Should women and transgender soldiers have a combat role in the British Army?

British Army female soldier

At a time when the role of women in close combat is still under review Lieutenant General Andrew Gregory, deputy chief of defence staff (personnel and training) acknowledged that transgender soldiers could serve in the British infantry in close combat roles stating that men who became women might still be eligible for such roles.

Lieutenant General Gregory was quoted by LGBT news outlet PinkNews as saying:

“We have (transgender people) serving as I’m sure you know. We do not yet have any … transgender (women) serving in the infantry. We haven’t had to address it because we haven’t had the issue come up. It would be a very interesting test case if it did come up. If somebody, birth gender male, who physically has all the physical strength and durability but had transitioned (to female), they might well be able.”

Gregory’s words are very interesting and obviously well considered. He is repeating the Army’s old “party line” regarding women in combat that women do not have the physical strength of men which makes them unsuitable for a combat role however soldiers who are female by choice may still posses that strength and therefore be eligible for a combat role. This has been something hotly debated on both sides of the argument with feminists and female athletes especially arguing against the Army’s attitude that women are physically inferior. Lieutenant General Gregory’s views also show a certain lack of knowledge regarding the transgender process as he still makes the distinction that the soldier would still have primarily male attributes despite the hormonal replacement therapy required for such a process which in effect feminizes the individual and therefore makes them more in line with female soldiers.

Last December, defence secretary Michael Fallon said that women could, in principle, serve in roles that involve close combat but that a final decision would only be made after sufficient research into whether women could complete required physical tests is carried out. Such tests include carrying heavy loads over long distances the importance of which was reaffirmed by the British Army during the 1982 Falklands War when the loss of heavylift helicopters in combat forced British soldiers and marines to make a superhuman effort to carry all their equipment in to combat. Many men suffered injuries from the sheer weight of their packs as they literally had to carry everything they needed from weapons down to food. There has long been those in the Army’s hierarchy that argue that women could not make a similar undertaking should such a need arise again.

What worries many campaigners is that both Gregory and Fallon’s words are quite stereotyping in nature as both make generalising comments regarding women’s abilities. They point out that both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have had women in combat for quite some time but even this has caused friction with the Army’s views. In 2006 Major James Loden of 3 Para said to British newspapers that during combat operations in Afghanistan;

“A female Harrier pilot ‘couldn’t identify the target’, fired two phosphorus rockets that just missed our own compound so that we thought they were incoming RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], and then strafed our perimeter missing the enemy by 200 metres,”

Major Loden made the remarks when listing numerous grievances the Army apparently had with the RAF but what is worrying is that he specifically pointed out the pilot’s gender. He therefore implied (perhaps unintentionally but certainly subconsciously) that the pilot’s gender was a factor in her inability to find the target for he never referred to any male pilots by their gender.

So why does the Army seem so reluctant to allow women to serve on the frontline?

As pointed out by both Fallon and Gregory the main reason is physical abilities but how long will this wash with women who want to fight for their country. In a meritocratic society they argue that rather than say all women aren’t as strong as men there should be a universal test for men and women (by birth or by choice) to determine whether an individual is suitable both physically and psychologically to fight in close combat on the frontlines.

There are other factors that need to be considered also. An increasingly big factor is the response from allied Muslim countries in the fight against Islamic State and other extremist organizations to having British female soldiers or officers. This is something that cannot be ignored as cooperation with such Muslim armed forces is essential and in those situations the Army would have to make some concessions through no fault of its own.

There are those in the Army that believe that women in combat would erode the traditions of the Army. Few Armies have such rich traditions as the British Army and it remains a fundamental part of its existence with new recruits indoctrinated in to their regiment’s traditions and exploits. They also argue that the infantry way of life is an especially close-knit male environment and that female interaction would upset cohesion in these units. However an Army must be fluid in order to advance and remain potent. The nature of soldiering has not only changed from the days of Knights on horseback but is almost unrecognisable from World War II! The fighting spirit remains a vital factor however and Army traditionalists again argue that women lack the killer instinct and competitive spirit of men.

It has to be said that these are worryingly old fashioned positions regarding gender in the 21st century. If an individual regardless of gender, race, religion or even age can meet the necessary requirements both physical and psychological to be in combat then why should they be barred from serving their country?