#CCLKOW: Colonel Laurens: Women in the Combat Arms? ‘It’s so bloody obvious we should do it.’

Dear readers, this week brings the return of Colonel Laurens, who has written on women in close combat. Understanding in general terms that his views were on the positive side of inclusion, I asked him to write something on his thoughts. His first response was to decline, having little meaningful to say, as ‘it’s so bloody obvious we should do it.’‎ I will leave you to imagine the extent to which I appreciated that sentiment. Nevertheless, I do not think the idea is obvious to many, and so this reason to demur in fact formed the basis for this piece and the need for his position to be heard. Unintentionally radical, this opinion changes the dynamic of the issue. Rather than having to argue why, than assuming the exclusion was natural and correct, his view put the opponent upon the hot seat. What he has written is a very forthright examination of the arc of his opinions and experiences on the subject, managing a balance between pragmatism, idealism, and the occasional light-heartedness. The result is a piece which forces a hard reckoning with the many assumptions surrounding military service, gender, biology, requirements, and more.

Of course, the situation in the UK differs from that across the pond; the armed forces in the US are moving ahead with gender integration of all jobs. However, it is early days for the latter experiment, and its success will depend to a large degree on how well and how quickly people accept the change in the status quo. Thus, the examination of personal perspectives on the issue, and their resulting influence upon institutional change, remains as relevant for the Americans as the British.

Enjoy the piece, consider the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.

Aged 18, I left my all male schooling. At the time, head of the school CCF and an aspirant Army Bursar, I too subscribed to the train of thought that women shouldn’t be able to join the tougher bits of the Army. After all, I thought, for a woman to do so was too lacking in femininity (‘Just wrong’ I remember hearing myself say), or simply beyond them (except a very few, and so what’s the point?), or bad for the chaps who served on the front line, who surely would either sacrifice themselves for their female comrades (especially the pretty ones) or have their bonding and bravura negatively affected, thus reducing their capacity to kill Her Majesty’s Enemies. That’s what I thought, based upon my experience of women, which was almost zero.

And then I went to university. I was a good enough runner to eventually earn my colours, and in the athletics squad. 10km road races were my speciality and at the first training session, as the really fast guys shot off in pairs on the training run, I met my partner — the female Captain of the team. She was tiny. And she could run, pushing me to my limits as she helped me improve my times. I also discovered after about six months that she was deaf in one ear; sadly that had been the ear I’d been trying my luck in for each of our runs. Later, I also found out that she (and other women) could do things on top. On top! Imagine. And not just on horses.

The cleverest student on my university course was a woman, as was the hardest working student on it. At OTC, there were women everywhere. I even had to salute some of them. They made good Platoon Commanders, I remember, because they would listen, but then were more ruthless and determined than the men once the orders had been given. I remember one particular attack round robin we all went through where the female Platoon Commander insisted on us going the long way round — I mean long way round, outside of the template the originators had envisaged. And I remember that most of us survived that TES battle, where the other platoons never really got past their LD.

I didn’t join the Army straight away. The City was next for me. That was a very macho culture where one’s weaknesses were brutally exposed. One of our Associate Partners (i.e. boss) was a woman. She was quite brilliant. We had homosexuals, too, in our team. At least I think we did. We never really talked about gender, sexuality or sex because the rules were simple — if you were good enough, then every year a 25% pay rise. If you weren’t, you got sacked. And nobody was measuring whether you had balls or not, or what you did with them if you did.

In some of the best times of my life, at university, and during some of the most testing times in the early 90’s City atmosphere, I saw enough of women to know that they were equal to men.

But I haven’t only met fantastically successful women. I remember women getting sacked left right and centre in the city (like some men). I remember the hopeless women at OTC (just like some men) and the bimbos on my university course who slept around (just like some men). Each of those sets of people behaved inappropriately and suffered, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, as a result. That’s how life is.

