While serving as a soldier in Afghanistan, Joe Glenton grew disillusioned with British military adventurism and became an anti-war activist. He has since written a book about his experiences, Soldier Box, and is now a journalist for the Independent, Guardian, Daily Maverick and other outlets. In the first part of a wide-ranging interview with S&C Co-founding Editor Tom Sykes, Joe discusses his own active service and the British armed forces’ connections to the far right despite its attempts to appear ‘woke’ and progressive.
Tom Sykes: Your current work as a peace campaigner can be traced back to your service in the British Army in Afghanistan in the mid-2000s. What happened to make you change your mind about war and the role of the British military abroad?
Joe Glenton: You have to put that into the context of how people are recruited into the forces. A friend of mine who’s ex-Special Forces talks about a spectrum. On one side of it are guys who sign up for ideological reasons and they’ll join elite units and/or become officers. On the other side of that spectrum are those who join for economic reasons – guys from poor backgrounds and who often enough have been through the care system, like me. I was a product of one of the communities that had been smashed by Thatcherism.
At the same time, I was influenced by our general culture which views the military as a force for good and as an engine of social mobility. I was 22 when I went in, quite old relatively, so I was seen as the old man, the granddad, because the other guys in the unit were 17! In this country we recruit 15 and a half year olds, younger than anywhere else in Europe. Globally this puts us in line with nations like North Korea and the Congo. Ours are not child soldiers according to the conventional meaning but in the sense that they are minors.
When I started I was keen and green. This was 2004 when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were well underway. I didn’t really have any politics at that point, I just believed the pro-military line. I sailed through basic training and got to my unit, the 16 Air Assault Brigade. I loved it and wanted to stay forever. Regiments compete with each other for the opportunity to do tours of duty. My regiment had been part of the Iraq invasion, so we were sent in 2006 to southern Afghanistan. We were some of the first guys off the plane and got there before the infantry arrived.
It quickly became clear that the reasons we’d been given for going were not in fact true. We weren’t there to restore peace, build an infrastructure, stop the opium trade or to help girls go to school. These noble-sounding justifications had had a real emotional pull on me. I would have fought for those things.
We were sent to Helmand, a rural and conservative region. It could be violent but there wasn’t an insurgency when we arrived. However, one soon developed as a response to us being there. The counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen has an ‘infection’ theory to explain how the presence of foreign troops in places like Afghanistan provokes rather than reduces violence from the local people. Adding to that problem was Afghans being highly aware of their history and of the history of the British in their country, which is more than could be said of most rank-and-file British troops like me. The Taliban had been diminishing and many of their guys had fled to Pakistan… until we arrived and became a lightning rod for a reinvigorated resistance.
So began the ‘Taliban 2.0’ period. Officials termed them the ‘anti-coalition militia’ but the reality was more complex. Any local military-age men who could get hold of a rifle – which is most people in Afghanistan, even if the weapons are buried in a field – started taking potshots at the foreign invaders, this occupying force. And in a real sense that is what we were.
By this point I had major doubts about the liberal framing of the war, which grew out of the ‘humanitarian interventionism’ of the 1990s and on which the army depended to keep morale up. It became clear to me that our presence was causing a lot of hardship for the Afghans we were supposed to be supporting. As a journalist I always look for that ‘Hollywood moment’ in a story when everything changes suddenly, but it didn’t happen like that for me. It was a gradual process of realisation that crystallised after I got home. You don’t have time to think about these things when you’re on tour. We were busy on the second or third line and I was responsible for the ammunition. There was one point where we ran out of artillery ammo because we were firing so much of it… in the course of this allegedly peacekeeping and humanitarian operation.
It’s interesting that you mention that term ‘liberal framing’. Since the George Floyd murder, various British institutions have pledged solidarity with Black Lives Matter and committed themselves to combating racism. This includes the armed forces whose leaders have said they need to improve diversity in the ranks. What do you make of that?
