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 final part of a wide-ranging interview with S&C Co-founding Editor Tom Sykes, Joe discusses the likelihood of another major war, the political function of the British drone programme and the future of the UK armed forces.
Tom Sykes: It seems that the British military’s PR campaign that we talked about last time hasn’t been entirely successful because polling shows that, post-Iraq and Afghanistan, the British public has little appetite for further ground wars. Do you think that would change if our leaders started another conflict somewhere?
Joe Glenton: Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, wrote a piece about what Donald Trump’s next war might be. As it gets closer to the presidential election and Trump’s internal crises deepen, he might want a war to boost his popularity. The story about Russia offering bounties for killings of US soldiers in Afghanistan could be used as an excuse for military action. By the way, even American generals are saying that story is unevidenced. It seems to be the result of journalists repeating dubious claims by intelligence services and other anonymous sources.
Since Trump came to power he’s ordered these provocative actions such as the raid in Yemen on which Navy SEAL Ryan Owens was killed. The ‘mother of all bombs’ was dropped on caves in Afghanistan for no particular reason. Then of course there’s the bombing campaign on the Syrian regime that started under Obama. Governments have always used wars – small or big – to distract from internal crises and the only way to really understand US foreign policy is to understand US domestic politics.
This is important from a British point of view because our primary foreign policy goal is to stay close to the US. So it wouldn’t surprise me if Trump looks for an ‘external threat’, as Paul Rogers is warning about. In US and indeed UK politics if you bomb things it will get the liberals onside. The only time liberals have approved of Trump is when he’s bombed Syria and other places. And whatever the US does the UK will invariably want to be involved. If big ground wars are off the table due to their unpopularity, then other interventions are possible such as air strikes and drone warfare.
Since the COVID pandemic the rhetoric has hardened against China, an old adversary of course. Again, the imperial past is informing the imperial present. The current tensions in the South China Sea hark back to the ‘East of Suez’ ideology when the British state believed it had a right to boss Asia. Trump and other US politicians have got behind far-right anti-China conspiracy theories about COVID having been developed in a Wuhan chemical weapons facility. Key figures in the UK defence establishment and ex-servicemen like Tom Tugendhat (ex-Military Intelligence) and Tobias Ellwood (ex-Royal Green Jackets) are using COVID as a pretext for getting tough on China diplomatically, politically and economically. Again, this reflects our proximity to US foreign policy but also points to internal crises in the Tory government.
Given that both Labour and Conservative governments have supported the pro-military PR campaign, what hope does a mainstream political figure have of contesting that consensus?
The other day Keir Starmer relaunched Labour Friends of the Forces, a slightly cranky centrist group that wants to snuggle up to the military for various reasons. Dan Jarvis was very involved at one point. I have some respect for him because I’m told he was a good officer, which is an accolade. His politics I have less time for! But Starmer framed this rehabilitation of Labour Friends of the Forces as the military are now welcome back into Labour. But that’s misleading because I know a lot of radical left-wing veterans who organised for Jeremy Corbyn, an avowed anti-imperialist who had to contend with two lines of attack. The right and the centre took against Corbyn over a contrived racism scandal, as people like Justin Schlosberg and Peter Oborne have shown, and an alleged weakness over national security. Corbyn was repeatedly attacked for not bowing enough or wearing the right attire at military-related events and so on.
The conflict between the centre and the Corbynite left was reflected in the last Labour election manifesto. There were proposals about founding a veterans’ federation, for example, plus other stuff that comprised a ‘love-in’ with the military alongside things like self-determination for the Chagos Islanders. It was a weird collision of centrist commitments to a violent foreign policy and visibly Corbynite policies.
One of those centrist commitments is to the preservation of the British arms industry. The justification is usually economic – it keeps people in jobs and so forth. Are you convinced by that argument?
Not really. The SNP councillor Feargal Dalton, formerly of the Royal Navy, says that it’s insulting to claim that talented people in the military couldn’t go and do something else. Decommissioning our arms industry could free up resources, personnel, funds and facilities and re-orient them towards sustainable technologies for the Green New Deal, for example. In fact, re-orientation could generate more jobs than the current arms industry provides. There’s a realpolitik to deal with here, though, as a lot of trade unions are pro-defence because their members are employed in the sector.
Is another aspect of wokewashing about trying to present modern warfare as a more accurate, surgical and just enterprise compared to previous campaigns? Drones are often cited as exemplary in that way yet Professor Michael Clarke, who led the Parliamentary Drones Group, said in 2018 that official claims that no civilians had been killed were ‘ridiculous’. He also warned about the serious legal consequences of what is arguably a form of extra-judicial killing.
It’s important to understand that the reason why we now have remote warfare – and drones are just a part of that – is because of the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s an adaptation to a political situation. Special forces, militia, cyberwarfare and drones are all more palatable to the public. When someone gets killed in such operations – a Navy SEAL or an SAS guy – Joe Public doesn’t care, he kind of expects it to happen. It’s the same with drones as a lot of people would think they are preferable to “Tommy Atkins” losing his legs.
But the reality is UK and US drone strikes are very damaging, they kill lots of civilians. Many innocents die for every terrorist killed. The same goes for Special Forces. That said, we have an incomplete picture as the EU and UK have a uniquely opaque set of rules about not disclosing data and denying Freedom of Information Act requests on the basis of “national security”. Drones also seriously damage Britain’s reputation in the regions where they are used and act as a recruiting sergeant for exactly the organisations we’re supposed to be fighting.
The stated aim of drones is to stop terrorism… except they haven’t stopped terrorism. If anything, there have been more terrorist incidents on British soil over the last two or three years. So why does the drone campaign continue?
Again, the British contribution to the campaign is about staying close to the US, the main imperial power in the world today.
How would you like to see the British military change?
At this moment I think decolonising things is very important, whether it’s education or city centres or wherever. But what would be left of the British military if you decolonised it? Just be a couple of blokes in a NAAFI watching Loose Women.
I agree with calls to abolish the army in principle, but I feel they’re fanciful given Britain’s deep attachment to militarism. I would support defunding in the sense of reallocating resources away to other causes. Framing that is problematic because reactionaries could write it off as unpatriotic. We need to be more politic.
The Veterans for Peace group assert that Britain could become a neutral country in the world, which can mean different things when you look at, say, Swedish or Irish neutrality. Over many years, we could move towards neutrality with a campaign like Brexit – I don’t mean in tone but in scale and organisation. Brexit was a successful campaign however reprehensible its politics was.
I don’t want to channel Dominic Cummings here but a pub focus group would show, I think, that the ‘our brave boys’ trope is popular amongst British people whatever their politics. How could you win an argument on those terms with a conservative in a pub? You might appeal to their patriotism and ask, ‘Do you really want our brave boys over there in a foreign country dying for no good reason?’ When it comes to winning that argument with people on the left, you could draw on ideas like neutrality and pacifism.
So where would neutrality leave the armed forces? I’d advocate having only a defence force to protect our shores. Not that we are under any great threat from a foreign power. The Russians aren’t coming, the Chinese aren’t coming, despite what certain rightists and centrists are implying. I think self-defence is far preferable to expeditionary warfare whether in the form of ground troops, drones or militias. The Irish Defence Force has many flaws but it’s also involved in UN peacekeeping and the types of activities I thought I was going to Afghanistan for.
Photograph by Guy Smallman.