Frightened men, beware! Women are set to fight

Society has put women in the military but not in to combat. The Army should break this last taboo

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Can women fight? The Army Board is drawing up new recommendations on women's fighting role. Currently half the posts in the army are denied to women and the board will recommend throwing many of them open.

However, there will be no hand-to-hand combat - no "teeth arms" work, in army argot. Fighting divisions will not be opened up - yet. But the board saw no reason in principle why women should not join the front line.

If they did let women fight, the actual numbers volunteering for combat would probably be tiny - women only form 5.4 per cent of the army. Already they do far more daring tasks than they did 10 years ago. They have driven trucks, ambulances and run signals right up to the front line in Bosnia and the Gulf. They carry guns, but only for self-defence. Navy women serve on battleships and they fly fighter planes.

So what difference would it make to move women into the army front line? In practical terms, very little, as it is only a minor operational matter. But it was not practical considerations that made the Army Board stay its hand.

Spotting the land mines ahead, the board held back because it believes that British society is not yet ready for the front-line woman soldier. They recognise the symbolic power of the image of a fighting woman.

Women fighting from the air or a battleship may be dangerous, but this is relatively decorous and ladylike. Bayonetting people is not.

The army fears getting ahead of public taste - but is it right? The idea of women commandos and marines appeals to all sorts of tastes (mainly pornographic). But it would also fuel more of that panicky male backlash - the 'men-have-lost-their-role' brigade. It makes women look dangerous, giving them a frightening new public face.

All this takes me back to the Seventies when I joined the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC) - not to fight for Queen and country but as an under- cover investigative reporter for several weeks. It was by far the toughest and nastiest assignment I ever undertook. The newsdesk used to hold their sides and howl with laughter when I phoned in desperately seeking any quicker way the lawyers could get me out. (Yes, I know being a real war correspondent is worse, but that's one assignment I've not yet had to face. Thankfully, this is the closest I've ever come.)

The army then, as now, demands that its soldiers surrender all autonomy to arbitrary authority, which does not come easily to most people nowadays. If you join the Moonies or a nunnery at least they don't have military police to keep you in.

It is unsurprising that the army is short of some 4,000 recruits. Perhaps it should make more effort to recruit women - and letting women fight might increase the numbers joining up. An equal chance to die is the only way the army can indicate publicly that they really do treat women equally.

Soldiering for women is restricted not by what women can do, but by notions of feminine seemliness. Not frightening the men was always the name of the game. Feminism might have been rampaging elsewhere in the early Seventies, but we were taught that women's military role was to be servants to the men.

We were in 'support roles' - absolutely no guns. We were to be trained to peel potatoes, drive cars, type letters, all to release more men for the front.

There has always been a strange sexual ambivalence about women's role in the army. In some respects women had to be like men - they could not get pregnant - a rule the army has had to pay dearly for in compensation to wronged pregnant women forced to quit. Women soldiers did not know what they were supposed to be - real women or real men. Either one was a trap.

In our repulsively tailored green Norman Hartnell uniforms, moulded-felt forage caps and flesh-coloured tights we were supposed to be feminine, despite the fiendishly polished black lace-ups. And yet within the ranks, the secret message was to swagger like the men.

The NCOs, dykes almost to a man, bellowed and yelled at us as we swung out onto the square. In step with our own proud WRAC marching band in leopard skins with euphoniums gleaming in the sun, we bawled out our stilted regimental songs: "It wasn't the Wrens who won the war, The girls in green were there before. It wasn't the Wrens who were first in bed, The girls in green were way ahead, Inky pinky parlez-vous!"

Now the Queen Elizabeth barracks in Guildford is all bare ruined choirs where once the late WRACs sang. The WRAC was disbanded in 1992 and women were integrated into the rest of the army - their only hope of ultimately gaining full equality.

What became of all those nut-brown, sinewy NCOs who loved life in the all-women barracks? Does anyone now scrub the lino behind the cupboards with brillo pads? What happened to the WRAC's own pop group, The Militaires?

If women soldiers wondered what they were for, the Aldershot squaddies had very definite ideas: the first night we were allowed out into Guildford, they shouted across the disco floor that WRAC stood for Weekly Ration of Army C***. The women soldiers wanted to be attractive, but they wanted to be lads too, so there was a lot of uneasy braggadocio about drinking and sex. There was a perverse and confused kitsch about the WRAC: pretending to be men, but feminine too. Tough as the lads, full of boasts about knee- tremblers behind the Aldershot NAAFI, yet tender as geishas serving the men discreetly behind the lines in their ladylike army jobs.

Women in uniform will probably always be subjected to ribald mockery and a casual harassment. Perhaps they will never be taken seriously until they start getting killed. But letting women kill challenges the most fundamental tenets of sexual identity. Even Israel has pulled its women back from the most dangerous zones.

The army is right to realise that giving women bayonets breaks the last taboo - but the army is wrong not to do it now. If they wait until society - the frightened men - are ready for it, it could be a long time.

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