Principled soldier deserves our solidarity, argues Katherine Connelly, convenor of Colchester Stop the War Coalition
Soldiers in uniform drove past, smiling and waving, and they tooted their car horns in support. But this was not for a military parade, or to satisfy the bloated ego of some commanding officer. This was for a protest called in support of Lance Corporal Joe Glenton, a fellow soldier who had refused to return to fight in Afghanistan and spoken out publicly against the war.
These soldiers who showed their support were not doing so somewhere they could not be seen. They were doing it on the site of the Merville Barracks in Colchester, their place of work and the place where Joe Glenton was being court-martialled for going Absent Without Leave (AWOL).
Joe might be the first and the most outspoken, but it is clear his act of resistance has touched a chord in the Armed Forces. The army bosses seem well aware of this. Despite the fact that Joe has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), that he raised questions about the war before going absent, that he was due to be sent back after just a nine month break (when the Army guidelines recommend a break of at least twice that length!), and the fact that he returned voluntarily to hand himself in, he was charged with desertion.
Desertion can carry a sentence of ten years imprisonment. It was the fear that Joe, by pleading not guilty, would trigger a public outcry and put the whole war on trial that meant these charges were dropped for the lesser charge of going AWOL.
If the Army thought holding the court martial in Colchester, one of the biggest garrison towns in Britain, would mean the news would be buried they were wrong. Colchester Stop the War Coalition was founded in November 2009 and its first actions were in solidarity with Joe Glenton, who had been locked up in the local military prison before Christmas.
Now that they were back to court martial Joe in Colchester, we called a protest in solidarity with him. Considering the protest was called for a Friday morning the turnout was very good - around 40-50 people, including delegations from London, Norwich, Chelmsford, Kings Lynn and Cambridge.
Many people stood in the cold all day to hear the result, which came at about three o’clock. Joe Glenton had been sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment in a military prison and his military rank was reduced to that of private. There was anger at this harsh sentence and a round of applause for Joe’s wife Clare and his mother Sue as they left the Court. It was clear the sentencing was politically motivated: this was a sentence for a soldier daring to speak out.
Poor treatment of soldiers
“Rather than letting the system help you, you decided to go absent”, said Emma Peters, the Judge Advocate who sentenced Joe on Friday. It is a comment that reveals much about the dislocation between the top of the army and the ordinary soldiers. Let us look at how the system has ‘helped’ soldiers so far.
Until the economic crisis, the army bosses were complaining of a crisis of their own, a crisis of recruitment. People like Rose Gentle refused to accept that the death of her son, Gordon, was just an accident of war and placed the blame firmly in the hands of Tony Blair. Military families speaking out, combined with the anti-war movement which exposed the illegality and the horrors of the Iraq war, meant that joining the army did not look so attractive any more.
The economic crisis has changed all of that. Even though the war in Afghanistan gets bloodier every year, the alternatives are rapidly diminishing as jobs are cut all over Britain. Young people are particularly hard hit. The Institute for Public Policy Research recently revealed the shocking state of youth unemployment which, reflecting the current inequalities in society, is at 20% for white 18-24 year-olds, rising even higher to 48% for back people of the same age group.
The army has not been slow to see the potential. They come into the jobcentres and into Sixth Forms and colleges in working-class areas, to recruit these young people who can see no other jobs around. Moreover, under-25s are paid a lower rate of Jobseekers Allowance, generally being expected to survive on a weekly poverty rate of £50.95. It is not very hard to see why the Army seems more attractive in comparison. There are people joining the Army now who know that the war is unwinnable and wrong,. The eighteen-year-olds were ten when the war was launched on Afghanistan. They are truly economic conscripts.
Once in the Army, there is no democracy, as Joe Glenton’s case exposes. When Joe questioned the war he was bullied by his commanding officer, called a ‘malingerer’ and a ‘coward’. The levels of PTSD have soared in this conflict. Combat Stress, an organisation which helps veterans with mental health problems, has seen a 66% increase in referrals in the last 4 years. When it is taken to account that it veterans an average of 14 years to come forward to Combat Stress about mental health problems, the words of one Welfare Officer, Ron Mann, that this is the ‘tip of the iceberg’, are a frightening warning of things to come. 
The real war criminals go free
Yet the people who sent these young, working-class men into this conflict to have their bodies and their minds blown apart, who looked on and did not even count the numbers of Iraqi and Afghan civilians dead, have, at worst, faced a few tame questions from inquiries. These inquiries were set up not by the people affected, but by increasingly embarrassed sections of the establishment hoping for “closure” on a weeping political sore.
On the same day that Joe, who told the truth about the war, faced his first hearing in Wiltshire, Tony Blair, who lied about the war, faced the Chilcot Inquiry. In another ironic coincidence, as Joe was sentenced to 9 months’ imprisonment on Friday, Gordon Brown, who financed the war, faced a few questions about whether he had put enough money into the war.
He should have been asked why he put any money in at all and why he is now proclaiming that there will always be money for war, but everyone else has to make massive cut backs because of the economic crisis.
And that’s why every trade unionist, every socialist and everyone who is angry about the hypocrisy of those who say ‘let the system help you’, should write messages of support to Joe Glenton. Keep checking the Stop the War website for details of the local protests we will organise.
Our response must be to build an even bigger campaign to give confidence to all those in the military who admire what Joe Glenton stands for. And what of Joe Glenton’s response? All that needs be said is he left Court with his fist in the air.
Messages of support to Joe’s mother, Sue, and his wife, Clare, please send to Joe’s case worker: c/o John Tipple, Linn and Associates Solicitors, Haven House, Albemarle Street, Harwich, Essex, CO12 3AT.
Joe has been offered a place to study Global Development and Peace Studies at Leeds University in September. If anyone has any books that could aid his study please send them to him at the MCTC address.
 See North West Evening Mail, 04/03/10, http://www.nwemail.co.uk/news/after-the-hell-of-war-comes-another-battle-1.590369?referrerPath=news/ - accessed 06/03/10
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
More articles from this author
- Rosa Luxemburg: an interview with Dana Mills
- ‘And seem a saint, when most I play the devil’: Johnson’s dangerously misleading Covid broadcast
- Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel - book review
- Is revolution possible in the twenty-first century? – explainer
- Small Island - theatre review
- 'Are there no food banks?' The Poor Laws and Charles Dickens at 150
- Strikes, walkouts, and sickouts: how working-class Americans are organising in the time of Covid-19