The rhetoric is very incoherent especially if you have lived experience of the military. Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Nick Carter and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace – formerly of the Scots Guards, one of the oldest and poshest regiments in the country – initially conceded that the military had a racism issue. Since then they’ve dialled back a bit and only mentioned minor incidents of bullying and so on. Wallace’s later Telegraph article is instructive as the headline is ‘Increasing diversity is crucial for the future of Britain’s armed forces’. The first line details the ‘valiant’ efforts of 21 Sikhs who took on 10,000 tribesmen during one of the Afghan Wars in the nineteenth century. Wallace can only interpret diversity with reference to colonial violence of the divide-and-conquer variety, as these were Sikhs in the pay of the British Empire to repress other local populations. Wallace and politicians like him want to appear liberal but their default is this colonial romanticism. It’s as if “the app” hasn’t been updated since the 1800s!
So there’s a struggle to reconcile the demands of liberalism, identity and diversity with the imperialism and colonialism that are so deeply embedded in the identity of the British military and of the British state. The colonial past is central to military culture. In the army there’s a worship of regimental colours, these big flags that have battle honours written on them: the Somme, the Peninsular Wars, and so forth.
If these events seem distant or abstract, we should remember that our operational present is very much informed by ex-colonies. We have servicemen and women stationed all over Africa and in places like Belize. We have strong ongoing relationships with Saudi Arabia – Declassified have revealed that senior British officers are training Saudi personnel.
When the regiments were amalgamated in the 1990s the rule was that each regiment could have 46 battle honours from after World War II and 45 from before then. It’s interesting that they’ve clung to bloody colonial battles or sieges like Lucknow, Cawnpore and Jellalabad. Many of these conflicts involved the British trying to crush anti-colonial movements. There were atrocities on both sides, but the British troops were the occupiers and would mete out astonishing retribution by massacring civilians and captives. Intriguingly, you’ll also see Palestine on those regimental colours too.
You can also find this commitment to the colonial past in the names of military buildings. Nowadays, these are places where BME servicepeople – many of whom are from parts of the world that were colonially oppressed by Britain – have to live and work, where they raise their children. Again, that seems like a disconnect.
It’s interesting that the military, which is still very popular in this country, has largely escaped criticism for these strong links to imperialist and racist ideologies. Compare that to criticisms of the British police, for example. I’ve spoken with American left-wing veterans who are campaigning to rename bases named after racist and slave-owning Confederate generals. It’s a big thing in the States and it should be here, but it’s not.
It’s a truism that soldiers who fought in those high colonial wars regarded themselves as racially and culturally superior to the people they were subjugating. They felt justified in killing civilians in India or Afghanistan because they believed the victims were something less than human. From your more recent experiences serving in the army, have any of those attitudes survived into the present?
Absolutely, I’ve seen both casual and active racism. Lots of veterans and indeed current soldiers would tell you the same. I’ve met personnel who are full-on members of racist organisations like the BNP and EDL, but most others in the military regard them as arseholes. Tommy Robinson isn’t a very popular figure, for example.
That said, the army leadership released some guidelines on how to spot right-wing extremism, so that suggests a problem of some scale. And I’ve come to think of the military itself as a far-right institution – not in the sense of the politics of all the people in it – but in the sense of an overall institution, its imperial history and how it has always functioned. It frames obedience and submission as somehow natural. It trades in nostalgia, a fantasy about who it is, where it came from and what it means, which is typical of other far-right organisations wherever they may be. It’s as true of the Japanese Empire in World War II and ISIS, the BNP and Britain First today. Like these outfits, every British regiment takes a revisionist view of history and has a foundation myth for itself. While in the Royal Logistics Corps I was posted to Dalton Barracks, named after James Langley Dalton who organised the defence of Rorke’s Drift. In that confrontation highly trained British soldiers armed with rifles mowed down ranks of Zulu warriors armed with spears. It was a massive explosion of racial violence for which the army dished out a lot of Victoria Crosses – including to Dalton – because the previous day huge numbers of British troops had been wiped out. Often when you see lots of medals awarded it’s a PR exercise – the term is ‘morale medals’ – and it happened in Afghanistan more than a century after Rorke’s Drift. The idea is that the good news of the medals will cover up the bad news of the casualties.
