Thursday 5 June 2014

Women in the Military

Women in the Military

Earlier today I read Mark Richardsons article Changing the military for what purpose? and I am in total agreement, but it reminded me that I have thoughts on this issue that I haven't written down and that I should do so. This will be unlike other articles as here I will be talking abit about my personal experience and the lessons learnt from them.

In 1987 I enlisted in the Australian Army Reserve and I served until 1994, nearly all of my service was in a  signal platoon within an infantry battalion. Unlike the regular Army were you train and are then assigned to a unit, in the reserves you join a unit and then do your training. When I went to do my basic training I was in a platoon that was 1/3rd female, 2/3rd male, with a male platoon commander and a female sergeant. Each of the three sections within the platoon had it's own hut in which we slept and kept our equipment. The platoon trained together and there was one area in which the females were much better, drill. But there was another area where they were terrible and that was the assault course. Near the end of our training the platoon had a forced march, crossing a barbed wire obstacle, did a firemens carry and crossed a water obstacle, all to be done within a particular time limit. It was hard going, I was very fit and eager, but unlike now I was a very skinny stick figure, good for endurance but not for carrying weight. Of course we also carried our personal equipment and our rifle during this. By the time we got through the barbed wire the males were very tired but the females were defeated. They were beyond tired, they couldn't think or talk, to complete the course we took their rifles and equipment off them and carried it, but that wasn't enough we had to push or pull them along to get through the course.

We all finished and were very happy about it but it was a very revealing event. Rarely in life do men and women do the exact same physical activity and at someones else's pace. Here it was and it showed how very different the male mind and body was to the female's. It wasn't a slight difference but in a totally different league. I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea, when I finished the assault course I felt like I was going to die, it was bloody tough. But I finished it carrying my own equipment and someone else's.

I remember the female sergeant saying she was against females doing combat roles in the Army but some of the female recruits being for it. It was a common theme I saw during my service, newly enlisted women wanting to conquer the world (or at the least the Army), and more experienced women saying no thanks I'm only interested in doing my job.

In 1984 the Australian Parliament passed the Equal Opportunity Act and the Armed Forces were the only area in which it did not apply. But some of the attitudes of the time did reach into the Army and the Eighties were a time in the Australian Army in which unofficially boundaries were pushed. My unit was an infantry battalion, all male, but it was also a reserve unit and it recruited from the local community. If a women wants to enlist and her local unit is all male what should the Army do? Well in the Eighties it was decided that they could serve in a non combat support role within the infantry battalion and if the battalion was mobilised for war they would be detached to other duties. So then they started looking within the battalion for where they could fit and one of the places was my sub-unit, the signals platoon.

Within a signals platoon there are basically three jobs, maintaining the Communications Post (CP), running telephone lines out to different points and the repairing and defending of the telephone lines and company signalers (which I did) who 's job was to make sure the company commanders had communication back to the CP.  Both company signalers and linesmen are very physical jobs, only CP duty is a non combat role in a platoon who's primary mission isn't combat but providing communications.

The little experiment went on for a few years until someone up top remembered their own rules and it was stopped. But in that time I served with and observed a number of female soldiers and these are my observations. Non of the women I served with would have thought of themselves as Feminists, they joined mostly because of patriotism, although like most of the men who also joined for that reason they would have denied it. Everyone liked to pretend to be much more cynical than they really were. Family history played a part, a Father or Grandfathers service was important, again this was true for the men. And many seemed abit of an outsider, a little tomboyish. Many of them did valuable service and did their job to the best of their ability, in the right job they were an asset to the Army.

But I also observed limitations, a lack of physical strength and stamina, a lack of mental toughness, a desire for creature comforts, no desire to get dirty, a naivety about how easy things can be, once in a position the desire to remain there and become the "expert". Add to that the distraction of soldiers, NCO's and Officers when women are around, you may say they cannot help that and you would be correct, but nor can the men help it, it's biology and it can and does cause all kinds of problems.

If women are to remain in the Armed Forces then they should serve in womens services, as they once did. They protected women by providing a female command structure that had male oversight. They did jobs that the Army needs done. But like Chaplains, they should only be trained to protect themselves, not as combat or combat support troops. There are plenty of men who want those jobs and who will do them better.

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