The success, or not, of imperialist states and empires throughout history has been predicated on the willingness and consent of the young men serving in their armies to kill and die for them - and to be willing to continue to so even when the immorality, cruelty, and/or barbarity of what they are doing becomes evident. One of Lenin's most apposite quotes came with his explanation of state power as constituting 'special bodies of armed men' when all is said and done.
Here, then, we see both the source of a state's power and its vulnerability - for in the last analysis it is these armed men who really do determine whether or not any colonial, imperialist, or hegemonic project is successful, despite the preoccupation of mainstream historians and the chroniclers of empire with leaders and generals rather than the ordinary soldier.
Even less acknowledged than the thousands of soldiers who consent to risk their lives for the ambitions of the rich and powerful is minority who refuse and withdraw their consent. History is even less kind to them; when they are not being airbrushed out of the narrative of empire they are being written off as traitors, cowards, and deserters.
Yet any objective analysis of the near-hidden history of those who have refused to fight for a cause they don't or no longer believe in reveals a continuing thread of principle and moral courage that stands as a testament to the power of the human spirit. In our time one man who has taken his place in that proud history of defiance - who said 'no' - is Joe Glenton.
His recently published autobiography Soldier Box is a tour de force and must-read for anyone interested in what life in the British Army is like for the everyday soldier, the individual grain of sand among the amorphous mass that our politicians like to lavish praise on with gushing insincerity. Day in and day out we see and hear them lauding the 'courage', 'bravery', 'professionalism', and 'dedication' of our armed forces. And day in and day out, over the past dozen years of Britain's involvement in the foreign wars unleashed after 9/11, we've become ever more desensitised to the banal and regular roll call of their deaths when reported on the evening news.
As Glenton writes
'Kandahar [in Afghanistan] was the hub for repatriating our corpses: the dead were sent there to be boxed up and shipped home.'
The withering truth and crafted simplicity of Glenton's prose is like a chisel chipping away at any pretence of life in the army as a noble endeavour for young men who, like him, are the product of a low income background with limited prospects and as much future as your average snowman in British society in the 21st century.
'I repeatedly came back to the idea of the military. I would be paid and there would be the 'three meals a day and roof over your head' that every young man needs'.
Glenton signed up in 2003 as a logistics specialist and in 2005 was deployed to Afghanistan. The two years in-between were spent learning the rudimentary skills of an infantry soldier during various field exercises and weapons training courses. For Glenton the physical exertion involved was a joy, as indeed was the life of a soldier in the beginning.
Like the thousands of poorly educated and feral young working class men who make up the ranks, Glenton was a young man driven by his emotions, the unconscious anger that constantly bubbles just under the surface, liable to periodic explosions. The army, as he describes, is perhaps the one place where rather than scorned or vilified, this kind of rage is encouraged and harnessed in service to a cause that involves the demonisation and dehumanisation of the 'other'. In our time this 'other' happens to be Arabs, Muslims, the assorted 'ragheads' that comprise the Taliban in Afghanistan - the West's favourite bogeyman.
But it was during his initial deployment to Afghanistan that Joe Glenton committed the cardinal sin for any soldier of starting to think for himself.
'We were not the friends of Afghan people, we were occupiers'.
However thinking for yourself and acting on those thoughts are two markedly different things, especially when it means defying both the military and political establishments. This is where Joe Glenton's story of moral courage truly begins. Making his account all the more powerful is that he tells it without embellishment or embroidery. At no time in the book does he even come close to 'bigging himself up' as a heroic figure.
'There was no dramatic moment when I saw all my mates killed, or I realized in gritty close up that the war, as an institution, was pointless, nor had I been made to kill babies...I just came to disagree with the war'.
Albert Camus could not have put it better.
Soldier Box by Joe Glenton is published by Verso Books.Suggest a correction