A woman's place can be in the frontline

ARMS AND THE WOMAN By Kate Muir (Coronet, $105) WHEN journalist Kate Muir, now a correspondent for The New York Times, began work on Arms and the Woman the world's combat zones were still largely no-go zones for the women of the world's defence forces.

The reasons for their exclusion from the choice to take up arms, engage their skills as fighter pilots or take command of a ship in battle, were transparent, the male military hierarchy believed.

Women were not capable of the aggression needed to fight battles, they said. The themes, as the author repeats in the book, were as old as war itself. ''Men's behaviour is more aggressive. Male monkeys are more violent. Men are hunters, women are nurturers.

''There are far more men in prison for violent crime than women. Males have more testosterone and so on.'' But Ms Muir argues: ''As much as possible, women avoid physical confrontation because they know they will come off worst against a man, but that does not mean as a last resort, when completely cornered, they will not resort to violence, often effective violence.

''Pause to consider the number of battered wives who have one day suddenly had enough and murdered their husbands, often in cold blood or when the husband is drunk or asleep, because that is the only time guile can overcome strength.'' To highlight her case and argue her central thesis - that the defence establishment has excluded women from combat until recent times because of prejudice not biology - the author points to British attitudes about the Gulf War.

At the start of the conflict in 1990, 68 per cent of British men approved of starting a war compared to 41 per cent of women.

''But once the war began, 73 per cent of women against 67 per cent of men favoured assassinating Saddam Hussein - once war began, they were prepared to be very tough. Perhaps, however, they preferred killing one man to thousands.'' A point such as this - that women are not weaker but rather different in their approach to combat - should be the preferred view of those who decide if women can participate as the complete soldier in theatres of war.

Examples abound in the book to illustrate this argument. When psychiatrists treated the victims incarcerated in the Nazi concentration camps of World War II, the level of trauma suffered by the male and female inmates was the same.

In many cases men who had undergone such experiences suffered from the insistence that they keep a stiff upper lip when they were frightened or feared for their lives.

''Many military men, particularly the older ones sent to single-sex boarding schools and colleges, learnt not to cry at an early age and expected to find nothing else in later life, having spent so much time with their own sex.

''The advantage of having even a few women among the troops near the front is that women tend to express fears and emotions publicly far more than men, but that does not mean they are unable to do their jobs.

''That became clear during the Scud attacks of the Gulf War - women admitted their fear and encouraged men to do the same, to talk rather than bottle up, and the men said it did relieve tension and aid sanity,'' Ms Muir writes.

But that struggle to dismantle prejudice, although legislation now allows women in Britain, the US and Australia to fight in the frontline, is not yet over.

Men, by their nature, find it difficult to accept that the mothers of their children would want to engage in empowering war games.

They still see it as unfeminine and cannot accept that a woman in uniform is more than an icon, possibly sexually arousing, as portrayed in movies such as The Terminator or the Lethal Weapon films.

These women are pumped up to became musclebound female versions of male warriors, placed in titillating counterpoint to the real men - the Mel Gibsons and Clint Eastwoods of the world.

It is this mix of complex social conditioning and the up-front conflict of the former ''piece of skirt'' now being a colleague which continues to beleaguer the image of the female as an effective soldier.

Kate Muir's book, with its reasoned and logical chapters written to break down these myths, contributes sagely to a debate that won't reach equilibrium in this generation.