Veterans for Peace (VfP) is a group of ex-military personnel committed to raising awareness about the human, social and economic costs of war. It is opposed to the use of war by any nation to achieve foreign policy objectives. VfP’s Southeast of England Coordinator Graham Horne recently spoke to Tom Sykes.
Tom Sykes: Could you tell me a bit about your own military experience?
Graham Horne: I joined the army in 1973 just before my 19th birthday. I was a radio operator with the Royal Signals and was posted to bases in England and in West Germany where we effectively practised for when the Cold War would go hot. I never saw active service, never won any medals.
TS: Did something happen during your years of service that made you disillusioned with the army?
GH: I didn’t think much about it at the time. Before I signed up I had a well-paid job as a wire-op and I just got sick of the 9-5 office routine. I took a pay cut to enter the army because I wanted to just go and play with radios in what I thought would be a more dynamic environment. At the time, I wasn’t particularly pro-military, I wasn’t particularly anti-military. The prospect of being able to do a bit of rock-climbing, abseiling, mountaineering, camping and play with radios – that was all a massive turn-on for me.
TS: The modern advertising campaigns present the army as a big adventure. Was it promoted like that in the 1970s?
GH: Yes, very much so. There was a campaign called “Join the Professionals”. It was like the navy recruitment drives these days where they disparage low-paid workers and say to them, ‘This is what you could do.’ All these campaigns try to appeal to young people who have left school and perhaps haven’t done terribly well in their exams. Telling a working-class kid that they have nothing better to aspire to than stacking shelves or fighting a pitch battle is bad. What I know now is that I’d rather stack shelves.
TS: When did you have that realisation?
GH: I signed up for six years and was never a terribly good soldier. I managed to scrape through basic training by the skin of my teeth. Trade training I loved and passed out as a shining star. But I soon got bored to tears doing exercises and endless menial work and just basically waiting for the Cold War to escalate. Unless you lived nearby you had to spend your weekends in this deserted wasteland where all we had was the NAAFI. The sheer boredom made me misbehave. I started getting banged up every five minutes. The worst thing I did was “go over the wall” or abscond for a week. I was courting my first wife at the time so every opportunity to go home and see her was welcome. After three years’ service I was entitled to buy myself out for £300. So I did.
TS: I take it you didn’t think much of military discipline and hierarchy?
GH: I’ve never been good at dealing with authority because of the shit education I had. I went to a secondary modern where you had to have a good behavioural and academic record to qualify to sit CSE [Certificate of Secondary Education] exams. And then we were told that a CSE Grade 1 was equivalent to about a C grade O-Level. That was the best I could aspire to. Most kids left school in the late 1960s/early 1970s with a reference from the careers master which would say, ‘Horne is suitable for jobs X, Y and Z’. It was crazy because it dictated what sort of life you would end up leading. Where I grew up in north Kent you went to work in the local paper mill, to Chatham dock yard or into the forces. That was it.
TS: Do you think that very limited set of options still applies today to working-class kids leaving school?
GH: Absolutely. The army actively recruits children really – they’re only 16-year-olds – in economically deprived areas where there’s been a loss of hope. We at Veterans for Peace call it “economic conscription”. If someone says, ‘We’re going to feed you, clothe you, put a roof over your head and give you ten grand a year pocket money’, it’s as good as conscription if the only alternative is a dead-end job or the dole.
TS: Tell us more about your training.
GH: The guys training us would talk about loyalty and self-discipline. They talked about how the army is one big family. In a barrack block you’ll never hear talk of patriotism, queen, country or anything like that. What you will hear is talk about doing the right thing by your mates. It’s a gang mentality.
What they also do in training is to put a “hierarchy of hate” in place. You’re taught to hate and feel superior to other elements of the army, navy or air force. In the Parachute Regiment it’s based on physical prowess. If you’re in the service corps it’s based on intellect. So our attitude as radio operators was that, without our support, the Paras would just be mindless killers with no supply or communication lines. Then we were encouraged to disparage the navy. There was a lot of homophobia directed at the navy about blokes being cooped up in ships for months on end. We used to call them the “rum, bum and baccy boys” because we thought sailors only needed those three things to be happy.
Then we’d have vitriol towards the RAF because they were the youngest of all the forces. They had no tradition to speak of and they’d been dining out on the Battle of Britain for years. We used to call them “the crabs” because they couldn’t march they could only move sideways. Obviously there’s no truth in any of these perceptions, but this kind of hatred was a major part of my military experience.
At the bottom of the heap is the civilian population – they are moaners, whingers, couldn’t hack it if they joined up. It’s ironic when you think about how many civilians want to bask in the glory of the armed forces through Help for Heroes and Remembrance Sunday and so on. I can tell you that the admiration is not mutual. Our attitude was we’ll get our arses shot off for civilians, but they don’t deserve it. In my day this attitude fed into the bad behaviour of squaddies out on the town. They’d have a sense of entitlement and assume they could try it on with any passing female that took their eye.
