War is Failure: An Interview with a Veteran for Peace Part II

In the second part of our exclusive interview, Veterans for Peace‘s Southeast of England Coordinator Graham Horne talks to Tom Sykes about combat stress, the relationship between the military and the education system and how the new Cold War might go hot.

Tom Sykes: Would you say there’s a disconnect between the state’s attitude to soldiers who are currently serving and its attitude to those who are no longer serving?

Graham Horne: There’s cynicism towards you both before and after you serve. There are a lot of kids in Britain who are seen as troublemakers who need straightening out. Mum and Dad can’t cope with them, social services are overloaded and society hasn’t got the time or money to invest in their well-being, so what’s the answer? Pack them off to boot camp. It’ll either make them or break them.

TS: And what happens if they are broken rather than made?

GH: All kinds of problems. PTSD is the big one.

TS: Did anything traumatic happen to you during your army days?

GH: Yes and no. In basic training we used to go on what were called “battle camps”. The army deploys pyrotechnics designed to simulate certain kinds of weaponry. We’d go out in the middle of the night with our rifles, blank ammunition and some “thunderflashes”, which make an explosion like a grenade. Whilst there’s nothing lethal flying through the air, the banging and the crashing disorients you. If a thunderflash lands at your feet and goes off, you’re shocked, you’re confused, you’re not able to see straight – you won’t know whether you need a shit or a haircut. One night, this bloody great hand came out of nowhere and a voice yelled, ‘Gotcha, you’re a prisoner.’ The guy slammed me up against a tree and took my rifle off me. I went back to camp and the sergeant asked where my rifle was. I told him how I’d lost it. I was fined and given a week’s confinement in barracks.

TS: When someone who has had to kill enemy combatants leaves the army what kinds of trauma might they suffer?

Graham Horne, South East Coordinator for Veterans for Peace
Graham Horne, South East Coordinator for Veterans for Peace

GH: In my experience, those guys who have PTSD or similar tend to resort to violence quicker than a civilian would, especially if they’ve had a drink.

TS: After the Iraq War ended, there were over 100 cases of US veterans returning to civilian life and committing murder.

GH: In Britain it’s not so easy to access guns so you might pick up a knife instead. When you’re first trained by the forces they mess around with your basic human instinct for fight or flight. As my colleague Ben Griffin often says, if a lion walked through the door now, most of the people in this room would either freeze with fear or run for an exit or try and get out of the way of the lion. Those are all sensible reactions. But about 2% of the people here would react very differently. They’d try and take on the lion! They are what we might call psychopaths.

Military training tries to stop you flying and make you fight. So when you come up against violence you’re supposed to meet it head-on, not avoid it. The military training I receive still affects the way I think, forty years later. I’m not a violent person – I’ve got a yellow streak on my back a mile wide so I’ll happily run away from a fight. But sometimes I’m not very tolerant – my flatmate will tell you that. I have a tendency to close down arguments when you’re sick and tired of them. I switch off when people moan or whinge. I’m not as empathetic as I could be when someone shares their problems with me. One of the reasons I became a union rep is that it’s teaching me empathy.

TS: Have you met many soldiers who, after they leave the army, are still prone to violent behaviour?

GH: I see it all the time in my workplace, a Co-Op shop in a troubled area of Bournemouth. We have security guards because of the high rate of shoplifting. One’s an ex-Royal Marine, the other’s an Iraq veteran with a gung-ho mindset. They both love the prospect of going to work and getting paid to have a fight. For them, a bad day is when there isn’t a fight.

TS: There are about 9,000 homeless veterans in the UK. Why do you think that is?

GH: The longer you serve the harder it is to reintegrate into society when you get out. You become institutionalised. My uncle was a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy for 22 years. Most of the time he was gentle as a lamb, but when he came out of service in his mid-forties he could never understand why, when he went into a shop and barked orders at the clerk, he was told to f*** off. It took him a while to learn to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. In the navy he’d had power and was used to being obeyed without question. He couldn’t understand why his military experience didn’t translate into a civilian situation.

He had no support other than from my mum and he turned to the bottle, unfortunately. The day his youngest son was killed in a motorcycle accident he went into the hospital quite drunk and was met by a female doctor. He slammed her up against a wall and said, ‘I know what you need, darling.’ He was on the verge of raping her. He was struck off her list, as you’d expect, but was taken on by a sympathetic male doctor. Six weeks after first meeting my uncle, that doctor sat down in his office and blew his head off with a six bore shotgun. My uncle said, ‘I don’t know if that had anything to do with me.’

TS: What campaigns are VfP currently running?

