James Turley salutes a courageous act of rebellion
Lance corporal Joe Glenton has made a kind of history, by becoming the first enlisted soldier in the British army to openly rebel against the war in Afghanistan.
He now faces a court martial, having had his first preliminary hearing on August 3. His next is in a month, and he is expected to fight the charges of desertion against him – on the basis that the war itself was illegal by any relevant standard, and therefore a failure to report for duty in order to fight it is exempt from legal proscription. Last week, he publicly delivered an open letter to Gordon Brown, demanding a withdrawal from Afghanistan.1
Exactly how well this line of reasoning will work for him is difficult to discern precisely, though we should hardly imagine that an experienced imperial state such as resides in Westminster lacks a number of convenient (and conveniently finicky) get-out clauses for when aspersions are cast upon its legal virtues. Media response has been generally muted: The Guardian ran an interview with him on July 30, and brief items have appeared around on the BBC and in the Tory press, but the story has not (yet) blown up in any real sense.
Interestingly, the Daily Mail appears broadly sympathetic to Glenton’s case. His visit to 10 Downing Street was reported basically uncritically by that brutally reactionary rag (July 30). A poster on the Mail’s web forum – whose posts are accompanied with a small rendition of the EU flag with a hammer and sickle at its centre, no less – declares: “Lance corporal Joe Glenton is bravely refusing to return to Afghanistan because he has correctly identified this as an unjust war.”2 Not exactly the stuff of the Mail’s typically hysterical comment boxes.
Glenton joined the army in 2004, and was posted to Afghanistan in 2006. He was not a frontline soldier, but instead engaged in logistical operations. Much has been made of his traumatic experience around the crash of a Nimrod spy plane in 2006, which killed the 14 crew members aboard. His job had him “going up and down the road in a JCB spending a whole afternoon humping coffins around, two at a time, on a forklift truck … They weren’t even combat deaths – it was just the futility of it” (The Guardian July 30).
He deserted soon after it became clear that, in breach of internal guidelines on how much time soldiers spend on tour, he would be sent back in short order after returning home in 2007. He washed up in south Asia and ultimately Australia, before finally returning home a little over two years after first going awol.
The particular shape of his story, then, makes it remarkably difficult for the Tory press to ‘sell’ him as a coward – not only was he not directly in the line of fire: he now strides confidently back to the UK for a political battle. It also offers (limited) opportunities to attack Labour, whose leaders are, after all, the architects and prosecutors of British involvement in this war since the initial invasion almost eight years ago – though limited indeed as long as the ‘debate’ between the Tories and Labour is over how many helicopters are to be sent to Afghanistan.
It is a story which follows the classic human interest arc – hopeful beginnings betrayed by circumstances; a lapse into despondency; and, finally, the return from the brink to Do The Right Thing. (As if inviting Hollywood biopics, he even met his wife during his desertion.) Yet he is no doubt being perfectly honest – and we can take as good coin his assurances that he is not the only British soldier in Afghanistan having doubts about the affair.
After all, it is a luxury of British journalists that they can plausibly believe this war to be in any way succeeding, winnable or justifiable even on its own terms. It has been sold to us as the ‘good war’ from which we were distracted by the ‘bad’ adventure in Iraq, the ‘war that got away’ (of course, this idea is precisely a distraction from the same imperialist ideologues’ failure to properly account for Iraq). Yet the explicit aims of the Afghanistan war are equally nebulous – are troops there to install a western-style liberal-democratic regime? Is destroying the opium crop the main objective now? Nobody knows.
In the meantime, the puppet government in Kabul is happy to cut deals with every petty reactionary warlord it can in order to shore up opposition to the Taliban insurgency. Resistance to the occupation – even in its present form, fragmented and politically naive at best – stiffens with every civilian death. The reliance of the Americans in particular on aerial drone attacks, the last word in alienated and redundant slaughter, has drawn particular scorn from the local populace and anti-war activists around the world.
Glenton is concerned that British forces are simply pawns in the broader game of US foreign policy. He believes that the Afghan people’s “noble spirit” is unlikely to budge in this conflict, and that British troops should be deployed to defend “life and liberty”, rather than in wars that can only lead to the diminishing of both. In other words, he is obviously no communist – rather, he has inherited the basic ideology of the contemporary British army, and cannot square it with the reality of imperialist war. This should not surprise us: the armed forces are, after all, made up of volunteers at the present time, and spend an awful lot of resources shoring up precisely this kind of sense of the ‘civilising mission’ in their recruits.
Yet his case is extremely encouraging, nonetheless. The subjective side – the liberalish chauvinism of Glenton’s substantive statements – testifies to a society in which proletarian ideology suffers from debilitating weakness. The objective side remains to haunt bourgeois society – that soldiers are not simply robotic killing machines, but are themselves degraded and demoralised by the brutal orders they must carry out. They can be pushed past breaking point, as many thousands of American servicemen were during the Vietnam war, and become partisans of the anti-war movement.
Alone, as Joe Glenton is right now, many will worry that he will prove the first of many; that returning soldiers will join his cause without going awol; that the court martial he must now face may set a damaging and embarrassing precedent.
The Stop the War Coalition has briefly snapped out of its advancing decrepitude to offer a flurry of statements in support of Glenton. Indeed, on August 5 STWC was able to triumphantly announce that he had joined the coalition. The BBC website quotes Chris Nineham – a Socialist Workers Party ally of John Rees – to the effect that this is a “very significant moment”;3 BBC TV also carried a debate between the SWP’s Lindsey German and one major-general Patrick Cordingley. The latter, sounding impeccably officer-corps, complained rather petulantly that Glenton should have gone through the proper process of leaving the armed forces before raising his complaints; German, for her part, did not really argue anything at all, simply asserting her support of this minor mutiny. When the host asked her straight out whether a situation in which soldiers “and police officers” could just desert was desirable, the comrade was simply evasive.
This did the STWC no favours. A big part of effective anti-war work, going back a century or more, is agitation among the ranks. This is by no means easy in volunteer armies, of course, but the least that should be coming out of the anti-war movement – especially one headed by self-proclaimed revolutionary Marxists – is serious engagement with what exactly it is we want out of dissenting rank-and-file soldiers – and what we can do for them. This kind of dissent, if we (correctly) support it, calls into question the chain of command and institutions of authority of the standing army, and provokes the brass into clampdowns.
If – as seems likely – Joe Glenton is sent down for desertion, this will dissuade future soldiers from coming out against the war. Marxists must be prepared to fight for real democratic demands here – full trade union rights for soldiers would be a start, but we must really be making the case for the election of all officers and an end to all political proscriptions. The immediate and unconditional withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan should, at this point, go without saying.
Pen-pushers like Cordingley hide behind ‘process’, because it is designed precisely to make it difficult for dissident soldiers to take a political stand. It is another bureaucratic wall in the way of dissent. That Glenton is pressing on regardless is, if nothing else, a testament to personal courage – but if we want mutiny to spread, we have to treat the Afghanistan war as a political, not a moral, issue, and one tied up with the structure of the armed forces and the capitalist state.