The British army is the most meritocratic, life enhancing, enervating, vicious, visceral employment possible. One of our genuine successes as a Country. It is absolutely beyond my scope of understanding, given how women have performed on recent operations, and given the mood of the country, that anybody should still seriously argue that they should be denied access to parts of the Army. In fact, the British Army is currently training female Peshmerga to fight IS; Kurdish women are closing with and killing Daesh, and some are killed whilst doing so. And whilst I don’t wish to equate my pathetic OTC infantry experiences with the tough business of a career in light role infantry, I am in a reasonable positon to judge; I am a combat officer and I’ve commanded hundreds of combat soldiers.

And when they’re here, we’ll all benefit. Allowing women to join should ensure that we define our standards. That we define exactly what it is that an infanteer has to be able to carry, to lift, how far to run and how hungry he or she might have to be and still find the courage to stick a bayonet in someone else’s (hopefully) face. We will know, too, exactly how strong the tank operator needs to be to throw three-piece ammunition in a moving, spinning turret, presumably whilst producing a brew for the commander. We’ll know the resilience required to sit al fresco in a Jackal, and the brains and cunning needed to survive on Ajax. In essence, the boys will get better because the girls are there; the opportunity presented by the definition of standards is potentially a once in a generation opportunity to bequeath something enduring, welcome, and militarily useful.

Some women will pass the courses. Those who fail will do exactly as the men do — go home, or try again. Those who pass the course will join Regiments and Battalions where women already serve, routinely, right up to the point of the delivery of violence. They will hear female voices on the radios from the Engineers and Artillery. They will be served by cooks and clerks where there are plenty of women serving. Their arrival will be met by their peers without missing a heartbeat or intake of breath. And if the arrival of women is anything like the arrival of the other forbidden fruit, homosexuals, then the whole thing will be the biggest anti-climax since, well, since homosexuals arrived. Because soldiers at Regimental Duty care about one thing — are you any good at your job? If you are, then it is my experience that those soldiers will welcome you, perhaps albeit only once you’ve proved yourself.

And of course it is almost inevitable that as a large organisation there will be those who find the change wrong, or who struggle to cope with the rational. Every organisation I know employs people like that. This is not a problem that only the military faces. And if they say, or do, anything that’s wrong, they’ll get hit by the AGAI (employment law) system, and if they do or say anything illegal, then they’ll also get hit by Army law. I hope that same is true of our former members who voice opinions whenever offered the chance. I wonder if they’d be allowed to get away with it if we replaced the word ‘woman’ with the word ‘black’ or ‘muslim’ or ‘homosexual’ or ‘Scouser’ or ‘Gypo’ (or all five at once, I guess). And I use that comparison deliberately, noting that none of the detractors have said anything like it; but that is how potentially illegal, old fashioned, and unwelcome your views are amongst the serving Army. And this is a really important point. This is not about progressiveness for the sake of it. Nobody I know is suggesting quotas or quick promotion or exposure to authority to look good in the media. This will take twenty years to play out. This is about talent and the Army making the most of it. How on earth are we supposed to appeal to the broadest range of our society, who we need to fight successfully in the contemporary operating environment, if we are closed to any of them? And this isn’t just about fighting. Anybody reading studies of team and organisational dynamics will understand that women add much to all levels of decision making and leadership in organisations. It is a wonder to me that we have flourished without them in (arguably) our key tactical decision making nodes. And believe me the toughness at the core of the Army won’t be changed. We have all sorts of things in place — such as the Army Leadership Code — which means we’re in a far better place than previously to understand the nuances and techniques required to lead and to manage in the modern world, but there remains an intolerance of poor standards of behaviour or professionalism. Nobody panders to people who offer only that.