GH: Our big one is Don’t Join the Army in which we persuade kids to avoid signing up to the services for the reasons we’ve been talking about. We’ve distributed a lot of leaflets in middle-class pubs and cafes run by radicals, but that’s an audience who are already on our side, so it’s probably counter-productive. We now need to target places like Wetherspoon’s.

TS: Do you collaborate with other activist groups?

GH: We do a lot of work with the Peace Pledge Union, CND, the Movement Against War and Stop the War Coalition. The forces have got what they call Community Engagement Teams that visit schools and we spoke to the teaching unions at the Tolpuddle Festival this year about VfP also going into schools to tell the other side of the story. The younger teachers are very keen on the idea but the heads – especially of these academies – say no. They accept the armed forces as a valid career ambition for their pupils, and we don’t want VfP jeopardising it! It’s hard to make headway in areas like this because we’ve got the whole machinery of the state against us and that’s a powerful enemy.

Universities and colleges tend to be a bit more receptive to us, though, which is interesting when you think about the relationship between the military and higher education and research.

TS: Certainly there is major investment from arms companies in the university I work at.

GH: The most warlike nations of the world have generally spent a lot on research into military technology and that’s led to much of the everyday technology we civilians use today.

TS: Like the internet, for example.

GH: It’s like that character in The Third Man says – Switzerland hasn’t had a war for 500 years and what’s their great contribution to civilisation? The cuckoo clock. The problem is, apologists for the arms trade say that their inventions produce spin-offs that benefit us all, but if you’re lying covered with blood and face down in a desert in Yemen or Syria, the last thing you’ll be thinking about is space blankets.

Then again, military technology doesn’t always lead the way forward. Penicillin was discovered in 1928 but it wasn’t properly manufactured until the 1940s when the Americans used it on their troops. The US military had such a high demand for penicillin very little of it was produced for civilian use. Not until the foundation of the National Health Service was it made available to the general British public. So it took twenty years to get this miracle drug from inception to mass-availability, and it was hijacked by the military on the way.

Veterans for Peace at the Cenotaph.

TS: Can I bring us up to the present day by asking you where VfP stands on the question of the Syrian war and Russian aggression in it?

GH: We’re opposed to any kind of intervention, by Russia or anyone else.

TS: Some have been calling for protests against the Russians.

GH: Well anything Boris Johnson tells us to do, we won’t do. Russia’s another interventionist nation in what is a Middle East mess. Let’s remember that Britain is interventionist as well, as is the USA. There’s a massive American aircraft carrier currently stationed off the Mediterranean coast and the Russians are putting a lot of men and material into the Syrian conflict, as we know. What this is starting to look like is potentially another Cuban Missile Crisis. There are a lot of war hawks in Washington who want a showdown with the Russians and Putin’s not a Khruschev or a Brezhnev, he is a macho, patriarchal, nationalist fanatic. Anyone who rides a horse bareback in the middle of a Russian winter has got something wrong with him. It’s a new Cold War but the politics are different: it’s two sets of hyper-nationalists squaring up to each other in a part of the Middle East, and if somebody f***s up it could set off a chain reaction that nobody can stop. It could be like 1914 again.

TS: Do you think that the major players having nuclear weapons could stop that chain reaction, though?

GH: I think the Russians are prepared to use them. I think we are too. In fact, I’m convinced of it.

TS: You were serving at the height of the Cold War. Did you get a sense then that we would have been prepared to go to nuclear war?

GH: I know we would. I can tell you from first-hand experience that all this rhetoric about the nuclear deterrent is complete nonsense. We used to go to these classes and discuss possible scenarios regarding how the Cold War might go hot. One of the scenarios was a proxy war in the Middle East, which is what we’ve got now. But in the Cold War the Warsaw Pact outnumbered us in terms of conventional military capability by about two to one. They had more soldiers, more tanks, more missiles. One of these scenarios suggested that we wouldn’t be able to hold off the Communists with conventional weapons for long, so we’d hit them with nukes.

When people think of nuclear weapons what usually comes to mind are these long-range ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) which would quickly bring world Armageddon, but there are smaller examples such as depleted uranium – which, incidentally, the US has used in Syria amongst other wars – and what we call battlefield nukes. One of these could have taken out a Russian division – 10,000 men maybe. The Russians would have retaliated with a similar weapon or one on the next level up: a theatre nuclear missile that could destroy a rear command and control centre. Then we’d up the ante and lob a bigger one back to take out, say, a supply depot. This madness would soon escalate into a major ICBM exchange.

In those days NATO had a first-use policy and I can tell you from my position embedded in the army at that time we had no qualms about doing it. None at all.

TS: And the mentality hasn’t changed since then?

GH: Not one iota.

Photography by Veterans for Peace.