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THE TIMES

Women Go Into Battle

Both sexes have the right to defend their nation, argues John Nichol.

It was reported on the front page of The Times this week that Mister Blair intends to ask the public if they approve of women in combat roles. It is a little late for that; the first female aircrew joined Royal Air Force combat squadrons a number of years ago to fly its Tornadoes and Jaguars.

And not just the RAF; the Army has females undercover with 14 Intelligence Company in Northern Ireland, their incredibly dangerous task is to conduct covert surveillance operations against known IRA "players". Many of the UK's little known prisoner of war interrogation units are staffed with female officers, friends who have had the misfortune of experiencing the woman's touch on these 'Conduct After Capture' courses testify that the women are far more efficient interrogators than the men.

Of course it's not just in recent years that we have seen an upsurge in military 'girl power'. From the days of Queen Bodecea through to Odette Churchill, who served with the World War 2's Special Operations Executive in occupied France, women have made daunting fighters. The film image of pretty agents with perfectly manicured nails is destroyed when one hears that the faces were beaten beyond recognition and the nails pulled out with pliers by Hitler's SS thugs. But it is still the male perspective that dominates. As Sarah Ford, from Northern Ireland's undercover unit, said of her male comrades, "I was a huge shock to these lads. They thought they were James Bond and didn't want a big soft girly messing up their bravado and antics. But they soon realised I could kick and fight like the next man."

But should they be allowed to fight and why should we bother to ask the public's opinion now? Could it be that the New Labour would prefer to abdicate it's decision making responsibilities so that when things go wrong they can hold up their collective new hands and say "Sorry, not my decision, Guv."

Needless to say the debate will have the feminists burning their bergens and ranting for equal rights whilst some crusty old generals will be wheeled out of hibernation to dribble about the effect on regimental traditions. But what about those who really matter, the females who want to fight and the men who will serve alongside them.

Steve and Sue are two RAF fighter pilots who also happen to be partners (names changed to protect the innocent). Steve supported his girlfriend 100%; "Sue's a bloody good pilot and I'd go to war with her any day." Which is all very well, but what if the worse happened? "It could happen at any time to me or to her, that's what the job is about. You accept that or get out."

One of the arguments most used against female troops is the question of a woman's physical strength and mental ability to do the job. Sue was adamant that, as long as selection standards were not changed females could compete on an equal level with their male counterparts.

I have seen many men who were neither physically nor mentally up to the task of coping with military life; they were allowed to bumble on regardless. But the question of selection and training is much more interesting and herein lies part of the problem. A few years ago, the RAF was forced into allowing women to train to be aircrew and in the ill-judged rush to appear politically correct training standards were allowed to fall. A flying instructor from that time was told to ensure that his female students passed the course regardless of ability, if he was not willing to do this the hierarchy would find someone who was. This ludicrous position helps neither the military nor the cause of the many female candidates who could really make the grade. Indeed it is a source of great offence to most females in the armed forces that some of their compatriots let the side down.

So how will the Government seek approval for this new venture? An internal MoD document is reported to say that using the Central Office of Information's weekly survey will be "the quickest and cheapest method" to test the water; "less likely to attract public attention." Despite efforts to avoid the issue there will be one thing guaranteed to attract public attention: our first female prisoner of war.

In the military's last three major conflicts, the Falklands, Bosnia and the Gulf, we have always had British POWs; one can presume that during the next conflict - and there will be one - things will not be that much different. How will the media and the public react to the spectacle of a British woman being beaten and paraded on TV by her foreign captors? Dr Reid, The Armed Forces Minister, is said to be privately worried about the affect female POWs might have on morale. And so he should be; but is there a difference between male and female POWs?

I would have to say yes. As a POW in Iraq I regularly saw other male prisoners being beaten and tortured; the sight and sound was degrading, horrific and something that will never leave me, but I did not try to intervene because it would have been a pointless exercise.

However there was a female who had been captured; Major Rhonda Cornum was an American Army doctor who had been shot down in a Blackhawk helicopter whilst on a search and rescue mission. Both her arms had been broken in the crash and despite the most incredible pain the Iraqis tried to strip and sexually molest her on a number of occasions. At one point a young American soldier tried to prevent this and was beaten to a pulp for his efforts. She did not ask for assistance but he felt he was duty bound to protect her. Was he wrong? What would the armchair warriors who appear on our nightly news programmes and comment from the comfort of a studio have said if he had left her to her fate? Would I have reacted differently if it had been my female crewmate being raped? I would like to think I would have had the courage to do something, however fruitless; thank God I did not have to find out. But is it a man's duty to protect?

A serving frontline commander offered his views regarding females in battle, he was adamant that they would be as effective as men. I'm sure he's right. I then put the possibility of one of his female officers being captured and raped, or worse still being repatriated pregnant or bearing the enemy's children. The very notion repulsed him; he admitted the thought had never crossed his mind. Regardless of Government studies females are already on the front line; if we are to allow them into combat then it's about time we aired such thoughts, however repugnant and harrowing.

I recently spoke to a 19-year-old woman who was learning to fly; her one ambition in life is to become a fighter pilot. She looked at me in pity when I asked her if she had fears of being captured and tortured, "exactly the same fears as you had I imagine", she replied. "Why do you feel the need to worry about me? It's the job I want to do and I'm capable of it, if I get captured it will be my problem, not yours". This is the crux of the matter; female combatants don't ask for or require any special consideration, the problem is male-generated and for males to overcome. The public can be consulted about it until the cows come home but it is the men, especially those in the military, who will have to deal with their fears and prejudice.

A female armed-forces journalist recently argued with me that women are the untapped reserve that the military desperately needs if it is to tackle manpower problems. I think she's right; as we men come to terms with our deep seated prejudices, women will rightly be allowed to fight for their country, and sooner rather than later. I am confident that women will acquit themselves with honour. When that day comes, however, I hope and pray that my worst nightmares never come true.

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