The provo­ca­teur: women don’t be­long in close com­bat

With fe­male sol­diers poised to en­ter the in­fantry, Ma­jor Ju­dith Webb, the first woman to com­mand an all-male field squadron, ex­plains why she’s firmly against the move

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WE ARE NOW months away from women be­ing able to join the in­fantry – our front­line of foot sol­diers in the Bri­tish Army. And while I of course be­lieve that women are equal to men, we are def­i­nitely not the same. In­fantry sol­diers travel miles in ex­treme con­di­tions, car­ry­ing sur­vival packs in­clud­ing am­mu­ni­tion and ra­dios. Cur­rently, male re­cruits must run eight miles in heavy boots with 25kg back­packs to be ac­cepted and I be­lieve that open­ing the ranks to women will di­min­ish the strength of our world-renowned mil­i­tary.

I don’t say this lightly. Ev­ery day, women in our forces con­trib­ute a huge amount. From de­liv­er­ing am­mu­ni­tion to the front­line to car­ry­ing out hu­man­i­tar­ian work in some of the most dan­ger­ous places on earth – they stand along­side their broth­ers and sis­ters in arms. But be­ing in the in­fantry means look­ing the en­emy in the eye and stick­ing a bay­o­net in him. I’m not sug­gest­ing a woman can’t do that, but the in­fantry sol­dier has to search out the en­emy on foot, car­ry­ing a heavy pack – that’s what takes a level of strength women sim­ply do not pos­sess.

In 1982, I was the first woman to com­mand a field squadron of 150 sol­diers – only four were women. I used to spend 26 weeks a year in the field, pro­vid­ing mo­bile com­mu­ni­ca­tions for NATO for­ma­tions. We were de­ployed with 40 heavy ve­hi­cles, gen­er­a­tors, tents, equip­ment… We all car­ried weapons and de­fence of our lo­ca­tion was crit­i­cal. The women got stuck in, but it was sim­ply more ef­fi­cient for male sol­diers to carry out the heavy-lift­ing jobs. That doesn’t mean women were left with the cook­ing; they were highly trained tech­ni­cians.

Last month, the RAF be­came the first Armed Forces branch to ad­mit women to all roles, part of a roll-out that be­gan un­der then-pm David Cameron, sched­uled for com­ple­tion in 2018. Roles for women in­clud­ing ar­tillery, engi­neer­ing and even in tank units have been open­ing up as women have demon­strated their ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The fi­nal bas­tion will be the in­fantry be­cause it is by far the most phys­i­cally de­mand­ing.

The fact is women are not ‘con­structed’ to be in­fantry sol­diers. And if the army has to drop its stan­dards to ad­mit women (there are plans to re­vise the re­quire­ments), then surely that can’t be a good thing. It’s not a good thing for the women, ei­ther.

There was a com­bat sol­dier in Amer­ica called Cap­tain Katie Petro­nio. She was in­cred­i­bly strong and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the phys­i­cal de­mands took a huge toll, to the ex­tent that they even af­fected her fer­til­ity. Af­ter five years, she ad­mit­ted, ‘I am phys­i­cally not the woman I once was. My views have greatly changed on the pos­si­bil­ity of women hav­ing suc­cess­ful long ca­reers while serv­ing in the in­fantry.’

There’s no doubt­ing a woman’s courage, com­pe­tence and abil­ity to be ag­gres­sive if nec­es­sary. And I’d ar­gue that we’re bet­ter than men at an aw­ful lot of things, but the phys­i­cal de­mands made of an in­fantry sol­dier are too great for the fe­male physique.

In 2011, Lance Cor­po­ral Kylie Wat­son, a fe­male medic, was awarded the Mil­i­tary Cross af­ter risk­ing her life to treat two gravely wounded Afghan sol­diers. For 20 min­utes, she tried to re­sus­ci­tate them while bul­lets smashed into the dust around her. She also ran 100m un­der fire to save an­other Afghan sol­dier who’d been shot in the pelvis. This in­cred­i­ble story shows women are well up to be­ing on the front­line. The point is she didn’t have to have 80lbs on her back and yomp for five miles to get there.

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