The hopeful refusenik: An interview with Joe Glenton

Daniel Baker sits down with Joe Glenton to discuss class, veteranhood, and the radical potential for organising within Britain's armed forces

April 10, 2022 · 7 min read
Soldiers of 5 Rifles on patrol near Lashkargah, Afghanistan (Credit: Daniel Wiepen)

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In March 2010, the British Army soldier Joe Glenton was sentenced to nine months in military prison, officially for going absent without leave, after he refused to return to Afghanistan and publicly opposed the war. Upon his release, he told crowds of supporters: ‘I have more in common with the people of Afghanistan than with my own political and military leaders. The enemy is not the person in front of you with a gun but the person behind you and above you telling you to pull the trigger.’ Glenton spoke to Red Pepper’s Daniel Baker about his recent book Veteranhood: Rage and Hope in British Ex-Military Life.

Daniel Baker: In your introduction to Veteranhood, you explain that until the early 2000s veterans felt they were seen ‘as the absolute scum of the earth’ but ‘a blink of an eye later in historical terms, we are now lauded to the heavens’. For me, an example of this transformation is Remembrance Sunday morphing from a tonally-muted declaration of ‘never again’ into a tacky nationalist disciplining tool. How did we get here?

Joe Glenton: There has been a massive change since the 2000s. We’ve arrived at a parody of the American ‘thank you for your service’ culture. The Afghan and Iraq wars were deeply unpopular, and that needed to be addressed in order for British foreign policy to continue to be aggressive. Recognition of that fact was encapsulated in a 2008 report called The Recognition of our Armed Forces in Society, fronted by Gordon Brown. It looked explicitly at how to re-popularise the military. It concluded that lack of support for the wars was due not to moral opposition but because the public simply didn’t understand the military. So there was an attempt to ‘remilitarise’ society to create a favourable environment for interventionist foreign policy.

There can be a tendency [on the left] to say our soldiers are basically heavily-armed cops. But when you walk around the doorways of British towns and cities, how often do you see someone holding a sign saying ‘homeless ex-cop’?

DB: After your release from military prison you campaigned with Veterans For Peace. A UK branch of the US anti-war organisation was founded in 2011, but there are generally fewer examples on this side of the Atlantic for troops protesting against imperialism. Why is that? Is the more recent US experience of conscription a factor?

JG: Vietnam echoes throughout veterans’ activism in the States, and we don’t really have a parallel experience. When veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan returned to the US, there was already a kind of store of knowledge about organising veterans – they had the Vietnam generation. Here, we have what I call ‘critical veterans’, but they are less visible for a number of reasons. Here, veterans on the left don’t tend to lead with the fact that they are veterans. They’re not like right-wing veterans in that sense, who mistake being a veteran for being an entire personality in itself.

DB: You want readers to move beyond binary analyses of soldiers as either ‘workers in uniform’ or forever irreformable imperialist stooges. The veterans you spoke to for the book counter stereotypes: there are left-wing Welsh nationalists, Corbynites, even communist and anarchist ex-forces activists. That nuance is rarely apparent within leftist circles.

JG: There can be a tendency [on the left] to say our soldiers are basically heavily-armed cops. But when you walk around the doorways of British towns and cities, how often do you see someone holding a sign saying ‘homeless ex-cop’? The relationship to capitalism of these two organs of the state is very different and they have different attitudes to expendability. Of course, there are crossovers, but you have to be nuanced. When I first came to the left, I was around Trotskyist politics at the time. It was 2010, so the student stuff was big. A lot of the student left I encountered were essentially liberals with very bad attitudes towards squaddies. I suspect part of that was an extension of bourgeois contempt for working-class people.

DB: What about hostility you might receive from those with an altogether more justifiable animus towards the British military? People from communities who have directly experienced its violence and domination – working-class nationalist communities in the north of Ireland, for example?

JG: I completely understand those attitudes. Working-class people from Derry or Belfast or Tyrone who are deeply suspicious of the British military – and the people who are in it – is very different from the student snobbery. I would extend that to people from the many countries around the world the British military has occupied and bombed. Again, if we are going to be truly nuanced, then those attitudes are perfectly understandable.

DB: Despite that history of colonial domination and military intervention, you identify a ‘radical humanist ex-military tradition’ stretching back as far as the English civil wars that contains within it a dissenting, socialist potential.

JG Historically, the army has at times been a location of class struggle. That’s been repeated from the Putney Debates onwards. Immediately after the Napoleonic Wars, there was lots of veteran radicalism, after both world wars too. Those are the big explosions of veterans harnessing some kind of class power that I describe.

I’m careful not to romanticise it, but in the New Model Army common soldiers and officers started to elect their own representatives, who then challenged their generals and their church. They advanced incredibly complex intellectual arguments about democracy and suffrage, the commons, whether or not they should take other people’s lands. The ‘Cairo parliament’ is another good example. During World War II, a group of soldiers at a base in Cairo had a mock parliament at the paternal instigation of their officers. Within two days, they had proposed nationalising the Bank of England and the decolonisation of Egypt. These historical examples are contested, I know, but they offer us interesting ideas to talk about, at the very least.

DB: Is there still potential for this kind of class-conscious agitation among the veteran community?

JG: I hope so. The word ‘hope’ is in the book title for a reason. I’m very drawn to the romantic notion of some kind of National Union of Ex-Servicemen to counter knee-jerk militarism. A mass movement of veterans who are involved in all kinds of working-class organisations.

We aren’t there yet – we’re very atomised. But the radical movements, the agitators in the Levellers, the post-world wars movements I discuss all involved veterans operating as part of the working class, the class most of them are drawn from. That’s a politics that is appealing and hopeful. Not a separatist politics of exceptionalism as practised by right-wing veterans who have internalised militarism. They lament ‘identity politics’, while doing the most vacuous kind of identity politics themselves. We need to combat that.

Joe Glenton is a veteran, journalist and author of Veteranhood: Rage and Hope in British Ex-Military Life (Repeater)

This article first appeared in issue #235, ‘Educate, agitate, organise’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media

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