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Is a woman's place on the front line of combat?

PRESIDENTIAL inauguration complete, they are changing the guard at Washington's political palaces, with Leon Panetta, the US Defence Secretary, among those handing his canteen pass to his successor.

On his way out of the door, the former CIA director has been able to add to his role call of achievements by lifting the ban on women serving in front-line combat roles.

While in headline terms it is not quite up there with playing a leading role in the mission to capture Osama bin Laden, it is an historic move, and one which the UK should follow.

Put women in the line of fire? Place them at risk of torture and death? Oblige their brothers-in-arms to take more risks to keep them safe? At this point it is usually customary to wave the white flag and walk away. How much more preferable to stop wars happening in the first place rather than argue for more people to join in.

But given that world peace remains as out of reach as Neptune, the matter has to be faced, and not solely because more servicewomen might follow the example of four personnel in the US and sue for discrimination. To use the currently fashionable formulation, should women be in or out when the shooting starts? Should the fairer sex be on the front line?

They already are is the short answer. Women serve in combat roles in Canada, Australia, France, Israel and several other countries. British and American servicewomen are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eight British servicewomen have died as a result of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among US forces, more than 130 servicewomen have died.

Roadside bombs and bullets, as every grieving parent of a soldier knows, are no respecters of humanity, however young, however old, whatever sex or nationality. Women are also present in war zones as aid workers, journalists, translators and much else. And let us never forget those civilians, female and male, who have no choice but to be there.

Major Mary Jennings Hegar of the US Air Force, with three tours of duty in Afghanistan behind her, said of the Panetta policy: "It is not about whether or not we are allowing women into combat – women are in combat – it is about recognising their service." Quite so. If servicewomen are to earn more, and serve in the kind of posts that open the door to further promotion, then they have to be allowed into the kind of combat roles which make that possible. The army, air force and navy should be places where women can have careers, and not be treated as mere token presences. Few organisations in Western societies would be allowed to impose a blanket ban on women taking certain kinds of jobs for which they were qualified.

On a purely political level, the case for is clear. Feminism cannot be a la carte. We cannot ask to be treated equally in some cases and given special favours in others. If women want to serve in the armed forces – and in the UK, at the last count, 18,000 of them do – then they have the right to be treated equally.

What the lifting of the US ban would do is allow women to undertake ground close combat. Or as the British MoD describes it, "to close with and kill the enemy". It is here we enter trickier territory.

One of main reasons why the UK Government decided against lifting the ban in 2010, the last time the matter was reviewed, was that it could harm operational effectiveness. There was no way of knowing how well mixed teams would cope without putting them into battle, argued the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and the risk of doing that would be too great. "Other nations have very mixed experiences," concluded the review.

In other words, it was believed male soldiers would be too busy trying to save their female comrades to engage the enemy properly, and as a result more lives could be lost. Given, as the MoD rightly pointed out, women do not serve in combat roles currently, this could only ever be an assumption. Far from damaging cohesion and lowering morale, having women in a unit might have the opposite effects.

But still we come back to that phrase, "to close with and kill the enemy". One of the more harmful myths about modern warfare – and one bolstered by Prince Harry this week – is that it has become another branch of the computer games industry, that it takes place at one, essential, remove. Asked to describe what it was like being in charge of firing missiles, Captain Wales said: "It's a joy for me because I'm one of those people who loves playing PlayStation and Xbox so, with my thumbs, I like to think I'm probably quite useful." (Good old Harry: just when you think the palace PR machine is having things all its own way, up pops the prince.)

Would women be physically, and psychologically, capable of fighting and killing at close quarters? As with men, that would come down to training and individual ability. It is hardly the case that women are strangers to such situations. Witness the towering courage displayed by female secret agents during the Second World War. Women auxiliaries in the wars lived daily with the stuff of nightmares. Today, police officers, female and male, can find themselves facing a gun or a knife or a bomb. Are they to be separated into different sexes in the face of danger?

Yet doubts remain. As long as women are mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and aunts, they always will. But soldiers are fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, and uncles too. As long as joining the armed forces remains a matter of free will, people should be free to choose how and where they serve. The rider to that, of course, is "depending on ability". A woman who is physically incapable of serving in a combat role is just as much of a liability as a man in the same unfit position.

US forces are to be given until 2016 to argue for exemptions to the new rules. By then, there will be a new commander-in-chief in office. Stand by your beds, but she could be female too. Hillary Clinton is another of those departing her job soon, and though she denies wanting the post, perhaps only the White House pooch believes that one.

In combat, in politics, in anything, it should only ever be about the right person for the job.

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