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I thought for a moment Greg Sheridan was channelling Neil James.  Then I realised I was doing Neil a disservice: Neil has considerably more sense.

Most of the article, on the other hand, makes no sense.  Nothing more reflects the 1950s white picket fence sensibility of the piece than the following:

Is there a home in Australia in which, if attacked by a burglar, the husband would not respond first?

Look, realistically, most women don’t want to be in the dirt, lugging heavy equipment up there with the infantry.  But then, most men don’t want to, either.  Most men cannot meet the rigorous physical demands of the SAS.  Few women are likely to be able to reach such levels.  But that is not what is intended.  Greg needs a reality check himself about the modern, Western military and modern warfare.

Let me note—again—that there is no front-line in the current conflict in which we are, and are likely to be involved.  The Australian public may not want to see female ADF soldiers coming home in body bags.  But nor do they want to any family member coming back in body bags from a terrorist attack instigated from within Afghanistan.

The presence of women in counterinsurgency and stability operations in places such as Afghanistan is important.  In an population-centric approach, women contribute to the sense of safety and security of families and local communities, and they can elicit information that men cannot.  Frankly, exclusion of women from such roles suggests the ADF is not serious about the population-centric approach to COIN, and raises doubts about its ability to fulfil the longer-term ‘hold’ and ‘build’ phases.

Aside from the changing nature of warfare, there are other very good reasons why these positions need to be opened to women who are capable of doing the job.

First, demographics.  More women need to be attracted to the armed forces.  The intention is not to feed them directly into infantry or the SAS.  Some may be able to take those roles, but it’s unlikely that they will be attracted to those roles or be able to meet the requirements.  If they can, why be fool enough to turn them down?  Relying on blokiness and testosterone for ‘comradely bonding’ is something of a leadership cop-out.  As we’ve seen from rugby league team ‘bonding’ to Canada’s Somalia Affair, such dynamics, left alone, can go horribly wrong.

Second, skills.  The infantry and SAS are not where new soldiers are needed; it’s not as though those areas are suffering from a lack of interested recruits.  There are so many specialist roles that remain unfilled because its hard to attract anyone, male or female, with the skills and capabilities.  The problem is not the infantry or the SAS, it’s avionic technicians, engineering, radio technicians, air traffic controllers etc.  The ADF needs to find ways to attract and recruit women to those roles.  Which leads me to…

Third, the message.  I’m sorry, but this does count: perceptions matter.  Women—talented, capable, even (god forbid!) ambitious women—will not be attracted to or stay in an organisation in which they remain, as a group, second class.  Just look at many of the somewhat recidivist comments to Sheridan’s article.  Women will continue to be perceived as second class, a lesser group, until all positions are opened and based on ability, not gender.  They will not join in the numbers, or with the skills, needed.

And that, in a modern, Western, highly tech-reliant military, matters much more than brute musculature or the physical courage (aided and abetted by painkillers, a large support staff and a pretty good financial incentive) of Brett Kimmorley to the overall strength and capability of the ADF.

September 2009
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