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Live from Abu Dhabi Connect the World takes you on a journey across continents, investigating the stories that are changing our world.

Women in combat: A change for the better?

January 24th, 2013
10:39 PM ET

After the decision to drop the U.S. military ban on women in combat, Connect the World debates the issue with two retired military officers.

Major Judy Webb
The first woman to command an all-male Field Force unit in the British Army

Having joined the British Army at a time when women were not expected to pursue careers – flower arranging was part of our training and I was paid 60% of male rates of pay – I fought very hard for female equality. I am not therefore suggesting that women are anything other than equal. Neither am I suggesting that they do not have the psychological, emotional toughness to cope with combat. Women have proved beyond question that they cope extraordinarily well in combat situations. Of course they are already in combat roles, on the front line (a non existent concept in modern warfare) and time and again, they have proved their worth, demonstrating flexibility and commitment. I am fully aware of the very significant changes which have taken place to give women good, equal careers within the Army, Navy and Air Force.

However, when it comes to women in the infantry, I feel strongly that our physical differences have to be taken into consideration; women do not have the upper body strength and, despite the fact that a few have demonstrated extraordinary levels of fitness, their longevity in a combat role has not been fully tested. My concern is about reducing the combat effectiveness of our infantry. Once the gates have been opened to women, they won’t be able to close them and, to date, the British Army has been, sometimes frustratingly slow in its acceptance of women. Afghanistan has been a turning point – women have been gradually accepted and integrated, quite rightly, into roles which were I suspect, considered totally unacceptable even 5 years ago.

But the infantry is a huge step and one that has not been fully tested. I quote the example of Captain Katie Petronio, an extremely physically fit American Engineering Officer, who spent some 7 months deployed in a particularly physically demanding role and who suffered severe permanent physical damage – including infertility.

Let the Americans make the mistakes before we try to introduce women into the infantry in the British Army. “Suck it and see” is not an option in combat.

Lt. Col. Mikey Kay
Retired British Military Officer

This isn’t a ‘shoot from the hip’ decision with no considered thought – it is a debate that has been circling for decades. There is now, more than ever, sufficient evidence to indicate that certain woman have the right qualifications, as well as the physical and psychological attributes, to operate with the same effectiveness as their male counterparts in combat roles.

The question should not reside upon gender, but the ability to get the job done. We all have strengths and weaknesses; some soldiers are as strong as an Ox, some can sprint like the wind, some can march to the ends of the earth, some have the resilience of a camel, but most are capable across the playing field. To those that question a woman’s endurance: a 73-year-old Japanese lady climbed Everest for the second time in May 2012, (the first time she was 63); women are successfully walking to the North Pole and sailing solo around the world; and women are competing as professional athletes at levels most men would dream of reaching.

To those that question a women’s ‘stomach’ for the atrocities of war, females are part of the fabric of contemporary warfare and have been for years. Interrogators, combat medics, assault helicopter and close air support jet pilots, submariners, engineers, and intelligence officers are just some of the roles that females currently undertake with significant effect. This year we will also witness the first women embarking on U.S. attack submarines and the opening of infantry and armor roles. 292,000 U.S. female military personnel have deployed on operations to Iraq and Afghanistan and 152 have lost their lives – women have earned the right to be considered for selection and training in all combat roles.

Such career paths will, in reality, not appeal to most of the U.S. female population, in fact many men would not be attracted to a life in the infantry (I include myself). The few that have the desire will become fewer as they proceed through the rigors of selection and combat training. Teething problems will occur as men that have been operating in the military for decades adjust – it is human nature and should be expected. Embracing women in the infantry and amour battalions will require strong leadership at all levels of the command structure. Women should expect the same treatment as their male counterparts. Review procedures regarding female recruits who do not make the grade need to be watertight. Basic training instructors will need support to ensure they are taking the right approach, and infantry training establishments should include women on the staff as soon as possible (if they are not doing so already). Problems should be expected, but it is only a matter of time before women in all combat roles across all militaries becomes the norm.

Filed under:  American politics • Analysis • Becky's Interviews
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Jack

    First of all why are we even concerned what Brits have to say about the US Military? I don’t care what the Brits have to say …they don’t matter in OUR sovereign matters. First there’s Piers Morgan now Becky??? CNN… get some American commentators for American issues.

    If you want to know about tea problems then ask the Brits.

    January 26, 2013 at 4:51 am | Reply
    • papajeuhn

      Concur, the military might of the British Empire has long since faded... yet they still run around like they matter when it comes to such matters... akin to banty roosters.

      I am so adverse to females serving in combat MOSs and such... so long as they can meet the physical fitness requirements such demands (like carrying a 27 lb M240B, plus ammo, plus 60 lb ruck, kevlar, etc)...and this is for a "regular" grunt. As far as opening SOF combat MOSs to females... again... meet physical requirements (same above plus more: 110 lbs ruck for 25 km, 5 mile run in 40 minutes or less, 2-mile swim, etc). But I question if in fact standards would instead be lowered to open such up to females. This would be an issue in that such could pose issues in actual combat situations where you have to rely on one another and such.


      January 27, 2013 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  2. Dervid

    So long as the physical standards ARE THE SAME, I don't see a problem with it (althought 90 guys and 1 girl - the gys are gonna get horny even if she's fugly!), but very few women will be able to meet them. Hell, the standards for men in some of the services are a little questionable - raise the bar!

    January 27, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Reply
  3. Paul

    What drives me nuts is this... this story is about female Air Force Medics being unique in that they enter combat with their male counterparts? The Army has the same thing... all across the branch. Any unit in the Army can, and has on many occasions received agmentative medics that are females, not to mention many units that end up on QRF or routine missions end up with female medics as dismounts. How do I know? I've deployed with them, several times, and am currently engaged to a female medic that's encountered more fire fights than I have, and I've deployed more times! The Air Force mimicked the routine from the Army, and this story is missing a big chunk of the story and missing the actual truth of the matter. The Army's been doing this behavior, on a wider scale, for longer. Period. I think female Army medics, as well as MPs and Intel crews, all across the board deserve credit for what they've done, not just this one unit in the Air Force that's being highlighted here. It's nothing against them, OR the Air Force, I just think credit is due where it's due.

    January 28, 2013 at 9:41 am | Reply

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