Women under fire

 — Apr. 7, 20077 avril 2007

Film of captured female sailor Faye Turney shown on Iranian television has highlighted concerns about the increasing number of women forces personnel at risk of abuse and exploitation by an enemy. But they are here to stay.

The headlines said it all: warrior, mother, pawn. They were referring to the plight of Leading Seaman Faye Turney, the 26-year-old ship’s boat crewman from the frigate HMS Cornwall, seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the upper Gulf on 23 March along with seven Royal Marines and seven fellow sailors.

Manipulating Faye Turney seems to be central to the tactics of her captors, whoever they really are in the baffling mosaic of intrigue and loyalties in the Revolutionary Guard and the dwindling circle of militant student followers of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President. They certainly appear to be more disturbed over her role as a woman serving on operations with a British man-o’-war than that of her commanders.

Women have been serving in warships and in fast jets and helicopters in the RAF for more than 15 years now. There are 17,810 of them in the British forces, or 9 per cent of the total, and they are accepted, by and large, as part of the regular team by most of their colleagues to a degree that would surprise the majority of editors of national media in Britain today. Senior officers have found that they have proved often to be more skilful, and quicker to learn, than their male counterparts, although sheer physical strength can at times be a problem.

Just how integral, and how accomplished, women in the forces are today was highlighted when, two days before Faye Turney and the Cornwall’s boat parties were captured, 19-year-old Private Michelle Norris of the Royal Army Medical Corps was invested by the Queen as the first woman ever to receive a Military Cross. She was recognised for jumping out of an armoured carrier to tend to her wounded commander in a heavy sniping and rocket battle in the Iraqi town of Al Amarah last year.

Then there is Junior Under Officer Angela Laycock. When the Queen’s grandson Prince William passed out at Sandhurst last December, he was pipped for the Sword of Honour, which goes to the top cadet, by Laycock. She has a first-class honours degree in mechanical engineering from Cambridge and has rowed at international level at Henley.

Today, young women can serve in specialist branches across a broad spectrum in the services, and in many roles from Harrier pilots to combat engineers and frontline medics. There are one or two major exceptions: in submarines (for fear of radiation effects), the frontline infantry and in tanks. In the infantry the reasons are the comparative lack of upper body strength – needed to push a bayonet into a foe – and the peculiar dynamics of male bonding. The British army has also found that women have been up to eight times more prone to injury in close-quarters combat training.

The business of being closed down in the cramped conditions of a tank has kept women from serving in the armoured corps. The Danish army has no such restrictions and one all-female crew of a Danish Leopard tank proved astonishingly adept when they silenced Serb artillery positions bombarding Tuzla airfield in northern Bosnia during the United Nations protection mission there in the early 1990s. The tank gunner, an athletic woman well over six feet tall, which must have made conditions for gun-laying excruciating, was voted “Danish soldier of the month.”

In the British army, women make a disproportionate contribution, given their overall number in the forces, to branches such as the Royal Military Police, Royal Corps of Signals and the Royal Engineers. Women officers and NCOs so consistently won the Golden Dagger award for trainees in the Military Police and the Special Investigation Branch (SIB) that the grounds for the award had to be weighted against them for several years. In running the operations rooms of warships, they often prove better at multitasking than their male peers.

A commandant at Sandhurst five years ago became so concerned that, in one intake of cadets where the women were far ahead of their male counterparts, he decided to have a word with the men after class. He pointed out that the women were infinitely superior in problem solving than they were. “They talk the task through, and make sure that the weakest keep up.” The reply came from the back of the class. “They’re not problem solving, it’s just gossip.” That probably says more about a certain kind of British male than it does about the British army.

But are concerns about women’s deleterious impact on armed forces always born of misogyny? One of the toughest critics about the role of women in armies is Martin van Creveld, the visionary professor of military history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After much serious study and thought, he estimates that professional armies such as those of the Americans and the British that have more than 15 per cent of females in the ranks, begin to lose a considerable amount of their operational effectiveness and efficiency.

Legends of the great all-female Russian shock battalions and fighter squadrons are exaggerated, he says. In difficult peace operations, like those carried out by the Israeli security patrols in the Occupied Territories and Gaza, the presence of women in a platoon can lead to lack of cohesion, and often rivalries and jealousies. Young males worry about female colleagues being killed, wounded or captured. For this, among several reasons, the Israeli Defence Forces stopped sending female soldiers on ground security operations in hostile territory.

The great fear is that female prisoners will be physically or mentally abused, and this lies at the heart of the anxiety over Faye Turney. But there is a corollary to this argument. Some believe female officers and NCOs are far less likely to initiate the abuse and torture of prisoners than their male counterparts. It is a delicate and difficult matter for which there is no easy answer. At Abu Ghraib, several women were involved in the abuse of prisoners. Lindy England, convicted of abuse there, was following the lead of her sadistic male sergeant lover. Moreover there was a widespread feeling in the United States services that the camp commandant, Brigadier Janis Karpinski, became the convenient scapegoat for institutional failure that went well beyond Abu Ghraib itself.

One of the most remarkable accounts of the Iraq imbroglio is the email blogs of Sergeant Kayla Williams, collected and published as a book entitled Love My Rifle More Than You. A former rock musician, Williams signed on to pay her way through college. After taking a four-month immersion course in Arabic, she became a frontline interrogator. In her diary she described graphically the scale and nature of the abuse of prisoners and innocent villagers packed off to Abu Ghraib. Furthermore, through her blog, she voiced her disapproval – and this was well before Seymour Hersh printed his scoop after a friendly and obliging major general mailed him his report on the misconduct at Abu Ghraib.

Yet the reaction to Kayla Williams’ book, particularly in this country, from professional critics and armchair commentators, was aloof and sneering, harping on about her former life as a rock chick, as if it had anything to do with what she says about Abu Ghraib. Her book is one of the best bits of raw eyewitness reporting of the disastrous war in Iraq, matching the blogs and books of Iraqi counterparts such as Salam Pax and Riverbend.

The discomfort regarding serving women is not just expressed by some commentators but is also felt by an older generation of commanding officer. They can be uncomfortable with young women in the services, particularly bright and competitive female officers, in the way that they are uncomfortable about corporals’ and sergeants’ messes well stocked with people with degrees. The old warhorses should know better. The army commanders must know about the extraordinary heroism of women in undercover work in Northern Ireland over much of the past 35 years – a role which is still held under the wraps of being state secrets.

Much of the discussion about women in the forces takes on a fantasy element of Alice in Amazonland. But young women do want to join the services, and their record in the last 40 years has been steadily improving. However, while young women like Faye Turney may know the risks, that doesn’t stop serious concern about them. Women have the right to serve, and as our society comes under acute demographic pressures, more women than ever before will be needed if the United Kingdom is to have an effective armed force.

Posted: Apr. 7, 2007 • Permanent link: ecumenism.net/?p=6625
Categories: Tablet
Transmis : 7 avril 2007 • Lien permanente : ecumenism.net/?p=6625
Catégorie : Tablet

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