A crowd gathers outside a military internment center on a wet July day in Britain’s typically erratic summer time. After several hours of waiting, a single figure emerges from the building to thunderous applause: Joe Glenton, the soldier imprisoned for speaking out against the war in Afghanistan, is free.
Glenton had spent the last nine months behind bars for refusing to return to Afghanistan and espousing his anti-war views. Addressing a meeting of the Stop the War Coalition after his confinement, he said it was “badge of honor to have gone to prison” and that he has “more in common with the people of Afghanistan than my own political and military leaders.”
The war in Afghanistan is fast becoming as unpopular as the Iraq invasion, with polls this year showing that 60% of Americans and 64% of Britons oppose it. Roughly 60% of those interviewed in Afghanistan felt that NATO was unable to grant lasting peace, a jump of 37% from 2005.
Despite this Glenton is the only soldier in Britain to date to be prosecuted for his dissenting views. Glenton joined the army five years ago in the wake of extensive anti-war demonstrations, the largest of which exceeded a million people in 2003 and is thought to be the biggest in British history.
Glenton however still believed the military was a “force for good” and in 2006 he was deployed to Afghanistan. After some time serving in a logistics unit in Khandahar, he began to have doubts after witnessing both civilian and military casualties. When the question “Why are we here?” was posed by another solider, the answer remained elusive.
Returning home after his initial tour, he decided to read into the history of the conflict, which raised further doubts. After seven months at home, he was told he had to go back to Afghanistan, where his suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was ridiculed by his commander, who called him a “coward” for not wanting to continue a second tour.
Eventually he made his way out of the country and around Asia, where he suffered a mental breakdown and began drinking and using drugs. He later returned to the UK to face the music, handing a letter to then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the process, informing the statesman that the war had “caused immeasurable suffering not only to families of British service personnel who have been killed and injured, but also to the noble people of Afghanistan”.
The note also stated that British soldiers were now a “tool of American foreign policy” and finished with a refusal to “believe that our cause in Afghanistan is just or right.”
The right wing has, predictably, attempted to brand Glenton as nothing more than a coward who deserted his fellow soldiers and his country. Far from being set upon in military prison by outraged patriots, however, other soldiers were remarkably supportive. At one point, the imprisoned soldier was receiving around two hundred letters a day, from all parts of the world, expressing admiration.
However, Glenton’s case is only unique in the sense that he was caught in the process of defecting from the military. In an interview with the British newspaper, The Guardian, he claimed that: “11,000 have gone AWOL since 2003, but the army keep it quiet. The public needs to know because they’re paying for court martials and military prisons. They need to know why people are refusing to fight.”
Chaos, Duplicity and Collateral Damage
Britain has shouldered much of the burden in terms of the conflict in Afghanistan; the nation is the second largest contributor of armed force after the United States. The official figure for serviceman killed in action stands at close to 300, a definite increase over fatalities suffered in Iraq.
In addition to the stress of military casualties, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has tried to downplay deaths of civilians, even going as far as to arrest one officer for allegedly leaking information on the death of non-combatants to a human rights organization. In 2009 Lt-Col Owen McNally was flown back to the UK after supposedly handing details of “collateral damage” to Rachel Reid, who was working for Human Rights Watch (HRW). Ms. Reid denies such an exchange took place, claiming she met with the Colonel just twice and each time in a professional capacity.
The MOD followed up the arrest with an allegation that Ms. Reid had somehow been romantically involved, perhaps manipulating the British officer into giving up information.
Although the Lt-Col McNally was released, HRW later published a 43-page report detailing Afghan civilian deaths: 939 in 2006 followed by a staggering 1633 in 2009. Of the latter figure, 321 were supposedly due to NATO air strikes. The Taliban, however, are said to be far ahead of the coalition forces in killing civilians.
HRW later carried an article detailing “leaked documents” which alluded to indications that the “US underreported civilian casualties by US and NATO forces because of incorrect information in after-action reports.”
HRW also complained of a particularly callous attitude on the part of military fact-finders that only served to further inflame anti-western sentiments. Ms. Reid spoke of a consistent practice of “ignoring the protests of the families of the dead and the Afghan government” which she claimed only serves to “compounds the outrage that Afghans feel when civilians are killed.”
In the fall of 2008 the US military launched an operation in Aziz-abad, western Afghanistan, to kill or capture an enemy commander. Collateral damage during this operation was particularly gruelling: 76 civilians dead, 59 of which were children. US authorities claim that only 33 civilians were killed, an estimation disputed by HRW and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
This disregard for the welfare of the locals only reinforces NATOs image as an occupying power. Many Afghans allegedly think little of the Taliban; indeed the Taliban’s military campaign shows scant regard for the lives of bystanders.
Incidents involving the bombing of a wedding party as well as the tearing up of Qu’rans by western soldiers all serve to highlight the reasons why soldiers like Glenton and McNally spoke out.
Both Glenton and McNally stand as examples of those who have witnessed war first hand and questioned its necessity. Whether we look at the conscripts who took up revolutionary politics after WW I, or the many Vietnam veterans who joined the anti-war movement, Glenton and McNally have joined an honorable tradition of soldiers who have been taken in by patriotic and militaristic fever only to suffer a rude awakening.
Such an epiphany only came about through coming to terms with a harsh reality. In Glenton’s view, “soldiers aren’t just kind of robots, they are thinking people.”
According to Glenton, many of these thinking people are coming to realize that “the real enemy is not the man in front who is facing your rifle, but the man directly behind and above telling you to pull the trigger.”
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Dan Read is a freelance writer in Britain.