thanks very much. Because of the minuscule budget within which primary schools must manage, these meals resemble indescribable matter which contains just about every vitamin known to man, but zero taste, served on a plastic tray à la Maison Wormwood Scrubs.

The Government is cock-a-hoop that 85 per cent of pupils aged between four and seven have apparently taken advantage of free school meals (about the only known policy that the benighted Deputy Prime Minister has actually managed to have stick during his reign), but that also reveals that quite a lot of kids are sticking to the old crisps, apple and sandwich formula.

I can see that introducing universal free school meals immediately removes the stigma of singling out the less fortunate for this privilege. And for children from very challenged backgrounds, a single hot meal might be all they get in a day.

But please, if you are going to insist on free school dinners as an emblem of excellence in British schooling, then surely schools must have adequate budgets to provide delicious and nutritious food, and proper kitchens in which to cook it.

The state secondary which my elder children attend has excellent catering and delicious, varied food. I know, because I have eaten it. From a china plate, too. Who supplies it? Why, a company whose other clients are all in the private sector.


Why would anyone behave on a holiday in Venice?

Hilarious news from Venice where a German couple on holiday apparently amused themselves not by being photographed in a gondola, but by stealing one, and paddling off with it. They simply jumped into the craft and made off with it across the lagoon to the island of San Giorgio, taking in the photogenic atmosphere of St Mark’s Square and the Giudecca, before collapsing with exhaustion.

Quite apart from the fact that this story shows you how very difficult it is to master the piloting of a gondola, it also reflects on the behaviour of tourists in La Serenissima. Which, it seems, is not very good. At least, it is bad enough for the city to ban wheelie suitcases (which wreck the cobbles) and issue a 10-point guide on how visitors might  “blend in with the locals”.

What? In Venice? The whole point about this beautiful but marooned city is that there are no locals. And so there is no urgency for anyone to behave, since everyone is either a tourist or someone servicing a tourist.  Without any notion of civic ownership, the place will clearly go to the dogs, what with people pulling their wheely cases everywhere and pinching gondolas without a care.


Tune in to the latest Buckingham Palace ploy

Apparently there has been a surge of bets on the likelihood of the Queen abdicating during her annual Christmas message.

Bookmaker Coral had offered odds of 10-1 on Elizabeth II hanging up her crown during the broadcast, and so many people have slapped down money on this that it has stopped taking bets on the matter. Well, it would be one way to liven up the world’s dreariest television moment, for sure, but I suspect this story has no foundation.

Indeed, I warrant it has been planted by the canny Buckingham Palace PR machine, alarmed at the fact that come the big day, most families would prefer to eat their weight in Celebrations than watch our monarch bidding us greetings.

It is quite hard for me to convince my children how vital an institution the Queen’s Speech once was. When I was young, we were not even allowed to open our presents until the shot of the Royal Ensign fluttering over the palace had faded.

My parents (now aged 83 and 84) represent probably the only group of people in the country to take TQS seriously. Where will they be on Christmas Day? Oh yes, I remember. My house.