Come on boys, at least let us share your guns

Put a woman in combat fatigues, send her into battle and what will she do?
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The Independent Online

In no time at all she'll be snivelling into a lace handkerchief, distracting the men around her from the job of sticking it to Johnny Serb or whoever happens to be Britain's enemy du jour. This is only a slight caricature of what service chiefs and politicians seem to expect if women are allowed to serve in the front line, to judge from recent interviews and a debate last week on Radio 4's Today.

In no time at all she'll be snivelling into a lace handkerchief, distracting the men around her from the job of sticking it to Johnny Serb or whoever happens to be Britain's enemy du jour. This is only a slight caricature of what service chiefs and politicians seem to expect if women are allowed to serve in the front line, to judge from recent interviews and a debate last week on Radio 4's Today.

The other possibility is even worse, namely that female soldiers will start bayoneting everyone around them with unnatural ferocity, revealing an aspect of femininity that most people prefer not to think about. (I won't even bother to quote Kipling, assuming we are all familiar with the line about she-bears that has become the rather tiresome locus classicus of this debate.)

Women are already serving on British warships - the few that still work, that is - and flying RAF aircraft. The sticking-point, so to speak, is the kind of hand-to-hand conflict experienced during the Falklands War, as the new head of the armed forces, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, explained last week. Sir Michael introduced women on to Royal Navy ships, his own branch of the service, but thinks the infantry may pose more of a problem. "With women in the Army front line, it is a different type of fighting," he said. "Very close cohesive teamwork is needed in the infantry." I am not sure what Sir Michael is suggesting here, other than implying that women can't imitate male bonding rituals, the kind of guy thing Tony Blair and George Bush have been doing recently by bombing Iraq.

But I suspect that what lies behind this is a visceral recoil from the notion of women, delicate creatures that we are, being involved too closely with violence. If so, it is difficult to avoid dismissing the entire argument as redundant, given that the nature of modern warfare has put women into the front line to a greater degree than ever before. They are already there in unprecedented numbers as civilians, who constitute most of the casualties in the savage civil wars and hi-tech bombing campaigns that have replaced the superpower contests of the first half of the 20th century.

During the century's first decade, the ratio of military to civilian casualties was eight to one, a figure that had reversed by the Nineties. What happened to the women caught up, against their will, in these recent conflicts was revealed last week when three Bosnian Serbs were convicted at The Hague of the systematic rape, torture and enslavement of Muslim women in the town of Foca in 1992. The trial provided recognition that rape was used as a deliberate instrument of war during the Bosnian conflict, where the number of victims was estimated to run into tens of thousands. It was also the first time that rape has been classed as a crime against humanity.

Old-fashioned notions of chivalry, which hold that women are too squeamish to be exposed to the horrors of battle, seem ludicrously out of date against this background. And if these ideas are not outdated, why is Nato so reluctant to fight ground wars that might protect civilian populations, including women and other supposed non-combatants, instead of relying on dropping bombs indiscriminately from a great height? It is as if generals accept the presence of women in the front line as victims, then come over all faint at the thought of giving them arms.

Yet even this is not universally true. During the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, the world was invited to applaud the vision of Israel's plucky girl soldiers, fighting like tigers to defend their homeland, even as we were expected to condemn the Arabs whenever they put women - notably the hijacker Leila Khaled - at the forefront of the conflict. Perhaps this should not surprise us in a culture where the most reviled adult killers are women, Myra Hindley and Rosemary West, rather than any of the men imprisoned for serial murders or terrorist bombing campaigns.

At the same time, peace-keeping operations - Oxfam with guns, as Cold War veterans derisively call them - have become the main task of Nato armies, which means that hand-to-hand fighting is becoming a minority occupation; the front line is almost certainly a safer place for women combatants nowadays than it is for unarmed female civilians. "Take the toys from the boys," we used to say at Greenham Common and other military bases, without really expecting vast numbers of infantrymen to lay down their weapons. I still can't see, though, why they are so averse to sharing them.

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