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Joe Glenton, a former soldier in the British army, has served his country and risked his life in Afghanistan.
He’s also been called a coward. The reason? After returning to Britain after his first tour of Afghanistan, he became a conscientious objector (CO) and refused to go back.
‘It’s not like you make a choice to be a conscientious objector,’ he said. ‘It’s something that develops over time and goes against the grain of your being.’
Glenton, now 31 and author of Soldier Box, published today, was 23 when he went to Kandahar in 2006 as a logistics specialist and driver.
He’d joined the army, he says, like many, to earn money, as ‘a way out of a boring lifestyle and menial labour’ and also to serve his country, ‘the idea of Britain as a force for good, liberty and democracy’.
His tour lasted seven months. His experiences changed how he saw Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan.
‘We knew civilians were being bombed and how the war was being conducted,’ he said. ‘It was conducted in a climate of racism and indifference to the Afghan people, completely at odds with how it’s sold at home. I came back and because of those things, I thought, “No, this isn’t right”.’
Today is Conscientious Objectors Day. Conscientious objection – the right of an individual to refuse to perform military service on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience or religion – is illegal in many countries, including South Korea and Turkey.
Glenton was the first British soldier to publicly refuse to go to Afghanistan. He raised his conscientious objection with his chain of command but says his superior officer called him ‘a coward, a malingerer’.
His request was rejected and he was told he would go back to Afghanistan. Glenton claims to have been bullied and harassed. ‘I also had post-traumatic stress at the time, so I was at a low ebb,’ he recalled.
‘They were determined to send me and I was determined not to go. I’d done as much as I could in that situation. As is often the case with a lot of guys, I went AWOL.’
Glenton spent two years on the run before handing himself in. He was sentenced to nine months in prison (mainly on charges related to going AWOL and talking to the media), served five, and has now left the army.
Conscientious objection wasn’t an easy option but he says he was too disillusioned with both the reasons for the war and the way it was being conducted to continue.
‘We’re told we’re going there to help young girls get an education or to build infrastructure or really hackneyed stuff like security there equals security here.
‘Let’s look at probability. Does the US, with Britain in tow, go to Afghanistan to help women go to school or is it because there is, for example, 90 billion barrels of oil in the Caspian?
‘Is it human rights or is it because Afghanistan is in a strategic location with borders with China, Pakistan and Iran? Are we spreading democracy or is this power politics? It’s a new veneer on a very old practice.’
The argument sometimes made against conscientious objection is that if soldiers start picking and choosing which conflicts they’ll be part of, the whole military system breaks down.
But Glenton argues that argument only works if governments uphold their part of the bargain.
‘There’s a point past which statesmanship has failed – à la Afghanistan, à la Iraq – where obviously the government aren’t going to do the right thing. Are they the people to be saying what’s right and wrong? Is Tony Blair, for example, going to lecture anyone on morality and ethics? Or David Cameron?’
Ben Griffin from Veterans For Peace served in the SAS in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan before being posted to Baghdad.
‘During my eight years in the army, I held strict beliefs about the role of British soldiers,’ he said.
‘Whilst serving in Iraq, I was involved in operations that were contrary to those beliefs. I also saw that we were the cause of a great deal of harm. I refused to continue serving in Iraq.’
Like Glenton, Griffin questioned both the legality of the war and the way it was being conducted. He was discharged from the army.
‘It’s often people who’ve never experienced war that label conscientious objectors as cowards or traitors,’ he said.
‘War is illegal, irrational and immoral. When soldiers realise this, some decide to resist. This resistance can take many forms: refusing to follow certain orders, avoiding killing by firing high, forming unofficial truces with the enemy, going AWOL, applying for CO status.
‘It takes great courage to resist war and punishments often follow. In the UK, Malcolm Kendall-Smith, Joe Glenton and Michael Lyons all served prison sentences for refusing to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. These people aren’t cowards. They’re heroes and their stories should be celebrated.’
It is not just an issue for British troops. Conscientious objectors from the US to Colombia to Israel risk serious consequences.
This week, 19-year-old Natan Blanc was jailed for the tenth time in six months for refusing to enlist for compulsory military service in Israel.
‘According to international standards, everyone has the right to change their beliefs,’ said Hannah Brock from War Resisters International.
‘That means if someone who’s voluntarily joined the armed forces develops a conscientious objection, like we’ve seen from many US soldiers around Iraq – many of whom are now in military prisons, like Kimberly Rivera, a pregnant mother-of-four who is in prison in Colorado for ten months – they also have the right to claim conscientious objector status, just like those who are conscripted into the armed forces.’
She added: ‘Conscientious objection, as well as being a moral imperative for many people, can also be political strategy.
‘Conscientious Objection is a way to say, “No, violence is not the answer”. Many COs put themselves at major risks to uphold this belief. In Turkmenistan, COs have recently been tortured.
‘In Israel, COs are imprisoned, often repeatedly. In Turkey, COs are at constant risk of arrest and can’t get jobs, leave the country or register a child – they call it “civil death”.
‘Often, after people have refused to take part in war – whether for political, moral or religious reasons – this then leads them to criticise militarism and the use of violence more generally. The effects are often far greater than the army getting one less soldier.’