Joe Glenton is a former British soldier who, after serving in Afghanistan, refused to return for a second tour on moral grounds and went AWOL. After two years, he came back to the UK, prepared to fight the charges that awaited him. Throughout, Glenton became involved with the anti-war movement, attending rallies, giving speeches and interviews – despite direct orders from the ministry of defence to the contrary. Charges which carried ten-year sentences were subsequently dropped and he served a number of months in a military prison.
Glenton’s recently-released book, Soldier Box: Why I Won’t Return to the War on Terror, chronicles the aforementioned events and is a welcome addition to any collection concerned with British foreign policy and the ‘war on terror’. The book would be a fascinating read in itself, but details and perspectives which only a soldier could provide make it all the more so. Reading of Hellfire missiles – which cost £100,000 a piece and are currently all the rage when it comes to drone strikes – that arrived back at the ‘ammo site useless and scrawled with anti-Islamic graffiti by the loaders’ is unnerving.
Everyone has an opinion on dissent within the military – as the case of Bradley Manning demonstrates – and so it is useful to follow the journey of someone who went from being one who ‘loved the soldiering life’ to having ‘objections to the war [which] were beginning to crystallise into something impossible to ignore’, to being ‘loose in the world without the support of my comrades, in exile on the other side of the planet’ with the opinion that ‘the military was really a series of farcical comedy sketches’.
Glenton recently appeared on BBC’s HARDtalk, during which he told his interviewer: ‘I might have a regional accent, but I’m not stupid.’ Soldier Box confirms that statement. Accusations of cowardice, treachery and plain self-interestedness are duly laid to rest. As the author himself points out, his position wasn’t down to radicalism or politics: ‘It was just a case of acknowledging that we really weren’t helping anyone – certainly not the Afghans.’
Either way, he paints a bleak picture which even the most proponents of the war would struggle to refute: ‘millions of pounds were being spent, hundreds of thousands of rounds were being fired off, women were being bombed, locals were being alienated and people were dying’. The book documents the development of Glenton’s political ideas, and his increasing conviction and determination to face down the charges brought against him.
If all of this sounds so heavy as to crush hopes of the book appealing to a casual readership, Glenton’s literary style is itself reassuring. Sentences are reeled off in a concise, matter-of-fact way (with military slang and expletives) reminiscent of Hemingway – plain yet informative sentences which whet the reader’s appetite with a desire to know more. At the same time, the book is peppered with delicate descriptions of scenery, which are surprisingly effective in conveying the stark features of a battered landscape. In this respect, one is reminded of the work of John Pilger, in that whilst informative, the prose never withers or dehydrates; rather, it is made engaging by way of the author’s perceptive, personal eye and affectionate attention to detail.
The refusal to go to war is no slight thing, and raises serious questions about what has taken place overseas in our name. That a soldier can serve in a foreign land and, on the back of what he was witnessed, refuse to return to that particular war, gives no slight insight into what has been taking place. Joe Glenton’s Soldier Box is more than a genuinely fine read, it is a well-written, damning indictment of both British military action in Afghanistan, and the ministry of defence generally. It is to be welcomed, and will hopefully be read by all, crucially the public, for whom it will act as an important antidote to the all too predictable and familiar government line.