Sunday, 25 October 2009

Organising the military against militarism

Yesterday, tens of thousands of people marched in London in opposition to the war in Afghanistan. The Bring the Troops Home rally followed news that an opinion poll, conducted for Channel 4, found that two-thirds of British people want the troops to come home. An overwhelming 84% think that Britain is "losing" the war, with 48% believing that victory was "not possible."

Of course, there are concerns raised by such a poll. For example, that Britons were asked whether they thought we were winning and whether victory was possible. Although the result shows opposition to the war, it still fits within the framework of elite opinion in that the question of whether the war should have been waged at all is never considered. Nor is the fact that the war was an illegal act of aggression in violation of international law.


However, the news remain is still a positive indicator for the anti-war movement. Also important is that, according to BBC News, "soldiers and their families were with those gathered at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park at the start of the march." The support of soldiers and their families for ending the war is utterly vital, as I wrote at the end of August. Most significant in this is the presence of Lance Corporal Joe Glenton, who faces court martial for refusing to return to Afghanistan.

His statement at the rally explains why he, and no doubt many other soldiers, have turned against the war;
When I went to Afghanistan I was proud to serve the Army and to serve my country, but before long I realised the government was using the Army for its own ends.

It is distressing to disobey orders, but when Britain follows America in continuing to wage war against one of the world's poorest countries I feel I have no choice.

Politicians have abused the trust of the Army and the soldiers who serve. That is why I am compelled and proud to march for Stop The War Coalition today.
Paul McQuirk was another veteran who turned against the war;
I just left the Army last month because I think it's ridiculous we are there. I think the government should stop pretending it's a just war and wasting the lives of our guys, and stop pretending it's a winnable war.
Glenton and McGuirk are just the first soldiers to turn against the venture in Afghanistan, and if we are to see more soldiers do the same then we need to make sure that their voices are heard. Soldiers need to know that they are not in Afghanistan fighting for freedom or democracy, that they are being used to serve the agenda and interests of the state, and that after they have served that purpose they will be abandoned. A great number of ex-soldiers face lives of homelessness and depression, and many commit suicide. Combat Stress, an organisation dedicated to the mental health of war veterans, lists the disorders that can affect ex-serice personnel;
  • PTSD
  • Clinical depression
  • Anxiety states
  • Adjustment disorders
  • Phobic disorders
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Bi-polar illness (manic depression)
  • Issues relating to past and present substance abuse/dependence (drug and alcohol)
  • Psychotic conditions in a non-acute phase
  • Issues relating to anger
Many of the veterans they treat suffer from more than one above disorder (co-morbidity), often complicated by relationship and home-life difficulties. Part of this is due to the drastic difference between military and civilian life, with many not being able to adjust. But it is also to do with the way the military treats its personnel, both during and after their tenure.

At Ease is a voluntary organisation which offers advice, support, and representation to soldiers and their families. As they point out, "members of the Forces do not enjoy employment protection or the right of Trade Union membership" and "the very closeness of relationships on which the Forces depend can impose severe limits on the individual or family whose needs differ from what their service provides for." As such, the organisation often finds itself in need by "those that find their personal needs or ambitions thwarted by the strict military regime in which everything is governed by the Queen’s Regulations."

One important piece of advice that At Ease offer is on Conscientious Objection, as "the Ministry of Defence invariably fails to inform members of the Armed Forces of their legal right to object to war, either before or after posting them to their new stations." In order to address this, they have published notes on the full, correct procedure for conscientious objection;
1. The first step in a declaration of conscientious objection is a written statement submitted to your Commanding Officer. This should be a truthful statement of your own beliefs, in your own words and be signed and dated. You should keep a copy.
2. You will be asked to submit written evidence. This usually consists of two written references from professional persons, such as a minister of religion or a solicitor. Your referees do not have to agree with your beliefs, but they should comment on your sincerity from their knowledge of you. Written evidence can take other forms such as written statements by other people who know you well, or a statement by yourself in the form of an affidavit sworn before a Justice of the Peace. Keep copies of this evidence with the date of submission.
3. You should request to be assigned non-combatant duties whilst your declaration on conscientious objection is being considered.
4. Your Commanding Officer, assisted by the Chaplain, will investigate your sincerity, usually by interviewing you.
5. Your Commanding Officer’s report, together with the report of the Chaplain, your own statement and the other written evidence, will be forwarded to your Divisional Commander. Your Commanding Officer will make a recommendation as to whether or not he considers that you should be discharged on grounds of conscience.
6. You should be interviewed again, and informed of the Divisional Commander’s decision. If your application has been turned down, you have the right to appeal to THE ADVISORY COMMITTEE ON CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION (ACCO).
7. The ACCO hearings are usually held in London. If posted overseas, you should be returned to the U.K. as soon as the date for your hearing is known.
8. The ACCO is an independent committee of civilians appointed by the Lord Chancellor, chaired by a lawyer. At the appeal hearing before the ACCO you will be asked questions about your beliefs and your Commanding Officer will be asked to give a report.
9. You may, if you wish, call witnesses, who may make a claim for travelling expenses but not loss of earnings.
10. You may, if you wish, have a legal representative, but legal aid is not available for this expense.
11. If you request to wear civilian clothes at this hearing, you should be allowed to do so.
12. You will not be told of the decision of the ACCO on the day of the hearing, because their advice has to be formally accepted by the Secretary of State’s representative.
It is vitally important, not only in ending this war, but in addressing the issue of the way soldiers themselves are treated, to ensure that this information is known as widely as possible. Though, of course, Glenton and McGuirk did the right think by absolutely refusing to fight regardless of the opinion of any committee, not all soldiers will be willing to do so. This procedure offers them another alternative, ignorance of which has perhaps kept a great many soldiers from refusing to fight.

Already, groups such as Military Families Against the War have been established in opposition to "a war that is based on lies." This needs to be built upon. Soldiers and their families are a part of the working class who, as much as anybody else, have to sell their labour in order to survive. That the best option available to them was to sell it to the military doesn't make them villains any more than, in the minds of jingoistic patriots, wearing military uniform makes them heroes. No, the most significant difference between them and anybody else is that their legal right to think for themselves is more severely limited, and that the situations they face can severely damage their mental state. This can drive them to attrocities whilst on duty or self-destruction once at home but both, like the war itself, stem from the policies and interests of those in power.

The way to escape this situation is not to condemn soldiers as villians. Nor is it to "Support Our Troops" and thus their physical or mental destruction. It is to bring them into the resistance so that we can all fight back against the repressive criminality of the state.