Debate: After the Pentagon lifted its ban, should women be allowed to serve on the front line in UK armed forces?


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The Independent Online


What's going on?

The make-up of America's combat forces will change dramatically in coming years as US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta yesterday lifted a ban on women serving on the front lines, a move that could open thousands of fighting jobs to female service members.

President Barack Obama said: "This milestone reflects the courageous and patriotic service of women through more than two centuries of American history and the indispensable role of women in today's military."

The new legislation has put focus on the UK's own arrangements, which currently prevent women from serving in units whose job is to "close with and kill" the enemy, after a 2010 review decided against change. More than 70 per cent of all posts in Britain's army and navy, and more than 95 per cent of posts in the RAF, are currently open to women - but access to infantry positions and elite units such as the Marines is withheld. Should we update and follow America's lead?

Case for: Equality

It is a complete nonsense to say that women can serve some useful functions in the Armed Forces - gathering intelligence, for example - but not serve on the front line. What is it about the front line that disqualifies their patriotism, commitment, physical strength, skill and mental aptitude from relevance? Nothing - which implies that it must be something to do with their gender. But that argument is unsatisfactory; women obviously have a huge range of abilities that could do precious work on the front line. Inhibiting them from doing so is both unjust discrimination and counter-productive. Finally, at a time of widespread cutbacks in military spending, it's clear that beggars can't be choosers. Our enemies are multiplying while our resources are shrinking. Therefore we need all the help we can get on the front line - and excluding half our population makes no sense at all.

Case against: Impractical

The politics of this move are all right, the practicalities all wrong. Gender equality and women's issues must be paid more attention by the military, particularly given the outrageous number of sexual assaults that occur within the armed forces each year (US figures show 3,129 in 2011). However, allowing women to fight in units that "close with and kill" enemy fighters ignores valid biological and emotional objections. First, elite units like the Marines will be pressurised to take on women, despite the fact that they are highly unlikely to be fitter, stronger or faster than a male candidate. Second, the presence of women could wreck a unit's social dynamic, encouraging soldiers to fight for affections rather than behave as a so-called "band of brothers". Finally, how could the UK pursue a war that came at the cost of thousands of mothers and daughters? At least men have been expected to fight and die for their country for centuries.