I understand there is concern about the physiology of the women who will attend. I’m not sure that’s a surprise to anybody serving. Serving is hard work, and it takes a toll. Knees, ankles, shoulders, backs, all get damaged, regardless of one’s gender. And I wager — this is entirely based upon perceived maturity — that the female soldiers may be more likely than the men to listen to the advice on holistic lifestyle that the Army offers. It’s at least in part diet and restraint from alcoholic excess that helps one stay fit; and the opposite that contributes to injury and decline. The advice, progressive training programmes and recovery facilities are there. And even if there are different physiological problems for women, that does not change much. Maybe fewer will pass, or last a full career. So what? So long as standards are maintained, the point is that those who are up to it will pass and will flourish. Sandhurst, too, will struggle to find a balance between the encouragement and support garnered by all female platoons and the equality of mixed platoons because the course is so physical and men will, I imagine, tend to burn brightest. That’s great for the aspirant female combat officers but less so for the rest. However, I do know who will judge fairly, harshly, evenly, and will not let anything slide, and that is the training staff at Sandhurst. Nobody’s getting through that place without deserving to, and nobody’s going to undermine the fabric of the whole by crying ‘woman’ (or ‘homosexual’ or ‘black’) if they’re not good enough. I expect, though, by the end of the first year of acceptance, those women with combat potential are flourishing and having Colour Sergeants drop hints that they should joining their battalion. And if one needs to break a few eggs to make an omelette, so be it; but the best women will make it through.

And I think we need to be serious, and seize and maintain the initiative, on this subject. It is absolutely the right of those who have served and left to have a view contrary to mine. But the current generation will not let old, regressive, white, middle class men drag our institution down; we are a welcoming and inclusive organisation in which prejudice and assumption have no place. The battle for the minds of the serving soldiers is won. Many of the detractors of the proposed changes fought in tough campaigns like N Ireland, Bosnia and the Falklands. But it was in a different Army. Many of the legacies of that time are positive, but some are unwelcome; it was a generation that fought hard but also gave some hospital passes. The use of the Military Justice System, the approaches taken to Defence Equipment, use of alcohol, attitudes to homosexuals and other minorities are all examples of cultural hospital passes received from those who now claim the privilege of advising us on what women should and shouldn’t be able to do. Those of us who are serving are driving forward into an era where we grab the talent this country has and wring everything we can out of it. I can assure you that detractors are completely out of touch with how almost all of us feel.

My experience has taught me that the 18 year old me was naïve, inexperienced, and wrong about the capabilities of women. Let’s grow up get on with it. It’s really not a big deal.

Editorial Postscript: I am adding here, at the end, some further thoughts which follow from Colonel Laurens’ narrative.

Consider the author’s proposition: If it is “so bloody obvious,” this suggests the combat arms and armed forces and government have been lacking for the absence of women. That is, the tactical, strategic, and political levels have endured a significant gap in capabilities. There is, then, much that has been missing across the board, and there is likely much that will (should) change with the transition to a gender balanced force. Rather than approach the problem as ‘how to make women fit the extant (male-shaped) construct,’ it may more profitably be ‘how to make this a construct which is a reflection of both male and female capabilities,’ thus taking advantage the latter’s strengths. Looking just at one very limited area as an example, this means a serious reckoning of what is necessary for the individual infanteer, and then what are the needs of an infantry unit. Against these needs, one would then consider the different capabilities which are gender specific and universal. Don’t believe the hype, not everyone needs to bring the brawn to the battlefield. Just as any infantry unit contains a mix of weapons, so too should they consider a similar spread of physiques. While the big guy may in fact be the one to carry more weight, but then the smaller guy will be the ones to crawl around in unpleasant spaces. It is not an unfair trade-off, and it will be reflected across the composition of units. Such similar reconsideration would have to be given to other specialties, as well as to such issues as leadership, strategy, and so on.

All of which represents a real reorientation of the thinking and approach to the issue. And it fundamentally depends upon the position narrated in this piece. In the nicest possible way utterly contradicts the author’s initial demurral that he had nothing particularly “controversial” to say on the subject. — JSR

Questions for discussion:

What effect does the initial assumption of whether women belong have upon the transition to fully gender integrated armed forces? Would it make the transition easier, more positive and constructive?

As an exercise, take the position for yourself that is so bloody obvious: what might this perspective look like? How does it affect your view of women’s service in the combat arms?