Interview with Former Soldier Joe Glenton

The Editors, 26 July 2011

Categories: War | Protest | Afghanistan | Human Rights |

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Former soldier, Joe Glenton, who joined the Royal Logistic Corps in 2004, spent four months in prison for refusing to return to Afghanistan, following his first tour there in 2006. We discussed by email his experience as a subject of media focus.

Q: While on duty in Afghanistan, you saw differences between the 'government line' about the invasion and the reality of why you were there. What were the initial indicators of this inconsistency for you?

GLENTON: Firstly, the army never really bothered to explain it, except the vaguest terms. Evidently, soldiers don't need to be told.

I drew most of my information from the media, which said everything under the sun: peacekeeping; liberating women; providing security; stemming opium; preventing terrorism on the streets of Britain! In reality, it transpired to be none of the above.

Early indicators were the sheer confusion of it all, even among our officers. Secondly, despite talk in the media about these noble causes, the Brits fired over a million rounds of ammunition in that period - not classic women's liberation tactics.

How did your opinions on the situation develop, given this confusion and the early indicators? What kind of reactions did you get when you shared these opinions with others?

Only once did I share my concern while on tour. Me and a colleague were sitting around in the dust discussing exactly why we were there. We didn't know.

We asked our troop commander, a lieutenant, who frowned, shrugged and wandered off.

Beyond that, my questions remained unvoiced. You are always told it's not your job to think. There is no culture of ethicism or discussion in the military. It would get in the way.

But my concerns remained. We fired, literally, a million bullets that year in Southern Afghanistan. The missiles we didn't fire came back scrawled in racist graffiti. None of the reasons I'd taken on board were borne out in reality.

I came back with more questions than I went with.

What happened after you came back? Presumably you continued to try and find answers to these questions?

No. There is no culture of questioning, asking the hierarchy was never an option. But I read. I needed something to frame the other side of the argument. I searched them out and was enthralled by what I found, enthralled and disturbed.

By that time I'd been promoted and posted elsewhere. I knew by then that I'd sign off and do my year's notice. I was protected by 'harmony guidelines' (which state you can only deploy once every 18 months). I knew I would not be going back to Afghanistan.

The story of you not returning to Afghanistan was extensively documented in the news at the time. In some coverage, there was discussion that you went AWOL as a result of stress (one such example can be seen here). Do you think this theory reflects the situation accurately? In general, how did you feel about the media coverage of the whole event?

There was a lot of coverage, some of it accurate, some of it way out. There was a defined left/right ideological split, which I'd never really registered before. Whether through intent or accident the PTSD was sometimes blurred with the main issue of the ethics.

There was some accurate coverage though. One hindrance to that was that they didn't seem to know how to respond. For example, the very right-wing press, which serves a mouthpiece for much of the government line on military operations, couldn't really attack me because I was a soldier, because some of what I was saying was similar to their spoutings; except, I actually meant it. I guess they were kind if wrong-footed by that.

The Daily Mail in particular seems to have taken a confused stance in the matter. They agreed with you on the grounds that the war was becoming increasingly unpopular, yet in the same article questioned whether you were "just a puppet of the increasingly vocal anti-war lobby". What other examples of media coverage of the event would you say were "way out"?

I've since discovered that the Daily Mail projects a very specific message and one which never registered to me before. I recall some of the other terms used described me as a 'drifter' and 'unconventionally educated', which may have been down to the journalist in question or, more likely, down to the specific paper concerned. Happily, I'd say even people on the right don't take it that seriously. Looking into that particular rag, I understand that, of the British fascist crusades through London in the thirties, the same paper exclaimed 'Hurrah for the Blackshirts'.

I recall the [Daily Mail] headline being something grossly inflated, like 'A matter of honour'. The accusation of being some kind of marionette is not an unusual one, you'll see it with [Julian] Assange through to the Pentagon papers: communist, anarchist, rapist, deviant, extremist, etc. etc. the accusations also routinely announce that the people in question have given succour to the enemy. It essentially serves to obscure what's really going on, I increasingly see that it's a standard tactic, almost a reflex to being exposed to public scrutiny.

For example, conscientious objection is nothing more controversial than a legal and contractual right. But the press's frame of reference is one of WWI-era sensationalism. It serves the government's position to ignore this and pander to that kind of jingoism, essentially because, by challenging the state's right to send you into an illegal fracas, you are challenging their legitimacy. As I understood it, the mainstream media took up the government line where the government could not do so publicly.

In terms of other examples, even though the MOD rather wimped out and dropped the desertion charge when we served our defence (effectively an indictment of the war), TV and Radio interviews regularly introduce me as 'the soldier who deserted' - a rather limp charge which the military itself abandoned. Though I do rather enjoy correcting it on air, the assumption is clearly ingrained.

Interviews with you were recently broadcast on Radio 4 and The One Show. Do you have any comments on the line of questioning or the editing of the final interviews?

On the topic of R4 I felt they cut out lots of relevant exchanges. But by now I've come to expect this from the BBC particularly. It's a case of throwing it out there and seeing how badly it's twisted or butchered or re-framed. I expect it now. Admittedly though, the R4 interview was certainly better then the One Show interview. I think it's important to bear in mind that the One Show is very much a mainstream, neat kind of McNews setup. Even the guest afterwards [Warren Clarke], who was asked to comment, kind of missed the point.

I think the key thing is that a lot of (visible) effort goes into obscuring the real question. Which has never been 'hero or coward', that's just a kind of diversion, albeit one that's been used very effectively. The issue of Afghanistan itself, of the occupation, of the legalities, of the sheer hypocrisy is all shunted out of the way in the name of Daily Mail-esque headlines.

Considering current British military intervention in Libya, do you see any parallels in the treatment of the issue in the media with that of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

I think there are parallels but I think lessons have been learned by the string-pullers. There is still an effort to blur the reality and there is, once again, a clear willingness to fall back on jingo and fantasy i.e., support the RAF, et al, flying their missions, but do not analyse the politics. The rhetoric is similar too. We are to envision a 'mad dog' or a Hitler where there isn't one. While Gaddafi is a deranged man, he should be seen as he is - (like bin Laden) a long-time favourite son of the west, albeit on and off. A man armed by us and one who did not begin murdering his own people only a few months ago, but has been doing so for 40 years. Of course the press is quiet content to regurgitate the official line and apply the airbrush where needed, I guess that is what the media is conditioned to do now.

Joe Glenton's book, 'Soldier Box', will be released in 2012.

Categories in which this article appears: War | Protest | Afghanistan | Human Rights |

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