Debates on gender in the British military have resurfaced in their usual polarised forms, as the UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond ponders the possibility of allowing women to serve in “frontline” combat roles. There is plenty written on this, especially in the media, but this brief article will touch upon some of the issues that seem to be conspicuously lacking from the debate. The article provides a critique of the concept of the “frontline”, and surveys the banality of the rejection of women in combat roles and the paradoxical sexism against men, also, in this institution.
Frontline combat is the issue here. Yet, it seems bizarre to even make this distinction. What is the frontline, exactly? In a military context, it is that part of the fighting force that is closest to the enemy. Women currently take part in many roles that would fit this definition (one that, like many, effectively goes out of the window in a counterinsurgency environment). Women have been immersed in roles in Afghanistan that involve them being on the ground, armed, and very close to the “enemy”, whoever that is, for example as intelligence operators and combat medics. In some ways, therefore, this reform is simply a technicality to bring every unit into line with what is already happening elsewhere (and this is not to mention all of the countries already employing women in frontline combat). Some parts of the military are formed and trained exclusively for close combat on the frontline. This is what it is being proposed that women are allowed to join – a unit that is calibrated to operate at the “sharp end” and therefore naturally carries a higher risk of injury and fatality for its personnel.
The complaints about the prospect of women serving on the frontline are dull and rely heavily on assumptions and statistics. The kind of throw-away comments that garner a belch of laughter from the audience on Top Gear but not much else. While it is not worth spending too much time on these criticisms, they roughly break down into two categories:
- The woman is likely to distract the men from fighting; and/or
- The woman is not physically fit enough to do the job properly.
Sexuality is at the core of the first argument. Situating the woman as the source of distraction leads to assumptions of promiscuity, the blame for such distraction landing squarely on the woman’s body. This argument is also reflective the Ministry of Defence’s concerns about women being a threat to “maintaining team cohesion in small mixed gender tactical teams” up until 2010 (although apparently this is being quickly forgotten). The obsession with the difference between male and female reproductive capacities in the military aside, there is a further interest in women’s ability to deal with the mental and physical stresses and strains of military life.
Concerns about women’s physical ability to do the same jobs as men do in the military are commonly cited when it looks like there might be a step towards equality in the opportunity to be placed in highly dangerous roles. However, these arguments eventually fail when facts are produced (ironically, it is usually pseudo-scientific claims about upper-body strength, ability to live in harsh conditions, and so on, that are used to counter these points). A review conducted by the Royal Navy concluded in 2011 that health concerns related to women serving in submarines were “unfounded”. And now, just earlier this month, the three first female submariner officers have completed their training. Of course, none of the suspected problems have occurred whatsoever. Are men and women so uncontrollably sexualised that they cannot do their jobs properly side-by-side? Apparently not. So what is the next complaint raised about this equalisation?
The exclusive right to die a heroic death
The insult to men and women alike is present also on the idea of natural aggression. A common argument not employed by the MoD but commonly read in the Hellish comment sections of various news websites against women being on the frontline is that they are not naturally able to do the same job as their male counterparts in infantry units. Killing people. It’s quite often not put across that way, but however you wish to dress it up, the suggestion is that women won’t kill people as well as men will. Here’s an interesting point: who is that more offensive towards? The women, who are seen as too pathetic to carry out this violent deed? Or the men, who are presumed to be naturally capable of extreme (“controlled”) violence?
Nobody is supposed to be born violent, are they? Aren’t we all educated to be peaceful? Isn’t this why the military has to teach their new personnel how to be aggressive, how to use lethal force, and the circumstances under which it may be used? The UK is a society that favours nonviolence, insofar as the state, like most states, seeks to work towards and retain its “monopoly on violence”. Of course the state does not have a total monopoly on violence, but it aims to come as close as it can to this as possible.
Via a system of laws, institutions, uniforms, personnel, equipment and buildings, the state will arrest and imprison those who try to carry out violence for private reasons. Using a system featuring the exact same means, the state prosecutes violence against others in war. Through this system, the “criminal” is created as an immoral, depraved figure, dressed in a jumpsuit perhaps, living in a prison. Meanwhile, the “soldier” is similarly constructed in the popular discourse as a brave, heroic, physically fit, inherently moral character. Through this system, the state’s monopoly on violence is maintained. Through the image of the criminal, and associated practices, others wishing to make a claim to that ownership of violence are blocked and taken away from the rest of society. The latter image, that of the hero holds quite some purchase, one that naturally men wish to hold on to, but their honour is a false one; in fact the heroic image covers-up for what is and has been the most sexist institution imaginable. That is, sexist against men as well as women.
The practice of barring women from the frontline has been thoroughly criticised as a sexist practice, but in which direction is this sexism really? Yes, it is sexist to prevent women from doing a job on an equal basis to men and that is surely no good. But there is more to this. By maintaining a policy where only men may serve as part of frontline units, the UK continues a blatant yet never uttered practice of defining men as disposable and women as not. The male retains the exclusive right to a greater chance to die a hero, but is this really a good thing for those men to hold on to? Although dressed-up in heroic imagery, the reality is that society has long passively accepted that it is, frankly, okay for men to be more likely to die than women are.
Thank you to Melanie Algar for providing some much-needed insight into this topic. The mistakes and claims are, as ever, my own. Images used in this article are subject to Crown Copyright.
To cite this article
Gilberto Algar-Faria (2014), ‘Gender and the “frontline” in the British military’, algarfaria.com, 12 May, available from: https://algarfaria.com/2014/05/12/gender-and-the-frontline-in-the-british-military/.