Individual defiance is laudable, but more is required, argues Eddie Ford
Last week saw lance corporal Joe Glenton – prominent anti-war activist and Stop the War Coalition member – sentenced to nine months’ detention in a military prison for going awol in the summer of 2007, as his unit was preparing to return to Afghanistan.
So, following a court martial last week, the 27-year-old Glenton pleaded ‘guilty’ and was also stripped of his rank – though the more serious charge of desertion, which carries a maximum jail sentence of up to 10 years, was dropped at the last minute. Emerging from the court, Glenton raised a defiant clenched fist, as he was led away to do his time at the Military Corrective Training Centre in Colchester. His defence team immediately launched an appeal. But we are totally confident that comrade Glenton will never be ‘rehabilitated’ or ‘reformed’.
At the trial, defence lawyer Nick Wrack – former Socialist Workers Party member and now a leading figure in George Galloway’s Respect – detailed how Glenton returned from the Helmand province suffering from post-traumatic stress, which involved bouts of heavy drinking and recurrent nightmares. Whilst stationed in Helmand, he witnessed a direct mortar hit on civilians, which – to quote the words of the consultant psychiatrist who last November had assessed him at the behest of his legal team – induced feelings of “guilt” and “uselessness”: he would have terrible dreams about “coffins being opened up” and wake up in the middle of the night screaming. As a consequence of his tour of duty, we discovered, routine sounds and noises – like doors banging or car tyres screeching – instantly “reminded him of mortar fire”, triggering off panic attacks.
Glenton’s traumatised state was considerably compounded by the callous indifference of his military ‘superiors’ to the ordeal he had just been through – even to acknowledge that there was any sort of problem. Upon his return from Afghanistan the only advice Glenton received, Wrack informed the hearing, was a few condescending comments from the army padre – so much for the caring, compassionate Christian church – who told him to not to “drink too much” or “beat up your wife”. Indeed, far from receiving any support or help from his commanding officers, Glenton faced a regime of bullying and intimidation – even more than the usual for the British army – when he started to express his political concerns and worries about the Afghan war. Why had he been sent to the Helmand province? Why was the army in Afghanistan at all? For saying this, for daring to open his mouth and break rank, Glenton – who previously had been praised as an “intellectual soldier” by his officers – was branded a “coward”, “malingerer” and, of course, a troublemaker.
Though he repeatedly requested not to be redeployed to Helmand, and despite the army guidelines which recommend a gap of at least 18 months between tours of duty, the army bigwigs ordered him back to Afghanistan. Unable to face going back to the hellish province, to witness yet more death and suffering – and with a growing conviction that the war was fundamentally unjust – Glenton said enough was enough and absconded to south-east Asia and then Australia.
Admirably, Glenton used his time not just to preserve his sanity and save his own skin – perfectly reasonable as that is – but to think and develop his ideas. Though inevitably rough around the edges – hence some of the patriotic rhetoric and sentiments – Glenton’s increasingly vocal condemnations of British involvement in Afghanistan, and the imperialist war efforts in general, have had an inspiring effect on the anti-war movement in Britain.
So Glenton publicly delivered an open letter to Gordon Brown, thus becoming the first enlisted soldier in the British army to openly rebel against the war in Afghanistan. In the letter Glenton outlined why he refused to fight and why he thought the conflict was “unlawful”, believing that the “courage and tenacity” of his fellow soldiers was being used as a “tool of American foreign policy”. Instead, argued Glenton, British soldiers who “submit themselves to the service of the nation”, and put themselves in “harm’s way”, should only do so if the “cause is just and right” – that is, for the “protection of life and liberty”. Tragically, concluded Glenton, the Afghan war is not “reducing the terrorist risk”, but instead is “bringing death and devastation” to that country. He implored the prime minister to get the British troops out, as their continued presence can “only lead to more heartbreak within both our societies”.
