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
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.