By Sam Sholli
Joe Glenton is a former British soldier who, after serving in Afghanistan, refused to return for a second tour on moral grounds and went AWOL.
After two years, he came back to the UK. He faced charges which carried ten year sentences. These were subsequently dropped and he served nine months in a military prison.
I interviewed Joe Glenton having read his book, Soldier Box: Why I Won’t Return to the War on Terror.
Here is the first part of the interview below:
You were a young working class kid from York who was into his kickboxing and working as a waiter. What motivated you to join the army?
I think we have to understand why people generally join the military. I have come to look at it as a spectrum.
At one end, it is economic. A lot of guys join because they are poor. They want to get out of some sink estate that they live in. At the other end are the purely ideological guys who believe in queen and country. They want to join the military to fulfil some kind of desire for adventure. I guess I was somewhere in the middle of that but probably leaning towards the economic side. I was a poor kid from a poor background with no particularly good prospects. The military was a way out of that situation.
I think of the ideological side of it as a lubricant that helps you along. This is because you can earn a bit of money while at the same time doing something which is, generally speaking, socially approved of.
But in no sense was it a political decision. You even admitted that at the point of joining you trusted the government as an impartial, benevolent organisation.
Sure, and I had no reason to question that because I hadn’t grown up particularly politically. It wasn’t political but it was certainly ideological, which I would say is a slightly different thing.
Around me growing up in Britain, which is a former imperial power where a lot of people hold particular attitudes to the military, that ideological stuff was ingrained in us quite early on.
However, your mother was protesting against the Iraq war while you were joining the army. Didn’t that play on your mind?
No, not really because she had her own reasons for that and I viewed Iraq in a completely apolitical way. I essentially believed what we were told in the media, that there were sound reasons to go there, like how Saddam was a tyrant. The WMD argument was still very much at the forefront as well.
I suppose my mum didn’t agree with me joining necessarily but didn’t overtly challenge it because she could see that I wanted to escape the life that I was in. For her, I guess that was a positive within a negative.
When we look at your time within the army, you mention certain things about the atmosphere within the army. You talked about there being rampant homophobia and racism.
Sure, it has shifted a little bit now but at the time when I joined there was a real shortage of recruits, partially because Iraq had happened and become very unpopular. So, the military opened the doors in a much broader way than it had previously to guys from commonwealth countries. So we had a lot of guys coming in from Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. For whatever reason these guys could not swim and so on their official personnel documents they were “non-swimmers” and that became a pejorative that was used against them.
NCOs and more senior people would not be able to get away with using racial slurs. So they would refer to black people as the “fucking non-swimmers.” That was very common.
On the whole, are attitudes within the military more liberal-minded today? I know that in the US we have seen the repealing of “don’t ask, don’t tell” so gays can now serve openly in the military, for example.
There was a recent article I read on how GCHQ was really proud of its rainbow day event for all of its gay employees. But I think it really gets away from the point.
Women in combat roles is a good example. Abstractly it is a good thing. But what it fundamentally means is that women can now go to Afghanistan and kill Afghan women. It’s not really the height of equality.
There is an increasing drive to diversify the military and I think it is also driven by how hard it is to recruit people now. I think the driver behind this is not a deep-seated feeling in the military that there needs to be equality. It’s actually about a practical need to get more people through the door to join.
Before your first tour in Afghanistan, you recapture how you felt in your book with the following quote:
“We wanted to bang whores in Rosa’s brothel in Belize city and invade countries in inappropriate vehicles and with a lack of ammunition and see bodies covered in flies. We wanted stories to regale birds with, and to tell them in the pub to our civilian mates who would never get them. They just wouldn’t and couldn’t know. But we would know and we would be wise and powerful for knowing these war things. I wanted to be in their club and all I had to do now was go to war.”
What was it that romanticised this notion of war in your mind?
What I was trying to get at there was the sense of hedonism there is in the military. I guess you have to think about it as a bunch of young guys who are really keen and who really have been trained to believe in this stuff.
It is an idea which is built on by hearing layers upon layers of stories about soldiers. It is like a rite of passage. I talk about this constantly with other veterans. I’m still missing that buzz of being in the military and I still do. I’m still unpicking it now to be honest. I’m still trying to figure out what that felt like or why it felt like it did.
Do you think that that is a reason why veterans can find it hard to readjust to civilian life?
Yes, it is because your life is so adrenalised. You are pumped up all the time. You are put through this sausage factory of basic training and altered in how you think and approach problems.
For example, I’ve been out of the army since 2010 and still, because everything in the military was done in a rush, people who walk slowly absolutely enrage me at times.
You are also trained to respond to any stressful situation aggressively. So now there are things that people often can shrug off which I often immediately respond to quite aggressively.
So you go to Afghanistan for your first tour and soon find out that locals are not too pleased by the presence of the army there. This casts doubts on everything you had been told about the righteousness of the war. How did it feel to have your opinions challenged like that for the first time?
I do think it is important to note that there wasn’t a particular moment. Reality was being laid bare over a period of time but I was still clinging to the idea that we were there to help little brown girls go to school.
It was a very gradual, damaging and difficult process of self-denying after becoming aware that we had created an insurgency by being there and that lots of people were being killed. The people above me did not know what was going on any more than I did.
You are always busy when on tour so there isn’t really a chance for those doubts to form while you are there. It was probably after the tour when I realised that the war I had been involved in was not as it was advertised.