In June a lot of veterans – very conservative but not necessarily far-right – went to central London to supposedly defend the statues from being pulled down. One of the leading veterans was a prison guard during the time I was incarcerated for going absent without leave. He was in the Royal Irish Regiment, one of the most reactionary regiments with a strong Unionist and Protestant base. These veterans found themselves rubbing shoulders with a load of fascists from whom they quickly distanced themselves before a riot occurred. But for a moment the politics of the military and of the extreme right merged over the issue of defending statues.
That being said, nowadays the military doesn’t like to show its far-right tendencies in public even though it possesses some of those tendencies.
The military seems to project a quite different politics these days. Before the Black Lives Matter movement, the British armed forces were ‘wokewashing’ – as it’s been called – by invoking the language and imagery of liberal identity politics (especially relating to race, ethnicity, gender and LGBT+). Has this been effective and if so why?
Wokewashing seems to mean that everyone’s an anti-racist now, even Nike and Adidas! The military is very conscious of PR. It’s currently enjoying the fruits of a long propaganda drive that started in the mid-2000s when it realised that the Iraq and Afghan wars had been huge failures. Our involvement in the Libya intervention was different operationally, but that was a huge failure too, as reputable commentators on the right and left have concluded.
The military tried to frame the unpopularity of these wars as the public not really understanding them properly. Their view was that, in a democracy – which I suppose we are in some sense – there needs to be public support for the military, which is code for public support for foreign policy. The propaganda drive started under a Labour government in 2008 when Gordon Brown fronted the Inquiry into National Recognition of Our Armed Forces. That inquiry focused on a ‘trinity’ between the state, the people and the military – if one of those elements fails then you’re in trouble. Military theorists give the example of the Vietnam War when both the US armed forces and the general population came to oppose the conflict, which meant the conflict became untenable.
In 2008, at the height of Iraq and Afghanistan, the British state was worried that something similar would happen here. They started various initiatives to re-popularise the military such as the Armed Forces Covenant [which calls for military personnel and ex-personnel to be ‘treated with fairness and respect in their societies’] and set up community or grassroots militarism events such as Armed Forces Day. Have you noticed how nowadays every politician likes to have a photo op next to squaddies? Not that that necessarily equates to genuine support for ‘the lads’, as it were.
We are now 10 years plus into this propaganda campaign which was ramped up when COVID-19 came. The military’s involvement in the crisis has been minor, but I’ve done research with Matt Kennard of Declassified that shows how the armed forces are exploiting COVID to solve a recruitment crisis. They’ve been quite successful on social media with hashtags like #InThisTogether to conflate COVID with military duty.
2019’s recruiting campaign, ‘Your Army Needs You’, parodied the Lord Kitchener poster which targeted introverts, geeks, nerds and gamers. One of the faces used in those posters was of a young black woman corporal, Kerry-Ann Morris, who was almost immediately racially abused on social media by serving soldiers. So this wokewashed version of the army was quickly exposed by the very lads with whom the military establishment were encouraging young people to join and serve!
It’s worth remembering that there are no soldiers, sailors or airmen of colour in the senior ranks of the British military. This may not be that surprising when we consider recent racism scandals. Last year two black paratroopers took the military to court over a long series of abuses which included white colleagues displaying Nazi memorabilia in barracks. There were also the Fijian soldiers who fell foul of a kind of military Windrush scandal because they were completely misled about how to obtain immigration status. Despite these guys serving multiple tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, some of them are now stuck in Fiji including one man whose son plays for the England rugby team. Another Fijian who I know personally is suing the army because they ordered the Fijians and other soldiers of colour to dress up as the enemy by wearing dishdashes and keffiyehs in a training video about counterinsurgency.
It’s interesting so see how the reality contradicts the attempt to wokewash.
In the next part of the interview Joe discusses the likelihood of another major war, the political function of the British drone programme and the future of the UK armed forces.
Photograph by Guy Smallman.