TS: Are these problems still around today?
GH: Well it’s true that today a woman is twice as likely to be sexually harassed in the military as she is in another profession. It’s down to the problem of an authoritarian, top-down power structure where people are afraid to speak out or complain about being treated like shit. We had horribly abusive initiation rituals when I was serving. The minute I got into the barrack block of my working unit – it was an old, condemned building with about 15 blokes in it – I was grabbed, spread out on the table and my trousers and pants ripped off. My genitals were covered in toothpaste and that burns – it burns badly! The next thing I did was hare off to the showers and clean myself up. But what you don’t do is grass your mates. You just put up with it.
TS: So it’s a culture of silence that lets injustice happen?
GH: Exactly, and that still goes on. When it gets out of hand it can lead to the deaths at Deepcut, that kind of thing. But in my case, when the next new bloke came through the door, I was compelled by gang loyalty to dish out the self-same abuse that I’d received.
There’s also a cruel system of collective punishment. If we had a barrack room inspection and someone’s bed space wasn’t up to scratch the troop sergeant would say, ‘Right lads you need to deal with that otherwise you’re not going anywhere this weekend and you’ll be on guard duty.’ We all got in trouble for a mistake made by just one guy in our unit. We had a thing called “the regimental bath” which was a tub we filled with washing up liquid, disinfectant, soap powder and our own piss. We’d grab the bloke who’d messed his bedspace and throw him in it and scrub him down with a yard broom. This was to make sure he got the message that if he let himself down he’d let his whole unit down.
TS: Why is it that, despite all these problems with the armed forces that you’ve outlined, there seems to be this positive perception of them amongst civilians?
GH: I think it’s a mixed bag of fear and respect. When there’s little or no military activity – like when I was serving – civvies tend to think squaddies and sailors are the scum of the earth. We’re drunks, we’re violent and all the rest of it. The public support for the forces comes to the fore when there’s a war on. And there’s been a lot of wars lately. As for the situation here in Portsmouth, the navy no doubt brings a lot of jobs to the town so that makes them popular with the locals.
TS: Do you think the arms industry, which is closely connected to the armed forces, should be protected because it employs a lot of people?
GH: I’m a trades unionist and when GMB and Unite organise within the weapons industry they have no concern about the death and destruction that industry causes around the world. All they can see is potential job losses. They don’t see the bigger picture. And a lot of the public don’t see the bigger picture either. There’s a passive acceptance of what President Eisenhower called the ‘military-industrial complex’ back in 1960. And we need a war every so often to justify the expenditure and to establish whether these hugely expensive weapons work. You can test them up to a certain point, but you’ll never know how they fully perform unless they do the job for real.
TS: What do you say to someone who works in the arms industry and doesn’t agree with the harm that industry does, but at the same time doesn’t want to end up hungry and homeless?
GH: It’s a tough call.
TS: Some argue that those who work in the arms industry have transferable skills that could be put to peaceful use.
GH: That’s very true. Back in the 1970s, a company called Lucas gave up defence work and moved into eco-friendly manufacturing. I don’t know if they’re the only guys that have been successful at that, but other companies ought to diversify into peacetime pursuits.
TS: Do VfP oppose all war and all military intervention under any circumstance?
GH: I asked a few of the guys whether they’re pacifists or not, and they said they would use violence in self-defence. As for me, if someone attacked my family I wouldn’t be answerable for what I did. As an organisation we’ve come to the conclusion that war is usually – but not always – a failure of foreign policy. Both world wars could have been avoided through peaceful means, for example. War protects the privileges of ruling elites and the only people who get anything out of it are the people who don’t have to do the dirty work. Most of the combatants are drawn from the working-class and seldom has the working-class got anything out of any war in history. When soldiers were demobbed after the world wars they were supposed to be going back to “a land fit for heroes”. That demonstrably wasn’t true. In most cases they went back to poverty and unemployment.
TS: Would you say that’s true of servicemen and women returning from more recent conflicts?
GH: There’s sod all for them. There may be more forces charities than ever before, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. VfP has real problems with Help for Heroes because it buys into militarism, sentimentality and hero worship. We in VfP do not see ourselves as heroes – we were hired killers for the British state. We were given guns, told to go and kill people and then, when it was no longer convenient, we were told, ‘F*** off, we don’t need you anymore.’
Help for Heroes never question the basis of a war like Iraq which, as we all know, was highly illegal under international law. They try to help injured veterans but cannot understand that those veterans were injured for no good reason in a war of aggression that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. I don’t see that as heroic.
TS: Do you feel you personally were poorly treated when you came out of the army?
GH: Whenever I’ve said that I’m a Cold War veteran people have not given a shit. I once lost my temper at the Job Centre, jumped out of my chair and shouted at the clerk, ‘Look you bastard, if it wasn’t for me you’d be speaking Russian.’ I was physically escorted out of the building.
To be continued…
Photography by Moshe Tasky and Veterans for Peace.