As the US military ends its ban on women in combat roles, the first woman in the British Army to command an all-male field force squadron tells Channel 4 News that women should not join the infantry.
Speaking on the day US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta promised to integrate women “to the maximum extent possible” in the military, retired Major Judith Webb said she was against the move.
Major Webb told Channel 4 News: “It has nothing to do with the emotional side, bravery or courage – it’s about the physical demands.
“I used to feel there was more to it than that but there isn’t, it just comes down to the physical”, she added.
It is a view shared by US marine Captain Katie Petronio whose article “Get over it! We are not all created equal” was published in the Marine Corps Gazette last year.
The physical toll is harder on women, Captain Petronio argues, adding that after five years in the marines she is “not physically the woman I once was and my views have greatly changed on the possibility of women having successful long careers while serving in the infantry”.
A combat-experienced officer, Captain Petronio’s stints in Iraq and Afghanistan have left her with restless leg syndrome and muscle atrophy, and rendered her infertile.
“At the end of the 7-month deployment…I had lost 17 pounds and was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (which personally resulted in infertility, but is not a genetic trend in my family), which was brought on by the chemical and physical changes endured during deployment,” she said.
Major Webb said that in her experience the British Army were more measured in their approach to women and women’s health than the American military.
“I know of one (American) woman who was called up while she was in labour and deployed two weeks later – she didn’t see her baby until 11 months later,” she said.
Despite deeming the US military “more gung-ho”, Major Webb said Britain is right not to allow women in the infantry. Not simply for the sake of women’s health, but to retain the high standard of the men’s fitness.
For women to join the infantry, the military would have to reduce the level of fitness required, which would not benefit the men, she argues.
“We cannot reduce the combat effectiveness of men,” she said.
Captain Petronio added that placing women in the infantry “will not improve the Marine Corps as the Nation’s force-in-readiness or improve our national security”.
Indeed, when the UK’s Ministry of Defence reviewed the rule to exclude women from combat roles in 2010, it was unable to find any scientific data examining the effects of women in close-combat teams.
“It appears currently that no such information exists,” the MoD reported.
Given the lack of research, the MoD based its decision on the military’s judgement – which was to continue to exclude women from infantry or combat teams.
To admit women would, therefore, involve a risk with no gains in terms of combat effectiveness to offset it. Ministry of Defence, 2010
The MoD concluded that to admit women would involve a “risk with no gains in terms of combat effectiveness to offset it”.
It added: “The continued exclusion of women from ground close-combat roles was a proportionate means of maintaining the combat effectiveness of the Armed Forces, and was not based on a stereotypical view of women’s abilities but on the potential risks associated with maintaining cohesion in small mixed-gender tactical teams engaged in highly-dangerous close-combat operations.”
Many countries do employ women successfully in mixed gender combat teams, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Israel and Germany.
However, in practice the MoD found that there has been “slow progress” recruiting women – with women in combat roles representing only a small percentage of the total number in the Armed Forces.
In France, women make up just 1.7 per cent of combat troops. Meanwhile, in Canada – which has been fully committed to the integration of women in combat roles – between 1989 and 2006 the number of women in combat roles grew just 3.5 per cent.
According to the MoD, the Canadians blame the slow burn on family responsibilities, concerns over physical fitness, career progression and negativity from male colleagues.
Many women however have cheered America’s move to open thousands of fighting jobs to female service members for the first time. Anu Bhagwati, a former marine captain and head of the Service Women’s Action Network, said her decision to leave the Marine Corps in 2004 was party due to the combat exclusion policy.
“I know countless women whose careers have been stunted by combat exclusion in all the branches,” said Bhagwati, who called the decision an “historic moment.”
“I didn’t expect it to come so soon,” she said.
It will happen here – there will be lawsuits if it doesn’t – the MoD will be terrified. Major Judith Webb
Meanwhile Peggy Reiber, who retired from the Marine Corp 16 years ago said: “Everyone serving in Iraq and Afghanistan is in combat by the very nature of those conflicts. Women have certainly fought equally and died equally, it’s time we were recognised equally.”
Staff Sergeant Tiffany Evans, a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, said it was an overdue recognition for women. “I feel like it’s beyond time,” she added.
With the US lifting the ban, pressure may fall on the UK to follow suit.
Major Webb said: “What happens in the US invariably happens here a few years later.” The problem is that it is untested, she said. “We can’t just suck it and see,” she said.
“But let the Americans do it first. It will happen here – there will be lawsuits if it doesn’t – the MoD will be terrified.”