Perhaps more significantly still, Glenton made history by heading last October’s STWC demonstration. Briefly addressing the 5,000 audience gathered in Trafalgar Square, he told them that, while it is “distressing to disobey orders”, the Afghan conflict is neither legal nor justifiable – and that when Britain follows the United States in continuing to “wage war against one of the world’s poorest countries”, he felt compelled and “proud” to march with the STWC on that day.
In an attempted to justify the decision to incarcerate Glenton, judge advocate Emma Peters declared that going awol should not be viewed as a “means of securing an early release” from the army – particularly when you consider the “seriousness of current operations” in Afghanistan. “Rather than letting the system help you”, Peters sternly admonished Glenton, “you decided to go absent and abrogate your duty”. Guilty as charged.
But for us in the CPGB, as for so many, Joe Glenton is no ‘criminal’ – or disgraced ‘coward’ – but instead a hero. He had the courage – and sheer determination – to stand up for what he believed in. For defying the military authorities and telling the truth about the imperialist war in Afghanistan – which is sacrificing lives on all sides in order to prop up a corrupt puppet government and acts only to further pulverise and tear apart an already traumatised and impoverished country.
For that reason the CPGB unequivocally calls for the immediate removal of all the imperialist coalition forces from Afghanistan and also for the immediate release of Joe Glenton. Yes, we most certainly do disagree – violently – with the blithe assertion of The Observer’s Barbara Ellen that the army “has to be tough on soldiers going awol”, given that “no-one is forced to sign up” (March 7). This just ignores the obvious and overriding question – talk about cowardice. That is, what is the role and function of the British standing army? Well, you do not have to search too hard for the answer. The British army, like all standing armies, exists to deliver – on order – death and destruction on behalf of the ruling class and its backers. To this end ordinary soldiers on the ground are just supposed to obey orders and kill, and be killed, if and when required.
Therefore, as extreme democrats, communists are obliged to fight for the abolition of the standing army. Towards that end this means that anti-war work has to involve agitation amongst the army’s ranks. To encourage and promote the self-organisation – and political self-confidence – of ordinary soldiers against their commanding officers and the top brass as a whole. A serious, working class-led anti-war movement would move mountains in order to engage with and encourage dissenting rank-and-file soldiers like Joe Glenton. As heroic as he is, however, we would not want to see others following his example of individual rebellion. It is only a collective movement that can begin to call into question the entire chain of command – the basic legitimacy of the standing army and its authoritarian institutions.
Of course, by incarcerating Joe Glenton the army tops and the political establishment hope to dissuade others – present and future soldiers – from coming out against imperialist war. The army’s worship – fetishisation – of hierarchy, discipline and fighting for one’s regiment and mates in the unit, and crap like that, exists to get rank and file soldiers to act like automatons. Accordingly, communists demand full trade union rights, election of all officers and the right to organise politically. The aim is to undermine and eventually split the army along class lines.
Needless to say, the CPGB calls for a people’s militia – not least in our Draft programme. We fight for the right of the masses to bear arms and defend themselves. Yes, we are more than aware that the philistine British left instinctively titters when hearing such demands, often making idiotic jibes about the American ‘gun culture’, Charlton Heston, the National Rifle Association, the far right, etc.
However, opposition to the standing army and the call for a popular militia is not an example of crazy ultra-leftism, but a basic democratic demand common to the American bourgeois revolution and Marxism. Eduard Bernstein – the father of revisionism – was, along with August Bebel and Karl Kautsky, responsible for drafting the 1891 Erfurt programme. Point three of its demands reads in part as follows: “Education of all to bear arms. Militia in the place of the standing army.”
Naturally, the fact that large sections of the British left pour scorn on the very notion of workers’ militias just confirms that, while they are prepared to talk a good revolution, in reality they are quite content to settle for a reformed social democratic capitalism of their own imagination.
Messages of Support
Lance Corporal Joe Glenton
Military Corrective Training Centre, Berechurch Hall Camp
Colchester CO2 9NU