Fear of Aids is not the only thing that frightens the modern soldier

Suzanne Moore on why our soldiers cry
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The Independent Online
It does not take that much to bring the British army to its knees. I'm not talking chemical warfare here. Something far more deadly has emerged as a serious threat to the safe-keeping of our boys who have been put on slapper alert. Two 19-year-old women living in North Yorkshire have been identified as a threat to, according to The Sun, "5,000 troops", because they were said to be deliberately spreading the Aids virus.

This story was prompted by the fact that the garrison commander of Catterick had earlier in the week posted a warning to his troops around the base. This warning said that a confidential source had told him that "at least two females living in the geographical area of Catterick Garrison have contracted the Aids virus and are HIV-positive. These same females are believed to be liberal with their affections, particularly to soldiers, and are not averse to indulging in casual sex, unprotected". Commander Donaldson has since defended this action by saying, "We have a duty of care. We have a lot of very young soldiers who are rather vulnerable."

The two women, who have been practically tarred and feathered by the tabloids, are also perhaps vulnerable. They have not been entitled to any privacy. We know their names, their faces, what one of the estranged husbands thinks, what other people in the village have said about them. One of the women has had her windows broken and has been ostracised by the rest of he village.

All of this strikes me as little more than malicious gossip, rumour-mongering elevated to the level of news. How did Donaldson's confidential source know that these women were HIV positive? Had he seen the results of these women's HIV tests? No. Because the women had not had them. Yesterday one of the women, who has since been tested, announced that she was found negative. One hundred soldiers at the base have also sought medical advice. Of course these soldiers are not to be named, nor will we ever know what sexually transmitted diseases they may or may not have. Donaldson could easily have issued a safe-sex warning without scape-goating particular women.

However the whole tone of this "story" has been positively medieval: from the bizarre language of the army bods - "females" used instead of "women" - to the witch hunt of The Sun, which informed us that one of the "girls" doesn't deserve to be a mum. I take it then, that the 100 soldiers who were also possibly "liberal with their affections" do not deserve ever to be dads. Yet our sympathy is supposed to be with the poor young squaddies, 20 of whom are reported to have broken down in tears.

This is presumably what made Sir Michael Rose, one-time commander of the UN Protection Force in Bosnia write an article that The Daily Telegraph chose tellingly to headline "Why Europe, women and homosexuals threaten our armed forces". This unholy triumvirate, which has apparently done so much to undermine the status of men in civilian life, must not be allowed to affect our boys. Why? Well, our boys are different and must not be destroyed by a "mixture of cultural change within our own society". Soldiers apparently need a different set of moral values because unlike civilians they may be required to kill and be killed.

In other words soldiers must be protected from the assaults on masculinity that have taken place in the rest of society. But the hard truth is that it is already too late. We are talking , are we not, of an institution in decline? There are not enough recruits; and the ones that there are do not respond to the endless barracking and physical discipline as before, because men have changed. They are softer. Even their feet are softer because of the wearing of trainers, so they can't get used to boots. More seriously, the end of the Cold War has meant that the role of the armed forces is itself in question.

While the mythology of active combat is always there, many of the tearful squaddies at Catterick will not actually be required to fight in this way. Their role will be primarily one of peace-keeping duties. and though there may be the odd flare-up it is the elite troops - the paras, marines and the commando units that will do the fighting. There is huge gap between the glorious rhetoric of battle and the duller reality of much army life. Yet it is this rhetoric that sustains so much of the sexual anxiety of the armed forces. Such rhetoric is always about penetrating the enemy, "not looking like a bloody woman" or "a poof", yet somehow being submissive to your commanders and lying down your life for your mate. Homosexuals and women are a threat because they rupture the kinds of male bonding that sustain this peculiar way of life. The practice of "sharing women" revealed in this latest panic, as well as in the recent rape trial involving several junior army officers, can be seen as a kind of homo-erotic form of male bonding, but one that is apparently a traditional and acceptable part of army life.

In such a context women, whether in the army or outside it, are always going to disrupt this uniformity of masculinity, which is remarkably seen as devoid of sexuality. As Major-General Ken Perkins wrote in a letter to the Telegraph, "In war, there is already enough tension in the front line, without introducing an unnecessary element of sex." The admission of women and gays into the Army means that sex will presumably be thrust onto the agenda where it was strangely absent before.

The question that needs to be asked is whether the Army should be reflecting in any way at all the changes that have taken place in the rest of society or should it further isolate itself from them? Surely the more it "protects" and infantilises its members, because of the need for "soldiers to be different", the less any one will choose this archaic career. In common with so many of our institutions, it has to modernise; and modernisation means that the old enemies of femininity, homosexuality and racial difference have to be incorporated into its ranks rather than excluded.

To judge by this week's events featuring devouring women and cry-baby soldier boys this is virtually impossible. The fear and loathing of "females" expressed by officers, squaddies and newspaper reporters alike has been shameful, but in its own horrible way thoroughly revealing. If 5,000 troops can't cope with two promiscuous teenagers, then its hard to imagine that these same lads will be potential heroes when it comes to anything more demanding. Clearly, as long as these men are encouraged to treat women as an entirely separate species, it unlikely that they will want to serve alongside them on the front-line.

Those of us not in the Army might also wonder about the issue of sexual responsibility. Why has it fallen entirely on the women and not the men in this case? In a neat role-reversal, these men, supposedly tougher and more manly than normal men, have been portrayed as blubbering victims of the wicked witches of the North. But if these men are victims at all, they are victims of the Army itself which insists on fighting a losing battle.