The UK Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, has recently announced that a review into the issue of female soldiers serving in frontline infantry and tank units will be brought forward to this year, and has recommended that they should be allowed to do so. So far, the debate around this announcement has focused on women’s physical and mental capabilities, their potential vulnerability and the question of whether direct combat is fundamentally different to other military roles (see for instance this and this). It is worth asking, though, what is at stake more broadly, both structurally and psychologically, in this question.
What if the current situation is not really about protecting women but about protecting men? Simone de Beauvoir claims, in terms particularly appropriate to the armed forces, that a man’s life is ‘a difficult enterprise with success never assured’, but yet that:
he does not like difficulty; he is afraid of danger. He aspires in contradictory fashion both to life and to repose, to existence and to merely being; he knows full well that ‘trouble of spirit’ is the price of his nearness to himself; but he dreams of quiet in disquiet […] This dream incarnated is precisely woman.
Woman is the Other who secures man’s existence, allowing him the security of peace even in the midst of war. Women enable the separation of external and internal worlds, of Afghanistan and home, by preserving inviolate a version of man which he himself cannot maintain. This is evident in the long history of women-who-wait, extending back at least as far as Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, who waits faithfully for Odysseus to return for twenty years, refusing all other suitors. In the nineteenth century there is Amelia in Vanity Fair, who stays loyal to her dissolute husband George Osborne when he leaves to fight at Waterloo, and long after his death.
Before assuming we have moved beyond this, we should recall that Gareth Malone’s Military Wives Choir has recently played a similar role. Their single, ‘Wherever You Are’, which reached number one in Christmas 2011, includes the lines ‘Wherever you are our hearts still beat as one/I hold you in my dreams each night until your task is done’. In the military, more than perhaps anywhere else, the idea of woman described by de Beauvoir still persists: ‘whatever may be the hazards he confronts in the outer world, she guarantees the recurrence of meals, of sleep; she restores whatever has been destroyed or worn out by activity’. This separation of war and home is particularly important because it cannot, in the end, be maintained, as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder testifies.
For de Beauvoir, the converse of the ideal woman-who-waits is the woman who ‘inspires man with horror’. There is something in woman which is not captured by the ideal image set up by men, so that ‘she is not only the incarnation of their dream, but also its frustration. There is no figurative image of woman which does not call up its opposite: she is Life and Death, Nature and Artifice, Daylight and Night’. This is the threat from which, until now, men on the frontline have been protected. The woman-who-fights gives shape to this horror, indicating that the image in which man invests his survival is an illusion which might turn against him at any moment. As well as this, she brings home the reality that women, like men, are reducible to fallible, breakable bodies. It is not, then, because women are different from men that they have been kept from the frontline, but because allowing them there might demonstrate that they are not—and hence that the idea of Woman which has been relied upon for so long does not emerge from within women but is imposed upon them in order to compensate for a lack within men.
Should we, then, celebrate Philip Hammond’s announcement as the demystification of an illusion? Perhaps. Or, instead, this move might be a symptom of the failure of a different illusion. Not the illusion of Woman, but of masculinist British military power, which this year retreats from Afghanistan amidst a swathe of ongoing cutbacks. It is possible that women will be allowed to serve on the front line during the first year since 1914 in which the UK has not been engaged in military combat. According to a Guardian article on this topic, senior military staff have referred to this as a ‘strategic pause’. At this moment of retreat, when it is the army itself that waits, the unacknowledged hope seems to be that Woman might once again hold the key to restoring what has been worn out and destroyed.