National Post Barbara Kay: The Canadian Forces’ failed recruitment policy

National Post - Tuesday February 18th, 2020

Canadian servicewomen eat cookies in Afghanistan in 2016.

In 1997, when women comprised 14 per cent of the Canadian Forces, Gen. Maurice Baril argued that a robust recruitment campaign was all that was necessary to boost female membership to 28 per cent by 2009, when, he predicted, women would comprise a full 25 per cent of front-line infantry troops, up from 0.6 per cent at the time.

Since there wasn’t a shred of evidence from Canada or anywhere else to support such a projection — women in Russia and Israel have performed combat roles under extreme duress for national survival, but their participation never lasted past the crisis — it came as no surprise to skeptics that the recruitment campaign fell far short of its goal. Women presently comprise 15.9 per cent of Canadian Forces members, the great majority of whom are serving in support roles (the number is 14 per cent in the United States).

A realist would draw the obvious conclusion that women and men are different. Women just aren’t into combat, and so what. But gender realism hasn’t governed the Canadian Forces for decades. So its honchos are doubling down, determined to ensure that by 2026, females fill 25 per cent of the ranks.  This time, they’ve assigned a “Tiger Team” to circumvent the “systemic barriers” that make the military a “less than desirable choice” for the majority of young Canadian women.

Apparently, they have chosen to ignore their own recruitment analysts, who informed them that women feel “discomfort with a profession that involves combat,” because it has the “potential of killing people (especially innocent people).” If the military’s main “systemic barrier” to recruiting women is their inherent distaste for the profession’s existential purpose, how can that barrier be overcome?

A realist would draw the obvious conclusion that women and men are different.

Either women must change their nature, or the military must change its raison d’être. The Tiger Team’s “Mad Men”-esque suggestions for attracting women, with more figure-flattering uniforms and social media posts like “My bling are my medals,” are ludicrous. They do a fine job of insulting the intelligence of women, while publicly dumbing down the brand of the nation’s defence forces.

In any case, focusing on the issue of how the military can attract women begs the question of why it should matter if combat remains a distinctively male realm. No rational observer denies that combat readiness is dependent on the combined strength of the military’s fighters, or that males are stronger than females. That is the reason that athletics are divided by biology (and the reason why such a fierce battle is raging around athletes who were born as men competing in women’s sports). Combat, is after all, the real deal that sport mimics.

In the U.S., feminists used to make the valid point that combat service was a useful stepping stone to political power, and that aspiring female politicians were disadvantaged by having missed the opportunity for the recognition that such service provided. But that isn’t the case here. Only seven Canadian prime ministers came to power with a military background. Lester B. Pearson was the last prime minister to have seen active military service.

We’re a nation that pays respectful attention to our military service members when they are in harm’s way or killed on duty. And, of course, on Remembrance Day. Apart from that, we’re such peace-loving folk, we don’t seek former warriors out for special homage. (We compromise by elevating astronauts. They’re heroic, but they don’t kill people. We have two former astronauts in high positions: Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Gov. Gen. Julie Payette.)

Gen. Maurice Baril in 2002. Mike Blanchfield/Ottawa Citizen

Here’s the problem: in opening combat roles to women, we send out messages to both sexes that are either untrue, offensive or both. We are telling women that they are functionally equal to men, which everyone knows is false. And we’re telling men that the social goal of gender neutrality is more important than their own security, which is offensive and demoralizing.

Inviting women into combat roles also subtly reduces the status of those military women who serve in invaluable support roles in administration, instruction, medical services and all the rest. If combat is the metric against which other military women must measure their contribution, then support roles are nothing to boast about, as they should be.

Prolonged peace at home has permitted ideology-based mission creep in high places within our Armed Forces. If we were suddenly attacked, gender clarity around recruitment priorities would return in a heartbeat.

The Canadian Forces should be very careful that, in wooing the physically weaker sex, it doesn’t alienate the stronger. As former infantry officer Brian Mitchell insightfully observed in his persuasive 2000 book, “Women in the Military: Flirting with disaster,” combat recruitment is a zero-sum game: “The more attractive you make the military look to women, the less attractive you make it look to men.”

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